Although many spies from The First World War remained anonymous for good, some achieved heroic status. In this way, Edith Cavell was turned into a model of resistance immediately after her execution. This British citizen had been the head of the first Belgian nursing school since 1907. Following the German invasion, she became the central figure in a network that smuggled stranded Belgian, British and French soldiers over the border in the greatest secrecy. In 1915, she was arrested, and following a show trial she was executed on the National Shooting Range in Brussels. The report of her death caused a wave of outrage and signified the start of an international propaganda battle. The German newspapers emphasised that a country at war had to punish a member of the resistance, even if she were a woman. The British press transformed the brave nurse into an inviolable martyr. In 1920, Cavell was given a statue in the heart of London.
A statue of a Belgian resistance heroine has also adorned the Sint-Jansplein in Brussels since 1923. Following a crash course in railway espionage in London, Gabrielle Petit set up an intelligence operation in the region of Doornik. Petit collected information about German troop movements, distributed clandestine newspapers and smuggled soldiers over the border. After running into a German ambush, she was arrested and executed on 1 April 1916, one month after Cavell, and on the same National Shooting Range.
Although the Germans immediately made her death public too, it was only after the war that Petit became a national icon. From that moment on, this ‘Belgian Joan of Arc’ symbolised the courageous resistance of little Belgium against the occupier. Petit's cell became a place of pilgrimage and films and books about her deeds appeared. The Catholic Church, the Flemish Movement, and also the Belgicist movement, and feminists, … everyone could identify with certain aspects of this heroine. Considerations that did not fit the picture were left out or altered.
The statue of Gabriëlle Petit
The exhibition about two lesser-known female spies, Emilie Schatteman and Leonie Rammeloo in Boekhoute
Visitor's Centre Boekhoute, Boekhoutedorp 3, 9961 Boekhoute
The statue of Edith Cavell in Londen, 2008, Wikipedia
The statue of Gabriëlle Petit in Brussels, 2014, Wikipedia