Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Gabrielle Petit

On April 1, 1916, the Belgian war heroine Gabrielle Petit was executed for espionage by the Germans. She was only 23 years old.  According to Wikipedia:

Gabrielle Alina Eugenia Maria Petit (20 February 1893, Tournai - 1 April 1916, Brussels), was a Belgian woman who spied for the British Secret Service during World War I. Executed in 1916, she became a national heroine after the war's end.

Gabrielle Petit was born to working class parents and was raised in a Catholic boarding school in Brugelette following her mother's early death. At the outbreak of the First World War, she was living and working in Brussels as a saleswoman. She immediately enrolled in the medical service of the Belgian Red Cross.

Petit's espionage activities began in 1914, when she helped her wounded soldier fiancé, Maurice Gobert, cross the border into the Netherlands to be reunited with his regiment.

She acquired information about the German army during the trip, which she passed to British Intelligence. They soon hired her, gave her a brief training, and sent her to spy on the German army. She proceeded to collect information about enemy troop movements under a number of false identities. 

She was also an active distributor of the clandestine newspaper, La Libre Belgique, and assisted the underground mail service Mot du Soldat. She helped several young men across the Dutch border. 

Petit was betrayed, captured by the German army in February 1916 and executed two months later. During her trial, she refused to betray her collaborators in order to gain clemency. She was imprisoned at Saint-Gilles, Brussels, and was brought before a firing squad on April 1, 1916. Her corpse was buried at the execution field in Schaarbeek.

Unlike her contemporary, the Englishwoman Edith Cavell, who was also shot as a spy by the German army in Belgium, her story was unknown during the war.

After the war, she became widely known and she became a martyr and a national heroine. In May 1919, after a national funeral in the presence of the Belgian Queen Elisabeth, Cardinal Mercier, and Prime Minister Léon Delacroix, her mortal remains... were transferred to the city cemetery of Schaarbeek.

A monument honoring her service to Belgium was erected in Brussels. In her place of birth, Tournai, a square was named after her.

Several books and films were made about her life after the war.

Her monument in Brussels 

Gabrielle was a woman of great courage and faith. Here are some of her last letters, written on the eve of her execution, to her loved ones.

To her god-mother, she wrote:

Ma chère marraine,

Ton recours en grâce est rejeté. Je te remercie de ta bonté. Adieu...c'est plein de courage. On te remettra de ma part une somme de 581 francs.

Veux-tu bien partager avec ma soeur Hélène?

Remerciements à cousin Bara.

Bon baisers et adieu. 

Gabrielle Petit.

My dear god-mother,

Your petition for clemency has been rejected. I thank you for your kindness. Farewell...a farewell full of courage. They will send you a sum of 581 francs on my behalf.

Would you please share it with my sister, Helene?

Thanks to cousin Bara.

I kiss you, farewell.

Gabrielle Petit.

To her sister:

Ma chère Hélène,

Je t'adresse mes adieux. Ne regrette rien, c'est tellement naturel! C'est la vie courante...Vois-tu, on part comme on est venu. Je ne regrette rien. Sois sage et courageuse, surtout. 

Veux-tu bien ne pas oublier l'indication que je t'ai donnée au sujet de ma grammaire anglaise. Tu diras qu'il faut qu'on la garde en souvenir de moi et tu remercieras la personne pour la bonté qu'elle a eue pour moi. Ne l'oublie pas, surtout, et si l'on te donne des conseils, suis-les en souvenir de 
Ta petite soeur,
Gabrielle Petit

My dear Helene,

I bid you farewell. Do not regret anything, it is so natural! This is the course of life... you see, we depart as we came. I regret nothing. Be good and courageous, above all.

Please do not forget the instructions I gave you concerning my English grammar. You will say that she (her former employer, Mme. Butin) must keep it in memory of me, and you will thank the person in question for her kindness towards me. Do not forget this, above all, and if you are given advice, follow it, in memory of 
Your little sister,
Gabrielle Petit

To her cousin and benefactor, Mr. Bara:

Cher cousin,

Au triple galop.

Je viens très brièvement vous adresser mes adieux.

Il est cinq heures du matin. J'en ai encore pour quelques heures. Je ne crains rien et suis d'un calme à toute épreuve. Je vous remercie de tout coeur de toute la bonté que vous avez eue pour moi. Jusqu'à mon dernier soupir, je vous en serai reconnaissante.

Puissiez-vout être heureux, cher bienfaiteur, et vivre encore de longues années.

Adieu, cher bienfaiteur.

Votre petite cousine protégée,
Gabrielle Petit.

Dear cousin,

At top speed.

I am going to bid you farewell, very quickly.

It is five in the morning. I still have a few more hours. I fear nothing and I am completely calm. I thank you, with all my heart, for all the kindness you have shown me. To my last breath, I will be grateful to you.

May you be happy, dear benefactor, and live for many long years yet.

Farewell, dear benefactor,

Your little cousin, your protégée,
Gabrielle Petit

Gabrielle spent part of her last night in conversation with a German guard, who treated her kindly. While finishing some embroidery, Gabrielle, with great serenity, recalled her life experiences, and, at the end of the discussion, the topic of death inevitably arose. Her companion asserted that he was a Freemason and did not believe in life after death. Gabrielle, however, a devout Catholic, affirmed her absolute faith in the immortality of the soul. 

Before dying, she made her Confession and received Communion; on the way to her death, she recited the Rosary. Upon arriving at the place of execution, she told one of the German soldiers:

"I will show you that a Belgian woman knows how to die." She refused the blindfold.

Her final words:

"Vive le Roi! Vive la Belgique!" 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the story of this heroine, we learnt something about espionage during war times today!