Rough justice

Chapter 21 of Christobel. 1915. The trial begins of our heroine and her fellow-subversives. The likelihood of a fair hearing seems very slim though . . .

If you would like to begin reading Christobel from the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family and then read each subsequent post on from there, apart from Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.

Chapter 21: the journal

 7th October, 1915

I was awoken early this morning and dread clutched my chest as, after a moment, the realisation of what was to come flooded back. I was brought breakfast but there was hardly time to eat it before soldiers came and with rough hands on my arms took me out into the prison courtyard. A black police van was drawn up and I was bundled into it. There were several other prisoners already seated on its hard benches. Two of them I know: Herman Capiau and Louis Séverin. They are both active in our rescue movement. Herman gave me a grim smile but Louis stared at his feet. There were two armed soldiers in there too.

And then Miss Cavell was put inside too. To my surprise, she was smartly dressed in off-duty clothes including a feather hat. She must have sent out for them because she was taken away those many weeks ago still in her matron’s uniform. She looked remarkably calm and dignified; much more so than I was feeling, certainly. I made to speak to her; ask her how she was, but was brusquely told “Schweigen” by one of the guards.

We were driven to the Parliament House and ushered inside to the Senate Chamber. What a terrible, cruel misappropriation of Belgium’s elegant and dignified seat of lawmaking as a court to dispense our oppressor’s faux justice! There were many more accused already there. Including our group, there must have been more than thirty, so the Germans must have made a wide sweep of we suspected “insurgents”. And my dear Henri was amongst them. He looked pale and haggard and I wondered whether he’d been mistreated during our weeks of incarceration awaiting trial. He looked in my direction and his face seemed to crumple momentarily, but then he recovered himself and he gave me a brave smile.

Miss Cavell, Henri, Herman Capiau, Jeanne de Belleville (whom I also know), three others and I were made to take senators’ seats – another perversion if ever there was one – facing the rostrum, which the judges would occupy. Henri and I were not permitted to sit together though, but placed on opposite ends of the row. The remaining defendants were made to sit on benches with their backs to the judges, so they couldn’t even see their accusers. Five men who apparently were defence council, although I for one had had no contact with such a person and I doubted whether any of the others had either, entered and took places behind us. That was ridiculous; there was no contact, visually or otherwise, between us and them.

Then the judges entered. They were all sternly military, helmeted, booted and be-medalled. A sixth person, also military and tall and thin with a waxed moustache and monocle, was the Prosecutor. He carried a thick file of papers and what looked like a large legal tome. There was also a German officer who was a translator. The three Kommendantur officers who had interrogated me: the lieutenant, the translating sergeant and the recording sergeant, came in too. I presumed they were to be witnesses, and that they had probably interrogated all of us.

The Prosecutor then began the trial, reading the charges, in German of course. The court interpreter translated snatches of it for us, the gist of it being, as far as I could tell, that we were all accused of “conducting soldiers to the enemy”, which was regarded as treason under the German military penal code. Well if that was what I had confessed to during the charade of my interrogation, I hadn’t been aware of it at the time.

The reading of the charges was followed by a lengthy address by the policeman Lieutenant Bergan, again, obviously, in German with intermittent translation into French. Presumably that was his prosecution testimony, corroborating the charges. But again, it was difficult to obtain a clear understanding of what the prosecution’s case against us was. We defendants were then sent out of the chamber, to be brought back in and tried individually. Miss Cavell was first in. She showed no fear as she left us and held her head high. Of course we had no idea what she said in answer to her questioning; we didn’t know whether she denied all the charges or admitted to them, and if so, whether she implicated the rest of us. But I would like to think that she didn’t do that. She has always been very concerned for our safety.

Of course we were under armed guard as we nervously waited, and again, if we dared to speak to one another we were sharply ordered to be silent. I managed to at least move close to Henri. I would have given anything for him to have been able to take me in his arms. It would have felt like a semblance of comfort and protection at least. But he couldn’t. We managed to briefly touch hands, before a guard noticed and roughly pulled him away from me, and after that we could only try to speak mutely, confer love, with our eyes.  

The questioning must have been very brief, judging by how quickly people were being taken back into the chamber – it was at little more than ten-minute intervals. I was the seventh person. The procedure was that the intimidating Prosecutor spoke in German, his eyes fixed on me, cold and pitiless, and the interpreter rendered it into French for me. He asked whether – no, he charged that – I had been complicit in sheltering enemy soldiers until they were conveyed to Holland, and thence back to rejoin our forces. There seemed little point in continuing my denial of that, so I said yes, I had enabled a few, but they were wounded and probably finished as soldiers, so I was simply doing an act of kindness, following my normal nursing instincts.

The interpreter translated my words back to the Prosecutor, although I had no way of knowing whether he was doing so accurately or colouring them with his own interpretation – or for that matter simply telling the Prosecutor what he wanted to hear. I was asked how many, and plucking a number out of the air said “about ten or eleven”, although it was certainly more than that. When my answer was translated to the Prosecutor, he glared at me, as if he didn’t believe a word. The next question was: did I know the names of the guides who helped the fugitives we sheltered escape. I said no, I didn’t. That was not true either of course, but I couldn’t implicate either my fellow-accused or those not yet arrested.

