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28th October 1915

This must have been one of the most fascinating research jobs I have ever undertaken for TOMMIES. I can never quite remember what started it off, but I think it must have been finding out about the incredible 300km-long electrified fence the Germans built in 1915. Their problem was simple - men and material were crossing the border from occupied Belgium into neutral Holland. (The idea that Holland was neutral in WW1 has always been strange to me too - I think it is a consequence of the mental picture of Nazi-dominated Europe in WW2.)

 

So the Germans built an electrified fence. It cut through villages and crossed the roofs of houses; thousands of people were killed trying to cross it; an industry sprung up of rubber-clad blokes with rubberised tubes to get people through it. Completely amazing. You can read about it on the internet and it is referenced in a lot of the books I talk about below, but the one book that has it all in one place is here, THE ART OF STAYING NEUTRAL by Maartje Abbenhuis. Something none of them mention is one consequence later in history. I'd bet in 1961 the rest of the world thought the construction of the Berlin Wall and the lesser known electrified fence and death strip between West and East Germany was unprecedented. Yet in Holland, Belgium and of course Germany itself, older heads would have marvelled at the repetition.

 

Having decided this fence had to feature in an episode of TOMMIES, I needed to get our characters authentically placed in Holland and Belgium.

 

If you recall we left Celestine and Marjorie on the Russian front on 11th May 1915. They could travel from Russia, up through Finland, down through Sweden, into Denmark and then by ferry to Holland. That's just the reverse of the routes discussed to get them there which you can read about on that episode's webpage.

 

I asked around various Red Cross buffs who agreed that two nurses supposedly returning from the Belgian Congo via Holland could probably obtain papers to get into Belgium from those leaving the country. So that provided a way for Celestine and Marjorie to get in. Once inside Belgium, their obvious medical skill would make them vital to any hospital.

 

Background on their lives in that hospital could be derived from WITH EDITH CAVELL IN BELGIUM by Jacqueline Van Til which you can read here (where would we be without archive.org, I ask you?). This seems a pretty measured book, whereas THE MARTYRDOM OF NURSE CAVELL by William Thomson Hill (again, here) is interesting for the tenor of the times.

 

As for their spying lifestyle and their tradecraft, I WAS A SPY! by Marthe Cnockaert McKenna is good (you have to buy this one and the following ones – I did). Marthe was caught by her engraved watch being found in amongst the dynamite and yet wasn't shot at dawn. She was imprisoned for life, without any sort of fanfare, as there was by both sides over Nurse Cavell. This makes plausible the TOMMIES plot point that Celestine and Marjorie could be arrested and kept hush hush.

 

Three other good sources on spying in Belgium - all the train watching, for example - came from THE SECRET HISTORY OF MI6 by Keith Jeffery, THE SECRETS OF RUE St FOCH by Janet Morgan, and ALL'S FAIR by Henry Landau. There's also a history of the WW1 intelligence effort in Holland at the TNA, (WO 106/6189) but it is more of an administrative and organisational history. Still, quite fun to go rustling in the Intel archives for a change.

 

All these sources obviously gave us Robert's activities, the businessman still being the best cover anyone can have for espionage.

 

A ferry ran from the Hook of Holland to Harwich up until the end of 1915. Mata Hari (well documented on the internet) used to go via Britain when she travelled from France to Holland so it was obviously possible for neutrals (she was on a Dutch passport). Celestine would have her British papers to get her on the packet boat over to France especially if they still retained all her old Boulogne Hospital bits of paperwork. So that's the next step of her journey, more anon.

 

I'm going to have to leave this here and come back to it at some time in the future because we were really rigorous on the research for this one and there's lots more.

 

I found Stella Rimington's Radio 4 doc on Nurse Cavell really interesting because she had new evidence that Cavell had actually been passing espionage material rather than just wounded soldiers. And also that British soldiers while supposedly concealed in her hospital had gone out for the evening, got drunk and had fights in a bar (!) and when they got home, sent her letters thanking her (!!). It's up on iPlayer at the moment but I'm not sure for how much longer.