Marthe Cnockaert was training to be a nurse at the University of Ghent when World War One broke out. The war left her family devastated and fractured when the invading Germans destroyed their home and village. Left alone and separated from her family, Cnockaert used her medical training and ability to speak English and German to gain a job in the local German military hospital. Her work with the patients was so appreciated; the invaders awarded her the Iron Cross.
But in 1915, Cnockaert was transferred to another hospital in Roulers. Here, she was reunited with her family and friends. It was one of these friends, Lucelle Deldonck who recruited Cnockaert as a British agent.
Using her medical work as a cover, Cnockaert gathered military evidence to pass onto the British. She did this by meeting her contacts in the local church. But soon, her German lodger was trying to recruit her to spy for the Germans! To cover herself, Marthe agreed, passing on false information for a time. But eventually, she could not maintain her double life anymore and so freed herself from this obligation by organizing the death of her lodger.
She was betrayed by her own carelessness. While laying explosives in a cellar, Cnockaert left behind her watch-which was engraved with her name. She was sentenced to death in 1916-but here her iron cross saved her. Her sentence was commuted to seven years hard labor. She served two years before her premature release at the end of the war.
After the war, Cnockaert married a British army officer and became a spy novelist, as well as recording her wartime adventures in her memoir “I was a spy”.