Saturday, 4 January 2014

Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert - Inspirational Woman of WW1


Brussels was occupied by the Germans during the First World War.  Although German troops got within 30 miles of the French Capital City, nevertheless Paris remained free for the duration of WW1, which meant it was a meeting place for all sorts of people.

The popularly accepted idea these days of Mata Hari as being a typical spy during the First World War could not be further from the truth.   Mata Hari, who lived in Paris, is believed to have been a spy but the singer Mistinguette apparently did more to help the Allied cause.     

In the years prior to the War a parliamentary study revealed that there was ‘widespread German infiltration’ but ‘there was no organization’ of counter-espionage.   So the British Government brought the Secret Service Bureau into being.   Notable male spies were Sidney Riley and the writer W. Somerset Maugham.

The Service adapted and expanded during the 194 – 1918 years and women were used extensively as secret agents, many of them were discovered and shot.  Here is just one of the stories of some of those women - I will post others as time goes on.


Marthe was born on 28th October 1892 in Westrozebeke in the west of Belgium.  When The First World War broke out Marthe was a student at Ghent University and had trained as a nurse.   The village was burnt and Marthe became separated from her family.  In 1915, she went to work in a German military hospital in Roulers, Belgium, where her family had found shelter when their home was burnt down.  There, Marthe was recruited into the British Intelligence by a Belgian neighbour, working with two other Belgian women agents.   For two years Marthe worked as a nurse in the German hospital and also in her parents’ café, gathering vital intelligence information for the British.

A German agent who was billeted in her home tried to recruit Marthe to work for the Germans and she worked for a time as a double agent.  When this became too complicated she arranged for the German agent to be killed.  Marthe discovered a disused sewer tunnel system under a German ammunition dump and placed explosives there.  Unfortunately, Mathe lost her watch, which was engraved with her initials as she placed the explosives and that led to her capture.   Marthe was sentenced to death but due to her expertise as a nurse and the fact that she had been nursing German wounded for which she had received the Iron Cross, the sentence was commuted and Marthe spent two years in prison in Ghent.

After the War, Marthe received recognition for her work from the British and the French.   She married a British Army Officer – John McKenna and wrote her memoirs, for which Winston Churchill wrote a foreword, as well as novels.

In 1933 a film of Marthe’s life story was made called “I was a Spy” with the actress Madeleine Carroll in the starring role.

Marthe died in Westrozebeke in 1966.

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