During the First World War, all belligerent countries developed extensive espionage networks. Intelligence services employed thousands of professional spies, men and women alike, but they were also largely dependent on the help of amateurs. Some 1500 Belgians were recruited to spy for the Belgian and French army, while approximately 5000 Belgian citizens had ties to British intelligence services.
The spies' most important task was to keep track of German military transportations. On 11 August 1916, sexagenarian Aloïs Van Gheluwe of Westrozebeke was executed in Ghent on account of his involvement in a large espionage network that provided the Belgian army with around-the-clock surveillance data of all railway traffic around Kortrijk, collected from 3 observation posts in the area. Spies also kept a close eye on the whereabouts of enemy soldiers who were quartered in their towns.
Intelligence and reports gathered by the spies were passed on to secret service agents. Most secret service head quarters were installed in The Netherlands; they were the final link in many elaborate espionage networks. Couriers were often employed to escort intelligence to the Dutch border, which was heavily guarded by the Germans and fenced off with barbed wire. Arrangements were sometimes made for the information to be lobbed across the barbed wire on a previously agreed time and location. When local inhabitants were part of the information flow, crowded places such as shops and bars were sought out for them to hand their intelligence to a passeur. Passeurs were mostly professional smugglers turned agents. They were extremely creative in devising methods to smuggle intelligence across the border. Double-bottom suitcases, hats and balloons were widely used props. Through a chain of passeurs, the intel was then passed on to The Netherlands.
Women played a remarkably large part in wartime espionage missions. La Dame Blanche, Belgium’s most renowned intelligence service that maintained close ties to the British, counted over 1000 women among its agents. During the war, many women were employed in functions that allowed them to infiltrate hostile organisations such as hospitals. In the BIE-region, military nurse Martha Knockaert became one of the most famous female spies of World War I.
Apart from participating in large-scale espionage missions, which were extremely risky, civilians often engaged in smaller acts of resistance against the German occupier. Many of them opened their homes as hiding places for French, British and Belgian soldiers, or helped them reach the Dutch border. They also smuggled letters across the border and into Dutch territory. When caught, civilians risked severe punishment at the hands of the Germans. Their motives were diverse: most civilians were driven by patriotism, vengeance, and a sense of adventure. Following the violent invasion in the first months of the war, many stories of German atrocities had reached the Belgian population. They were often blown out of proportion to serve as anti-German propaganda. The tragic events in martyr towns like Aarschot, Tamines, Dinant and Leuven, where hundreds of civilians were executed, had made a deep impression. Furthermore, the Belgians were in it for personal gain. They withheld a considerable portion of the goods and foodstuff the German occupier claimed from them and sold the items on the black market instead.
In addition to civilians, many priests, monks and nuns in the BIE-region were accused of espionage, as the Germans suspected them of using church bells and steeples to signal coded messages to Allied troops in the area. The monastery of Izegem, for instance, became subject to investigation when suspicions of espionage through the use of electric light and the irregular tolling of bells arose among the Germans. Likewise, German troops invaded the nunnery of Moorslede when they noticed the light was on in the chapel tower. Expecting to find British soldiers or spies hidden in the monastery, they threatened the abbess and the convent’s director but found no evidence to substantiate their hunch.
Like church towers, windmills had an obvious potential for facilitating clandestine communication. To prevent civilians sending secret signals via their large blades, many mills were either shut down by the Germans for the duration of the war, or burnt to the ground. The latter happened to all windmills in Westrozebeke. Pigeons formed another espionage threat to the German occupier. Most Belgians were obliged to hand over their homing pigeons to the authorities and were repeatedly reminded of this measure by publicly displayed posters in their towns and villages. Many pigeons, both claimed and stray ones, were killed by the occupier.
Photo: collection Stadsarchief Roeselare