Monday, July 2, 2012

"I will show them how a Belgian woman can die."

This article was written by Josse M., a prolific blogger who happens to be my father-in-law. He has graciously granted me permission to translate one of his articles for A Norwegian in Belgium. You can find the original article (in Dutch and with more pictures) on his blog.

Gabrielle Petit (20 February 1893 – 1 April 1916) was a heroine of the Belgian resistance in World War I.

Gabrielle Petit (1893-1916).

Her father placed her, together with her sister, in an orphanage after her mother died. When she turns 16, she leaves the orphanage and goes to live by herself in Brussels. As a single woman, life is anything but easy. She is often depressive, and even attempts to commit suicide.

When World War I breaks out, she is engaged to a soldier. She volunteers for the Red Cross.

She joins the British Secret Service. She goes to England via the Netherlands. Here she undergoes a brief training to prepare her for railway espionage. Her code name is “Legrand”. She reports German troop movements by railway to the Allies. She travels through Belgium in disguise. She writes the reports on small sheets of silk paper which she hides inside her clothes.

Back in Belgium she began her work in the area between Ypres (Ieper) and Maubeuge in France. She constantly ventured into enemy territory, where she observed and reported the German troop movements. Sometimes she did it disguised as a commercial traveler and refugee, sometimes as a nanny. Her reports were precise and quick and amazed her superiors.

Aside from intelligence work, she kept herself busy with the distribution of the secret newspaper La Libre Belgique.

She also helped in the expansion of an underground mail service (‟Mot du Soldatˮ – The Word of the Soldier) and succeeded in smuggling several men over the Dutch border. It was a life on the razor's edge.


In June 1915 she was arrested for the first time, and was released due to lack of evidence. The Germans, however, keep following her, and on 20 January 1916 she is arrested. She was betrayed by a German posing as a Dutchman. Throughout her detention she remained standhaft (German for ‟steadfastˮ, as it says in the interrogation reports). She didn't betray the name of a single one of her fellow combatants.

One small detail: the Germans were looking for Miss "Legrand".

One month later the verdict fell: she got the death penalty. She refused to appeal for pardon and wrote on the wall in her cell in the prison in Saint-Gilles: ‟I do not ask for a pardon, to show the [Germans] that I don't give a damn about them.ˮ On 1 April, at six o'clock in the morning, the time had come. A police van drove her to the execution grounds in Schaerbeek. 45 minutes later the sentence had been carried out. The next day, a German poster reported that "the saleswoman Gabrielle Petit" had been executed for her "richly paid" intelligence services.

Her statue can be seen on Place Saint-Jean in Brussels. Her cell in Saint-Gilles has served as a place of pilgrimage for some time.

After the war, in May 1919, her body was exhumed to be reburied at the cemetery in Schaerbeek. In her honor, Gebrielle Petit was given a state funeral in the presence of Queen ElisabethCardinal Mercier and Prime Minister Delacroix.

The statue on Place Saint-Jean in Brussels is a faithful reconstruction of that final moment. With clenched fists and her head held high, Gabrielle Petit looks the German firing squad in the eyes. She has refused to wear the blindfold. The inscription on the base reads, in French: ‟(...) I will show them how a Belgian woman can die.ˮ Also inscribed are her legendary last words: ‟Vive la Belgique! [...] Vive le...ˮ – the shots fell before she could shout ‟Roiˮ - King.

Memorial to Gabrielle Petit on Place Saint-Jean in Brussels.


If you're one of my Dutch-speaking readers, you may want to check out Joski's other writings on his blogs Berichten uit het verleden and Ochtendhumeur, nostalgie, verhaaltjes, plaatjes, originals, flauwe kul en...brede opklaringen.

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