Sophie De Schaepdrijver (Penn State University, USA) is an award-winning historian of the social and cultural history of the First World War. Author of our new book, Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War, Schaepdrijver readdresses the forgotten memory of one of Belgium’s heroines. Gabrielle Petit was an ambitious and patriotic woman, executed by firing squad in 1916 for her role as an intelligence agent for the British Army. After the First World War she was celebrated as an example of stern endeavour, but how is she remembered today?
Sophie De Schaepdrijver:
Behind the Western Front, most of Belgium and parts of France were in German hands all through the First World War. This was prime spying territory: Allied intelligence recruited thousands of men and women to spy on the German armies. Hundreds paid with their lives. One of them was Gabrielle Petit, a young woman from the French-Belgian border area who spied for British General Headquarters. Petit was the girl from nowhere – an orphan with no connections, a secondary-school dropout eking out a living as a service worker in belle époque Brussels. The war offered her a chance to make something of herself and she took it: “I am done being worthless,” she wrote. Several times, she wove her way across military barriers to the immediate hinterland of the German Sixth Army. Yet Petit’s operation, like many others, was no match for German counterintelligence, and she was arrested in early 1916. She named no names, taunted the judges at her trial and refused to request a pardon after her death sentence. She lived another month, scribbling defiant graffiti on the wall of her cell, while the Imperial Military Court in Berlin examined her case. It took so long because no-one in charge wanted a repeat of the global outcry over the execution of the English nurse Edith Cavell in October 1915. But, unlike Cavell, Petit had been condemned to death in secret, and she was an unknown who could be portrayed in louche terms as a sometime prostitute and a cocaine addict who had spied for money. She was expendable – and with an attitude, to boot. Indeed her “extreme insolence” at her trial (as an internal report called it) sealed her fate. On 27 March 1916, the Emperor endorsed Petit’s death sentence. Five days later, she was executed by firing squad.
Her fate remained largely unknown; as the war ended, she lay in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Brussels. But she was exhumed in 1919, both literally and figuratively, and became the “national heroine” of Belgium, a Joan of Arc figure for a society casting about for an emblem of civilian resistance. Myths abounded: Petit was portrayed as “a lily-white child,” a hard-working and virtuous young woman untouched by the seductions of the big city, and, during the war, as the brain of a gigantic intelligence operation. She had been none of those things. She was fond of risqué music-hall songs; she lived with a married man for a year; quick to take offense, she tended to quit her lowly service jobs in a huff; and her spy network was modest. Yet on another level, Petit was no myth. It was fitting that the champions of her memory portrayed her as an emblem of striving, and that this theme resonated with audiences, for her life story really was that of a young woman - bruised, self-absorbed and fiercely ambitious - who would find, in war, the opportunity for distinction that had eluded her all her life, and whose vaulting ambition encompassed her defiant death.
Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War, published in January 2015 in the UK and March 2015 in the US, is available to purchase via the Bloomsbury website.