I have mentioned before that wall plaques in the places I visit pique my interest, and that was certainly the case at St. George’s Memorial Church in Ypres. The church, built after the First World War for those Anglophones working in the area, was funded entirely by memorial donations, recorded on the brass plaques. It seems as if every spare piece of wall is covered with a commemorative plaque.
My initial interest was in finding the plaques commemorating Canadian soldiers or regiments; I found plenty of those, such as the one for Cpl. Howard Ferguson of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, who survived the war, and Private Archibald W.G. Marshall, of the Canadian Mounted Rifles, who was killed in action in 1916. While I had never before heard of those two soldiers, there were plaques for people whose names I did indeed recognize, such as Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Army during the First World War. Reading all the tributes takes time, there are so many, but one stood out for me because it was the only one I saw dedicated to a woman.
War has traditionally been a man’s occupation. I have heard it suggested that if women were in charge there would be no war because they are too smart to lead their countries into conflict. Unfortunately history does not bear that out. A tribute to a woman, among all the commemorations of men and regiments piqued my curiosity, to say the least. And I had never heard of Violette Szabo before, but it was obvious she had served in the Second World War, not the WWI: the plaque said she had been executed at the Ravensbruck concentration camp in January 1945.
The words after her name were familiar, not a regiment name but “Special Operations Executive.” I had seen that name before; the people in that organization were not soldiers, they were spies.
There is a certain amount of romance attached to spies and the profession of espionage, at least if they are on our side. Mind you, that romance mostly comes from fictional spy tales such as Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels (I must confess I have never watched any of the movies in the James Bond franchise). The real thing is probably sordid and much less romantic, but fraught with danger nonetheless. James Bond is fiction, not reality.
When we got back to Canada I looked her up. Violette Szabo was a real spy, not fiction. Turns out she and her husband, Etienne were the most decorated married couple of the Second World War. (He was a soldier, not a spy, killed in action in North Africa.) I’m not going to give you her life story; you can check it out on Wikipedia if you so desire. She parachuted into occupied France twice, operating behind enemy lines gathering information. She was arrested twice and escaped her captors, but the third time she was not as fortunate. Hers is a story of courage and bravery, the sort of tale Hollywood movies are made of.
Which may explain why Hollywood did make a movie, or at least British film makers did. Carve Her Name With Pride was released in 1958. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I have promised myself I will find the time soon to watch it.
In wartime ordinary people frequently are called upon to do extraordinary things. I had never before heard of Violette Szabo before seeing her name on the wall of St. George’s Memorial Church. After reading her story, I wish I had had the opportunity to meet such a remarkable person.