Gabrielle Petit is 23; Worked with British Intelligence
Now Remembered as a National Hero
Special to The Great War Project
(1 April) At dawn on this day a century ago, the German occupation forces in Belgium execute Gabrielle Petit.
Petit is a Belgian woman working for the British Secret Service in Brussels and other parts of German-occupied Belgium.
Among her activities, she distributes Libre Belgique, or Free Belgium, a clandestine anti-German newspaper.
She is living in Belgium when the war breaks out and immediately volunteers for the Belgian Red Cross.
Soon after that, she begins her work as a spy. One of her first actions — she helps her solider fiancee, who is wounded, to get out of Belgium, crossing the border to the Netherlands. There, he is able to rejoin his regiment.
During that action she gathers valuable information about the deployment of German forces in Belgium. When she returns to Brussels, she turns the information over to British intelligence.
The British quickly realize Petit is a valuable asset, and they put her on the payroll to spy on the Germans, reporting regularly on the movement of German troops. In this activity she uses a number of false identities.
She also works with an underground mail service called Mot de Soldat, or The Soldier’s Word.
A century ago, Petit is betrayed by a German whom she thought to be Dutch. She is arrested in February 1916. For these and other activities, she is put on trial, found guilty, and sentenced to execution on April 1st, today one hundred years ago.
The Germans offer to free her if she divulges the names of other clandestine operatives she is working with.
“At her trial,” writes historian Martin Gilbert, “she confessed to another of her activities, helping to smuggle across the lines would-be Belgian recruits to the Belgian army.”
Gilbert reports that “after her sentence she had been kept in prison for two weeks in the hope that the prospect of death would lead her to betray her colleagues but….
…she refused to break under mental or physical duress.”
On this day, precisely one hundred years ago, Gabrielle Petit is executed by firing squad. She is 23 years old.
Her story comes to light only after the war, and in 1919 a state funeral is held for her, attended by Belgium’s queen and prime minister. She is buried with full military honors.
Today a statue of her graces a major plaza in central Brussels.