Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Belgian Spy: Marthe Cnockaert McKenna

Belgian Nurse & Spy Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert

[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.

Winston Churchill

Marthe Mathilde Cnockaert (28 October 1892–8 January 1966),  later Marthe McKenna, was a Belgian spy for the United Kingdom and its allies during the First World War. She later became a novelist, and is credited with writing over a dozen spy novels in addition to her memoirs and short stories. Cnockaert was born in the village of Westrozebeke in the Belgian province of West Flanders, to Felix Cnockaert and his wife Marie-Louise Vanoplinus. She began studying at the medical school at Ghent University, but her studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War. Having trained as a nurse, Cnockaert gained a job at a German military hospital located in the village, where she was valued for her medical training and her multi-lingual skills, speaking English and German as well as French and Flemish. She was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans for her medical service. 

Marthe's Original Memoir of Her Service

But what she had seen and the harsh discipline of the oppressor which she, her parents, and their neighbors were all experiencing, inspired her to undertake the audacious career of a spy for the Allies. For two years Marthe was "Laura" of the Anglo-Belgian Intelligence system.For two years, Cnockaert (codenamed "Laura") used her cover as a nurse and her frequent proximity to German military personnel—at both the hospital and as a waitress at her parents' café—to gather important military intelligence for the British and their allies, which she passed on to other agents in local churches. 

Marthe was brave and ingenious, and but for one of those small, fatal slips which have extinguished so many espionage careers, she might have continued her daring and invaluable "side-line" until the Armistice. In 1916, she discovered a disused sewer tunnel system located underneath a German ammunition depot, and placed the explosives to destroy the ammo dump; however, this operation led to her exposure and capture when she lost her watch, engraved with her initials, while placing the dynamite. Detected and arrested, Marthe was convicted, and condemned to death. Because of her splendid nursing record, and the tireless devotion she had shown hundreds of enemy wounded and sick, her sentence was commuted to imprisonment. And so this heroine—and she was surely that in two capacities—survived until the military prison door swung wide in Belgium. She afterwards married a British officer, John "Jock" McKenna, and resided until  World War II in Westroosebeke, where her amazing memoirs and spy novels were composed, in good part ghost written by her husband Jock.

1933 Film About Her Exploits

Tomorrow on Roads to the Great War we will present her most famous espionage effort, the plan to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm II in Brussels.

1 comment:

  1. She was awarded the Wurtemburg Cross for Merit, not the Prussian Iron Cross.