The Spy and the Governess

In Europe in the summer of 1914, war loomed. What started as sabre-rattling between Austria-Hungary and Serbia quickly escalated into a continent-wide war. Belgium, however, remained neutral; its independence guaranteed by an international agreement, the small country tucked between France and Germany had no quarrel with either side.

That changed when Germany tried to use the low-lying Belgian farmlands as a quick route to Paris before Allied forces could fully mobilize. “Then, of course, Belgium became a belligerent,” says Penn State historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver. “The Belgian army fought to defend the country.” In early August, in the first battle of the First World War, Belgium’s army fended off the Germans at the southeastern city of Liège long enough to delay the quick-strike strategy.

Belgium’s defiance helped Paris, but it also consigned Belgian civilians to years of occupation by German soldiers. Every invader from the Romans through Napoleon had set up an administration in its conquered territories, but this occupation was different: The occupier had not yet won. The armies became mired along a front across northern Belgium and France that stayed much the same for the duration of the war. Fighting raged just a few dozen miles from Belgian cities, and the Germans were understandably jumpy and mistrustful. There was still a chance they could lose.

So civilian life went on, but under the control of a foreign power “within the soundscape of the guns,” as De Schaepdrijver puts it. “The question is, to what extent does life go on? It’s not all repression and it’s not all coercion. In some cases, if you know how to deal with the occupying army, you can still maintain some kind of routine. So it’s actually a kind of dance—but it’s a dance with a bully.” She pauses, considers.

“And you dance with a bully at your peril.”


Tales to tell

As a native of Belgium herself, De Schaepdrijver (pronounced “sharp-driver”) would seem like a natural to explore the country’s role in World War I. But the Great War wasn’t talked about when she was growing up. Her paternal grandfather, who fought in the war, and her father, who might have been a conduit for his stories, died when she was very young. School was silent on the subject. “I never heard a word about the First World War, not in school, not at university, even though I was a history major,” she says. “It was a war that at that time, very few people were interested in.”

For one thing, she says, Belgians’ sense of their history had become increasingly segregated between French- and Dutch-speaking populations. Today, says De Schaepdrijver, “You basically have two political universes, and the dogma is that there is nothing in Belgian history that pertains to both linguistic groups.”

In addition, the academic study of history in Belgium had long avoided a narrative approach in favor of “serious” sources and quantitative analysis. “The notion was that you can’t use literary sources such as diaries,” she says. “You can only use what you can measure.” She wrote a numbers-heavy Ph.D. thesis on city growth and migration in the mid-1800s. After defending her thesis at the University of Amsterdam and publishing her first book in 1990, she thought of taking her interest in the history of cities into the 1700s. But a publisher friend suggested she move in the opposite direction.

“He said, ‘There is no book on Belgium in the First World War, although Belgium is so crucial to the war and the war is so crucial to Belgium.’ It took a Dutch publisher to point this out to me. I’m still grateful to him for that.”

Her 1998 book on Belgium in the First World War (published in Dutch and later in French) examined the war’s impact on an entire society. It marked De Schaepdrijver’s shift to a cultural approach that favored “unimportant” sources such as ordinary people’s diaries. It became a best-seller and has gone through 35 printings so far. “There was clearly a yawning demand for that kind of thing,” she says.

Her 2014 book, Bastion: Occupied Bruges in the First World War, illuminated the role of that Belgian city as a base for German submarine warfare, and what that meant for its inhabitants. She also got involved with “public history” projects such as writing and presenting a prize-winning television documentary and curating historical exhibitions. Over the years, she came across intriguing hints about other stories just waiting to be told. One of those involved Gabrielle Petit, a young woman who spied for the Allies and became a folk hero after the war, a symbol of Belgian resistance to tyranny. While visiting a monument to Petit in Brussels, De Schaepdrijver says, “Suddenly it came to me, this is the first time that a working-class girl is commemorated like this. It’s the first monument in European history to a contemporary woman of no social status.”

Although Petit no longer seemed part of the national identity, De Schaepdrijver sensed that her story would be a rich one. “I still have the Post-It® where I wrote to myself, ‘Must write her book!’ And so I did.”

Born to spy

Gabrielle Petit doesn’t seem to have been tempted to dance with the German bully or any other. Whatever degree of defiance she had by nature, her upbringing accentuated. She was born into a middle-class family, but her mother’s early death left her in the care of her ne’er-do-well father, who soon placed Gaby and her sister into orphanages. After that he offered little financial support and nothing in the emotional realm.

In her 2015 book, Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War, De Schaepdrijver drew on the meager evidence available to sketch Petit’s early life and her development into an effective spy.

“A lot of words have been attributed to her, but there was very little in her own hand, just a few scraps,” she recalls—and most of the accounts published soon after the war were shaped by the need for a hero and a heroic view of the nation. “You have to check, ‘can we trust this, can we trust that?’ I made the search for evidence a part of the story.”

At her orphanage school, Petit was a bright student with a troublesome reputation for resisting authority and rules she thought were unfair. She aspired to become a governess, a position that would require further schooling and impeccable recommendations, but at age 14 she took a stand that got her expelled from school and placed that option forever out of reach: She refused to snitch on a classmate she felt had been unjustly accused of a minor infraction.

“I found her profoundly engaging, sometimes infuriating—this high school dropout who could be a total drama queen but at the same time a great stoic, and who could be pretty silly and extraordinarily intelligent, and who was all of those things at once,” says De Schaepdrijver.

For the next few years Petit marked time in jobs that offered little opportunity for improving her situation. The German invasion galvanized her. She ran errands for the nascent underground, and in 1915 she was recruited by British intelligence operators. Her audacity and keen sense of justice, which had led to nothing but trouble for her in the confines of life as a discarded child, became valuable assets. She went to London for two weeks of training, and immediately upon her return started reporting on the movement of troops and matériel through train stations in western Belgium and northern France.

