This month’s selection was chosen in honor of the centennial of the Armistice ending World War I effective on November 11, 1918.
Despite the rather lurid title, Marthe McKenna’s memoir of her harrowing adventures as a real spy for the Allies during World War I is a valuable addition to the genre and to that time period. First published in 1932, and again in 2015, her name and exploits seem to be unknown today. Her true story is as thrilling as many best-selling fictional spy stories. There is no doubt that her contribution to the Allied cause was extremely valuable to their ultimate success.
McKenna did not seek spying as a career; rather, it sought her. She was trained as a nurse which was not only a crucial profession during the war, but also placed her in a position to gather information of value to the Allies. After the German invasion of her home town in Belgium, her family and other townspeople were relocated to the nearby town of Roulers. There she worked at the local hospital treating both Allied and German wounded soldiers. Her family opened a café, and they were forced to billet several Germans in their household as well. She only needed to listen to or chat with others in the course of her daily routine and report information via a specified method.
Of course, she needed to be very careful. However, as a medical professional who was treating all soldiers equally, McKenna was known and trusted by the authorities. She was given a pass that gave her a legitimate reason to be out of her home unchallenged by guards at any hour, which allowed her a measure of safety and access other spies did not have. I also think that being female worked to her advantage in diverting suspicion by the German authorities. In short, she was in an excellent situation to gather information from various sources without suspicion and had flexibility in getting it to the Allies.
Most of McKenna’s spying tasks consisted of reporting details such as troop and arms placements and increases, dates and times of enemy events, and other information on which the Allies could act by bombing, sabotage, or other possible means. On several occasions, the Allies were able to destroy arms that would have been used against their soldiers. Once McKenna helped to obliterate an ammunition dump. She was also able to alert the Allies to German use of gas. On another occasion, she personally destroyed the German end of a communications line based in England in such a way that the British could apprehend that source. It’s impossible to estimate how many Allied lives she saved, perhaps even shortening the war.
On some occasions, her own life was seriously endangered. McKenna witnessed her contact being murdered mere seconds before she arrived to drop off information to be passed to the Allies. She always knew her life was in danger, but that near-encounter shook her deeply. On another occasion, she reported a gathering of German soldiers so they could be bombed by Allied planes. At the last minute, her hospital supervisor unexpectedly asked her to take some of the patients to this event. The gathering was bombed, and she and the patients survived without injury. It’s clear that luck played a large part in her success as a spy.
As important as her work was, another part of it bothered McKenna: the taking of life, even that of an enemy. As a nurse she was trained to heal, to save lives. At one point, she learned of a troop replenishment of one thousand newly-trained German soldiers. These young men had not even seen war on the battlefield, but were casualties of an Allied bombing raid she had called for. She expressed her ambivalence about this event:
“One thousand men in a dark building waiting unknowingly for death! Over to the east, mothers, wives, pretty girls were even now writing to those men, sending them little presents of home-made jam and sweets—perhaps many of these would arrive too late and would be returned to the broken-hearted senders unopened. And the curtain of smoke and searing steel which was to fall on those light-hearted soldiers was to be lowered by my hands. But this was War.” (p. 144)
In 1916, McKenna’s own luck ran out. Circumstances around the ammunition dump explosion led German authorities to her, and she was arrested and court-martialed. Originally sentenced to death by firing squad, the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment based largely on her medical help to soldiers of both sides. Earlier she had received the German Iron Cross for that service!
McKenna did not fare well in her two-year imprisonment. When she was released in 1918 at the war’s end, her health was very bad, and she was nearly blind. She slowly recovered and was awarded the French and Belgian Orders of the Legion of Honour as well as recognition by the British, including Winston Churchill.
There are countless war stories by soldiers in the trenches of the particular horrors they suffered: constant threat of death or maiming; seeing friends blown to bits in front of them; mud, rats, lice, cold, always fear, bad food or lack of it; little or no sleep; illness; and always soldiering on beyond the limits of endurance.
There are fewer stories of the home front life and trials: 24/7 occupation under the enemy for months or years with constant surveillance; shortages or inferiority of food and other items, as the best of everything was sent to soldiers; bombing and bombardment; intrusion into households and private lives; destruction of lives, homes, crops, and sometimes morality; illness; and the need to devise clandestine behavior to circumvent occupiers.
Perhaps the most stressful part of both circumstances is never knowing when it will end. Many people said the hostilities that became WWI would be over by Christmas 1914. Instead, it dragged on for nearly four more years with enormous loss of life and very little to show for it all. The most it accomplished was to defer resolution and set the stage for WWII two decades later.
I enjoyed McKenna’s book as much as Winston Churchill apparently did and as much as I think any reader would. Having once done a bit of spying himself, he said of McKenna:
“She fulfilled in every respect the conditions which made the terrible profession of a spy dignified and honourable. Dwelling behind the German line within the sound of cannon, she continually obtained and sent information of the highest importance to the British Intelligence Authorities.”—Winston Churchill, 1932
One would be hard pressed to earn higher praise and respect than that!