Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Gabrielle Petit: Feisty Belgian Patriot

On August 2, 1915, after training in England, Gabrielle was ready. Her alias was to be “Miss Legrand.” Her “letter box”—the person to whom she would drop off her collected information—was Mrs. Collet-Sauvage. Gabrielle would be responsible for reporting the size, location, type, and movements of enemy troops, trains, and munitions along with road conditions and bridge widths, primarily in the area of her native city of Tournai, in south central Belgium. She also distributed copies of the illegal underground newspaper La Libre Belgique (“Free Belgium”) and assisted Belgians who were trying to leave the country.

Traveling from place to place, Gabrielle often changed her appearance in order to collect information. Her frequent job changes earlier in her life now served her well as she disguised herself as a door-to-door hat saleswoman, a newspaper seller, a beggar, a fisherman, a nanny, a barmaid, and a bakery delivery woman.

She took notes regarding her observations on very thin paper with corrosive invisible ink, which she delivered to her letter box, Mrs. Collet-Sauvage. Special couriers would then visit Mrs. Collet-Sauvage periodically and make sure that the British got the information.

Gabrielle had found her calling, apparently what she had been born to do. “At no time was I happier,” she wrote to members of her family. Not only did she love the sense of adventure she received from her activities but working as an agent had filled her with a new patriotism. “My country!” she wrote in a letter, “I did not think enough of it, I almost ignored it. I did not see that I loved her. But since they torment her, the monsters, I see her everywhere. I breathe her in the streets of the city, in the shadow of our palace . . . she lives in me, I live in her. I will die for her singing.”

Excerpt from "Gabrielle Petit: Feisty Patriot" from Women Heroes of World War I.

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