Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War, by Sophie De Schaepdrijver

The memory of a Belgian heroine differed from the woman herself, Niamh Gallagher discovers

May 21, 2015

“I will show you how a Belgian woman dies.” These defiant words were supposedly the last spoken by Gabrielle Petit, a British spy and Belgian civilian who was executed by a German firing squad in April 1916 for her resistance activities during the First World War. Petit’s life and memory have attracted less international attention than figures such as Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed in late 1915 for smuggling Allied troops through neutral Holland. However, Sophie De Schaepdrijver argues that Petit deserves similar consideration, not because of her war work per se, although this is also considered here. Rather, Petit’s memorialisation reveals how Belgians understood and made sense of the occupation in the decades following the war.

A central theme of the book is the discrepancy between Petit’s life and the way she was remembered. After the war, she was hailed as a “child of the people”, a working-class girl whose patriotism propelled her to join the resistance. In reality, she was a child of the downwardly mobile provincial bourgeoisie. Aged nine, she was sent to an orphanage, in part because of deteriorating financial circumstances at home, and this miserable experience was worsened by her family’s obvious disregard for her. De Schaepdrijver argues that Petit’s troubled childhood shaped her character; she became a defiant, proud and impetuous girl who sought to inject meaning into her life despite lacking the means to do so.

The war gave Petit the “leap in status” that she craved. As a spy, she was financially independent, roaming across Belgium assessing the German Sixth Army’s operations. Her job was made easier by her sex, as men of Petit’s age had to report regularly to the German authorities to prove that they had not joined the Belgian army. Such “masculine freedoms” did not go unnoticed by Petit’s peers or by the Germans, and she was slandered as “American” for her perceived liberalism and as a prostitute for her “easiness” in consorting with men. After her arrest, Petit’s hatred of the occupying army echoed that of many Belgians, but her constant defiance and refusal to appeal her sentence had rather more to do with her upbringing than with the “organic” sense of national feeling that contemporaries claimed in later years.

De Schaepdrijver methodically explores Petit’s memorialisation. Unlike Cavell, whose execution provoked outrage throughout Allied nations, Petit’s demise passed unnoticed. Only after her death did Belgian civil society reimagine her as Cavell’s equivalent, although she was seen not as a victim of German aggression but rather as a heroic resister, emblematic of Belgium’s collective defiance during the occupation. Indeed, the commemorative fervour surrounding Petit in the period 1919-23 and the endurance of her “sacrificial” status until the 1950s masked the differences between French- and Flemish-speaking Belgians and was “a way to state that the occupied territories had been fronts as well”. But from the 1960s, her memory “retreated into the local, the genderized, and the ironic” as education, social service and health surpassed death as the factors that bound Belgian citizens to the state. Her life story and legacy serve as an insight into both Belgium’s experience of occupation and the changing nature of national attitudes towards the conflict, and De Schaepdrijver’s book is a model of how the cultural history of the war should be written.

Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War

By Sophie De Schaepdrijver
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £65.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781472590879 and 0862
Published 29 January 2015

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