Diplomatic Pouch / May 29, 2015
By Larry Luxner
As Americans and Europeans hold ceremonies this month observing the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, another upcoming but less publicized milestone may go virtually unnoticed: April 2016 will mark a century since the execution of Belgium’s most famous spy.
Gabrielle Petit, a high-school dropout who lived in a series of rented apartments in Brussels, became an intelligence officer for the British Army, passing information to her handlers about German troop movements during World War I. The 23-year-old was eventually caught, put on trial and executed by firing squad on April 1, 1916.
Nearly a century later, Belgian historian Sophie de Schaepdrijver has written a book about Petit and the legacy she left behind.
“Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War,” is a 272-page biography about a working-class woman who was once celebrated for her bravery and patriotism, but in recent years has been all but forgotten by historians.
On April 29, Johan Verbeke, Belgium’s ambassador to the United States, hosted de Schaepdrijver at his Washington residence, where she regaled an audience of more than 100 people about her new book, released in March.
“A monument to Petit was unveiled in 1923 in central Brussels. The statue is made to symbolize the disappearance of coherent narratives, but today it looks as if her memory has unspooled completely,” said de Schaepdrijver, an associate professor at Penn State University who specializes in modern European history. “I’ve tried to reconstruct that moment of her urgency.”
Few people know, for example, that at one point, Petit tried to commit suicide, or that the future spy briefly lived with a married man.
“She had a fiancé, Maurice Gobert, and was a prime example of upward mobility. They made plans to marry, in the typical unchaperoned fashion of young urban couples,” said the author. “But then the war broke out. Gobert was wounded badly in the legs, and Petit was working for the Red Cross and waiting tables to make ends meet. By the end of 1914, the Western Front had frozen and Belgium was almost completely occupied.”
Gobert eventually called off the engagement, leading her to board a ship for England, where she intended to pursue a nursing career. But en route, “she was offered something more useful than what she had in mind,” said de Schaepdrijver. An officer working for British General HQ recruited Petit — appealing to her sense of pride — and by mid-1915, she was back in occupied Belgium, gathering information on the Imperial German Army for the Allies.
“Among the many myths we see about her is a book written in 1929 which depicts her as a master spy who leads the Germans into a devilish dance,” she said. “In reality, it was rather more humble, and it involved drudge work such as renting a shabby little room overlooking a train station, and sitting up all night and taking notes.”
But as a woman, Petit did have the freedom to roam.
“She got to go pretty close to the actual front, in the segment occupied by the Sixth Army, in which Adolf Hitler served,” said the writer. “Maybe I should have called my book ‘The Girl Who Spied on Hitler,’ but that would have been false advertising.”
Among other things, de Schaepdrijver said, “Petit reported on the state of the German Army’s reserves, their uniforms, their morale — things like the location of airfields and anti-aircraft batteries. But the weakest point was the couriers who had to take the reports and smuggle them into Holland.”
It was that courier network which eventually did Petit in. By mid-1916, the network had been infiltrated by the Germans. Petit was arrested just as counterespionage reached its height. At the military tribunal set up in the Belgian senate building, she was condemned to death, even though there was very little proof to convict her.
“The death penalty did not automatically mean execution,” she said. “Petit was sent back to prison and even the prison administrators were in the dark. She didn’t know if she was going to live or die. Meanwhile, her case reached Berlin.”
On March 27, 1916, Petit’s jailers received a telegram from King Wilhelm II — the last German emperor — ordering the convicted spy to be killed by firing squad four days hence, on March 31. But the execution was deliberately postpone by one day to take place on April Fool’s Day — perhaps, said de Schaepdrijver, as a cruel joke.
“Her attitude before the court was extremely insolent. These things matter. The wardens informed Petit that she was about to die,” she said. “Her last messages were very stoic, very terse. She almost literally wrote, ‘you win some, you lose some.’”
In all, about 300 Belgian spies, including 10 women, were executed during World War I. But starting in 1916, the pace of executions decreased, even though the war intensified.
Petit’s story wasn’t known until 1919 — a year after the Great War ended — when she became the patron saint of labor union workers and then eventually Belgium’s national heroine.
“For the next four years or so, we see Petit’s posthumous fame as a folk heroine at its peak, both in Flanders and in French-speaking Belgium. No one, apart from King Albert, reaches that fame across the aisle,” said de Schaepdrijver. “She came to personify voluntary engagement, because she did indeed chart her own path.”
Indeed, the plaque engraved on the pedestal of Petit’s statue in Brussels says it all: “Je viens d’être condamnée a mort. Je serai fusillée demain. Vive le Roi. Vive la Belgique … et je leur montrerai comment une femme belge sait mourir [I have just been condemned to death. I will be shot tomorrow. Long live the King. Long live Belgium … and I will show them that a Belgian woman knows how to die].”