By all accounts, she was a very good spy—accurate, detailed, tireless. But the Germans were cracking down on the resistance and infiltrating the spy networks. Petit was arrested on February 2, 1916. She was tried on March 2 and sentenced to death. Throughout her trial and imprisonment she refused to name her contacts. She also refused to ask for leniency. “I want to show them that I don’t give a damn,” she wrote on the walls of her cell, a German witness would later recall. After the war, those promoting her as a heroine would leave these un-ladylike words out of Petit’s story.

Execution was usually carried out shortly after sentencing, so as her stay in prison lengthened, Petit began to think she would be spared. But the delay was merely procedural. Six months earlier, occupation officials in Brussels had executed English nurse Edith Cavell for helping Allied soldiers escape Belgium. International condemnation had been fierce. “After that it was determined that if another woman was ever on death row, Berlin would have to decide.”

Not just some official in Berlin, but Kaiser Wilhelm II himself. De Schaepdrijver recalls the moment when, looking through a box of documents in a German archive, she struck gold.

“Sometimes you have these discoveries, like, ‘No, I can’t believe it!’ ” says De Schaepdrijver. “I found the actual telegram from the Emperor saying ‘You can proceed with the execution.’” It was dated March 27. Petit was killed by firing squad on April 1.

Butter and soap      

Several months after Petit was shot, another woman in Brussels began keeping a diary. All five volumes of it, from autumn 1916 through the end of the war, had been in an archive in Belgium since the 1980s. De Schaepdrijver had known of the diary for some time, “but nobody knew who had written it or recognized its value as a record of life under occupation,” she says.

Finally, in 2015 the temptation became too much. With colleague Tammy Proctor of Utah State University, De Schaepdrijver decided to publish the diary. Armed with only an address in Brussels associated with the document, she set out to track down the writer, combing through century-old paper records because none of the information had been digitized.

“My one clue was that the author knew English,” she says—and in fact, appeared to be a native English speaker. De Schaepdrijver searched the census records looking for potential candidates. “That’s when I saw there’s an English governess at that address,” which turned out to be the home of a prominent Brussels family, the Wittoucks.

With the name of the governess in hand, De Schaepdrijver went to the foreigners’ registers—ledgers listing all foreigners living in Brussels. “Sadly, there was no picture,” she recalls, “but there was her signature. I compared that to the handwriting in the diary—and concluded it had to be her.”

The writer was Mary Thorp, who had been born in England to English parents but had lived in Belgium since childhood and had friends from the U.S., Russia, Austria, and France, which gave her a keen international perspective. In her journal she noted her efforts to get letters to friends nearer the front or in other countries, and the ever-more-challenging task of obtaining food, blankets, soap, and shoes. She recorded the forced deportation of Belgian men to work in German factories, and, almost every day, the blasts of artillery shells at the nearby front.

Rarely mentioning her own discomfort, she went out of her way to help others who were suffering more. Whenever she obtained butter or good soap, rare treats during those years, she parceled them out to acquaintances who were worse off than she and the Wittoucks.

“It was part of her sense of self,” says De Schaepdrijver. “It was simply what you did. She also was able to acknowledge that other people had it way harder than she did. She would say that over and over again: ‘Well, it’s tough, but oh my goodness I am so privileged compared to others.”

An English Governess in the Great War: The Secret Brussels Diary of Mary Thorp,” edited with commentary by De Schaepdrijver and Proctor, came out in early 2017. Despite its detailed and moving depiction of life under enemy rule, De Schaepdrijver thinks Thorp was not intentionally bearing witness and never meant for her diary to be made public.

“She is like many people who, because of living under occupation, started writing a diary because time seems to be losing its form. It just flows with nothing to show for it,” she says. “Keeping a diary was a form of daily discipline, the notion being that if you record your thoughts and actions every day, then the time that goes by is not completely lost.”

She kept a diary until a few months after the Armistice and then, apparently, never did so again.

The long arc of memory

Gabrielle Petit became a public figure after the war, when the story of her spying, arrest, and death came out. But commemoration changes over time, as the world around us changes, or how we wish to be viewed changes. Petit’s prominence as a Belgian hero dimmed during a period of anti-war sentiment in the late 1920s, recovered a decade later when Nazi Germany began to flex its muscles, and declined again in the 1960s, when the linguistic division in Belgium deepened and opposition to the Vietnam War took hold. “For western Europe, that was the moment when the whole idea of dying for ‘the fatherland’ takes a nosedive,” says De Schaepdrijver.

That was the end of “the long arc of her memory” as a public figure, as De Schaepdrijver calls it. Now, two generations later, appreciation for Petit has returned, due largely to a flowering of interest in the cultural history of the war—“culture” in the wider sense of how people lived and how they sought to understand what was happening to them.

In honor of her work, in 2017 the King of Belgium named her Baroness (comparable to being made a “Dame” in the U.K.). She has just returned from a year as a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Kent, in England. While there she started working on a book about occupations throughout Europe during the First World War.

“We tend to associate military occupation with World War II, but we forget that close to 40 million people in Europe, from France to Ukraine, lived under occupation regimes in the First World War,” she says. Bringing out the stories of individuals who struggled as unwilling partners in their nation’s forced dance then may help us see that none of us are immune to violence and oppression today. “Calamities can happen. They can all of a sudden break into your very ordered life, and you might find yourself as helpless as those people, through no fault of your own.”


Sophie De Schaepdrijver is professor of history at Penn State. In 2017 she was awarded the university’s Faculty Scholar Medal for Outstanding Achievemen in the Humanities. 

This story first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Research/Penn State magazine, under the title "Dancing With a Bully."

Last Updated March 15, 2018