Life in Belgium in the first part of the 20th century must have been idyllic. In 1892, when Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert was born in the village of Westrozebeke in the Belgian province of West Flanders, it would have been quiet countryside. But then came World War I, and the German army barrelled through on their way to Paris. And, worse, they stayed.
Life Under German Rule
Life was bad for the people of Belgium. The Germans took all the good food and supplies and left the people with almost nothing. There was bacon, putrid stuff nicknamed “Wilson” (after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) and a kind of maize (corn) called “Hoover” (chair of the U.S. Relief Committee and later U.S. president) by the residents.
The Germans took their clothing to make sandbags, so they had to use blankets, tablecloths, curtains, and sheets for clothing.
Animals were also hard to find because the Germans took them too. One of Marthe’s neighbors had a goat that she loved and that gave good milk. She trained the goat to hide every time someone came into her house, by climbing into a hole between two houses!
How Marthe Got Started Spying
Marthe and her family were burned out of their home and had to move to a different town. She had been enrolled in a medical school, but it closed because of the war, so she found the only work she could do – as a nurse in a German hospital.
Like Rose Zar in World War II, Marthe was for a while living “in the mouth of the wolf” by working alongside the Germans. It was ironic that the Germans valued her services so much she was awarded their Iron Cross for distinguished service.
The dilemma for Marthe, like many people in Europe during wartime, was whether to help the hated Boche, as they were called to keep her family alive and get privileges or to resist and possibly be killed. Marthe found an uneasy balance – she worked with the Germans but she also spied on them. It was a dangerous life for a young woman with almost no training. She was even asked by one German officer to spy for the Germans and get more privileges! If she had said no, she would have been under his suspicion. She did some spying, but very little, toward the end of the war.
Marthe’s spying began when an acquaintance noted her liked Marthe’s cool, calm personality and intelligence and she persuaded her to spy for British Intelligence. She learned how to recognize fellow resistance fighters by the “two safety pins” they wore under their coat lapels. in the Philippines in World War II, Marthe worked in her father’s café in the evenings, where she passed on information she overheard. Like Joey Guerrero in World War II in the Philippines, she delivered messages and noted troop movements. Later she was asked to get information, which involved getting into restricted areas, a more dangerous task.
It’s ironic that women in Belgium during World War I were not able to vote or hold political office, but they could serve – and die for – their country by spying.
How Marthe’s Dilemma Played Out
The central dilemma of all spying is whether or not to act on the information you have found. If you find out about something by spying, and you act on it, you might be able to stop the enemy temporarily, but the other side knows you were spying on them and they find new ways to communicate. If you don’t act on the information, you take the risk that your own troops or civilians will be killed.
Several times Marthe’s spying cost Allied lives. At one point, she notified the Allies of a big German ceremony in another town. The doctor at the German hospital wanted her to take some of the wounded German soldiers to the parade. Marthe had already told the Allies about the parade and she knew they were planning on disrupting it, possibly with bombs.
When she found out that she would have to be there, she tried to get word to the Allies, but it was too late. She was lucky that she wasn’t in the area where the bombs went off – it could have cost her her own life.
Marthe Was Not a Mata Hari
One part of the spying business that Marthe didn’t like was having to deal with German soldiers and officers. According to Tammy Proctor,* “Women, particularly working-class women, were seen as sexually available by many soldiers.” Woméen who ran boarding homes or cafés were particularly vulnerable and Marthe’s family ran a boarding house with a restaurant attached.
She had to pretend to be the girlfriend of a German officer and even spend a night with him, in order to get information. She always managed to avoid becoming intimate (or so she reports in her autobiography), but it was difficult.
The Most Terrible Secret Marthe Found
Marthe and another spy were digging in a yard when they found some suspicious cylinders.
They reported the cylinders to the British authorities, who didn’t think they were important and called Marthe’s suspicions “highly speculative.” The true purpose of the cylinders became obvious on April 23, 1915, when the first choline gas attack was launched against the French at Ypres, Belgium. This was after the tear gas attacks and before mustard gas was used. Terrible way to kill people.
Marthe’s Life after the War
Marthe managed to survive the war without being captured. She was awarded honors by Britain, France, and Belgium for her espionage work. She married a British army officer named John “Jock McKenna.
During World War II, she was living in Machester, England, but she was still under suspicion by the Nazis and listed in Hitler’s “Black Book” to be arrested if they invaded Britain. She died in 1966.
In his Foreword to her autobiography, Winston Churchill said,
“[She] fulfilled in every respect the conditions which make the terrible professional of a spy dignified and honorable. She reported the movement of troops; she destroyed, or endeavored to destroy, ammunition dumps; she assisted the escape of British prisoners; she directed the British airplanes where to strike at the billets, camps, and assemblies of the German troops, and thus brought death upon hundreds of the enemies and oppressors of her country.”
Sources: Most of the information for this article came from Marthe’s autobiography, I Was a Spy. The New York Times, in its article on Marthe McKenna in its Overlooked series, said, “Much of the account was later determined to be invented….”
*I also used information from the section on Marthe in Female Intelligence: Women and Espionage in the First World War. Tammy Proctor. NY University Press 2003