Wonder Woman is a stunning film. And apart from the first Captain America, its plot was one of the few in the super hero genre that I could actually follow, perhaps because the story line wasn’t convoluted and perhaps because I was already familiar with many aspects of the film’s setting. I was enormously impressed by how many things the film got right about that setting including one element of World War I of which we Americans seem to know little: the German occupation of Belgium.
The film might have been just as successful had it focused solely on military elements, had Diana, Princess of Themyscira, charged through no-man’s-land merely to defeat the enemy at hand. But she deflected German bullets during that spectacular scene for a very specific reason: she was determined to rescue oppressed Belgian civilians. For despite her stunning good looks, what made Diana truly beautiful was her empathy: her heart for the downtrodden, the wounded, the helpless. While her strength and indestructible weapons gave her super-human abilities, her heart put me in mind of two real women who also took it upon themselves to help Belgian civilians during World War I.
When the war was just months old, famed American mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart sailed to England before visiting the tiny sliver of unoccupied Belgium. Although her initial motive had been to seek out adventure, what Mary witnessed during her hospital tours immediately transformed her into an empathetic chronicler of the war’s devastating effects on the Belgians:
Never in all that time did I overcome the sense of unreality, and always I was obsessed with the injustice, the wanton waste and injustice of it all. The baby at La Panne—why should it go through life on stumps instead of legs? The boyish officer—why should he have died? The little 16 year-old soldier…why should he never see again? Why? Why? (1)
Mary also visited the Belgian army’s front-line trenches where at one point she was close enough to the German line to distinguish individual sand bags. But what she considered the tour-de-force of her trip was an hour-long interview of King Albert who Mary described as “a very big…blond young man, very patient, very worn.” (2) She initiated the visit because she wanted to confirm the rumored reports of German atrocities against Belgian civilians during the invasion and occupation.
"It would be unfair," he said, "to condemn the whole Germany army. Some regiments have been most humane, but others have behaved very badly…" Then the king confirmed a story that Mary had heard regarding the Germans using Belgian civilians as human shields as they advanced. “It is quite true,” said the king, when Mary asked him about it. “When the Belgian soldiers fired on the enemy they killed their own people. Again and again innocent civilians of both sexes were sacrificed to protect the invading army during attacks.” (3)
Mary turned the interview into a report and her notes into a book called Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, hoping that her pen and fame might save the Belgian people by way of budging American neutrality. It did nothing of the sort; the United States wouldn’t enter the war until 1917 and for very different reasons.
But Mary, like Diana, was an empathetic outsider. Gabriel Petit, on the other hand, was a Belgian. Born into a broken, blighted home, Gabriel was on her own at the age of 15 and at 20 survived a suicide attempt. However, just before the German invasion in August, 1914, her life was starting an upward turn; she was taken under the kind wings of an elderly couple in Brussels and became engaged to a Belgian soldier.
When the war began, Gabriel’s surrogate father died and her fiancé was wounded. All her hard-won happiness threatened, Gabriel took action: she immediately joined the Red Cross and collected funds for the Belgian Army, both door to door and in public places, writing to her fiancé: “Considering I have a lot of nerve, I do a very good business.” (4)
But when Brussels was overcome and occupied, Gabriel left Belgium to find her fiancé who had escaped to France with his regiment. During this trip, Gabrielle discovered a vocation far more powerful than fundraising: she was recruited by a British Intelligence officer. After two weeks training in London, she returned to Belgium as a spy.
It was while working for the British--taking note of German troop movements and bridge widths, distributing underground newspapers to boost morale, and helping her fellow Belgians escape--that the passionate young woman discovered her true love:
My country! 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. (5)
Although Gabriel didn’t die singing, legend does have her shouting: after six months of successful espionage work against the Germans, she was caught, tried, and executed by German firing squad. Her defiant behavior during the final weeks of her life became a unifying national symbol for a devastated and divided post-war Belgium (and a symbol of resistance for that nation when it was once again occupied by the Germans during the Second World War.)
Unlike Wonder Woman, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Gabriel Petit did not possess indestructible weapons and super-human strength. But like the inspiring heroine of the recent film, they both had great hearts and courageous compassion which propelled them to do everything in their power to make a difference in the lives of the oppressed Belgian civilians of World War I.
1. Kings, Queens and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, 49.
2. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 193.
3. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 193.
4. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 55.
5. Women Heroes of World War I: 16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics, 58.