The Prosecutor frowned angrily at my translated reply and then accused me of being part of a subversive organisation that was working “against the interests of the German state”. Summoning up what courage and dignity I had (which wasn’t a great deal), I said no, I was not aware that I was collaborating with a resistance movement, reiterating that my deeds were simply individual acts of compassion and kindness, and that I had exercised my professional care as a nurse for German wounded as conscientiously as for our own soldiers. I maintained that I didn’t distinguish between nationalities when it came to relieving suffering.

I anxiously watched the Prosecutor’s face, hoping for any slight signs of empathy or understanding as my reply was translated back (if indeed it had been translated accurately), but he remained completely poker-faced. And that was pretty much the extent of my cross-examination. I was told to sit in the senator’s chair I’d occupied earlier and the next defendant was brought in. It was Henri. He was taken through exactly the same series of questions, accusations, as me. He also confessed to the harbouring of the fugitives – presumably, like me, he probably realised there was no way of really denying it, and also refused to name any names or concede that we were part of any organisation.

And so it continued throughout the rest of the morning: the same questions/accusations repeated as if by rote. There were no interventions from the supposed defence lawyers sitting behind us. Some defendants were proud and defiant. One, Philippe Baucq, when asked if he were Belgian, said loudly, “Yes, and a good patriot”, which seemed to annoy the Prosecutor, who repeated it sarcastically in all his questions. Philippe admitted distributing the underground newspaper La Libre Belgique and working with others to assist fugitives to escape, but stoutly denied guiding himself or knowledge of the structure of any organisation.

But most defendants were nervous, apprehensive, disconsolate, and some were clearly frightened. The more I listened to the sad, anxious litany of confessions or denials, the more I felt the overwhelming sense that the proceedings were a complete charade; that we had all been adjudged guilty from the beginning, and that our guilt was a foregone conclusion; that this was simply a show trial.

The court broke for lunch. At least, lunch for the judges, policemen and lawyers, who left the chamber. We defendants had to remain, under guard of course. There was no food provided for us, although a few people had had the foresight (but not me, it hadn’t occurred to me) to bring bits of food in with them, which they shared around. The guards were brought a tureen of soup and they cruelly tormented the prisoners by offering them the dregs of their bowls. A container of weak coffee was brought though, although nothing to drink it out of, until one kind-hearted guard offered his soup bowl and we used that, taking it in turns, passing it around. Presumably, the other prisoners still waiting outside to be dealt with fared no better.

Then it was time to resume proceedings and “try” the rest of us. They too were brought in one by one, and they too, with varying degrees of courage, tried to maintain that they had only been involved in conveying prisoners to safety, not in fighting the occupiers, or bombing, or anything like that. But whether or not they were believed, I had no idea.

When all the prisoners were back in the chamber and had been cross-examined, Lieutenant Bergan was questioned as a witness, although we had no way of knowing whether he was simply reiterating the points in his lengthy speech at the beginning of the proceedings as the translation was so sketchy. He seemed to be saying that we were part of a highly organised ring with the aim of getting soldiers and civilian men out of Belgium so that they could enlist, with Miss Cavell in charge of things in Brussels. It was nonsense, at least as far as the soldiers were concerned. Few of the British boys who passed through our hands expressed any wish to rejoin their regiments. They had seen what fighting entailed. Miss Cavell’s motives for helping them were entirely humanitarian. Although that was the intention of the few Belgian civilian men who we enabled to cross the Dutch border, I must admit.  

The second and last witness for the prosecution was, surprisingly, a young boy of fifteen or so: Philippe, the son of one of the defendants, Ada Bodart. It looked very much as though the police had trapped him into giving evidence against Philippe Baucq because he was asked to confirm that he had taken copies of La Libre Belgique to Ada’s house. The flustered, intimidated boy said yes, he had. He was then asked if he’d overheard Baucq saying he’d devised a route to the Dutch border for escapees. Again, young Philippe said yes. Baucq called out that it wasn’t so; that the boy had misunderstood what he’d said. But it was too late; the damage was done. The Prosecutor coldly told the boy to say goodbye to his mother, as she was going to prison. He did so and she kissed him. It was a heartbreaking sight.

At seven in the evening the session was over. Every defendant had been cross-examined and the prosecution witnesses had given their dubious testimonies. We were told that the court would reconvene in the morning. There had still been no opportunity to speak to our lawyers, who had said nothing all day. It was a complete travesty of proper legal procedure.

Henri and I cast each other longing looks and we were driven back to the prison, given our meagre evening meal, and as Thierry was on duty and was the one who brought it to me, I asked him for more writing paper on which to write this. He was very sympathetic when I told him of the day’s events and what a cruelly nonsensical process the trial had been. He shook his head sadly and said he wished he could do more to help me, but he couldn’t. I understand that. But, running an enormous risk, he did return with a few more sheets of paper for me. More than ever, I want to leave a record of this injustice, this parody of law.

Apart from that, I want to keep my mind occupied; tire my brain out as much as possible so that sleep comes quickly. I don’t want to spend hours tossing and turning in insomnia, fearful of what tomorrow might bring.                      

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About wordsfromjohn

Once a printer, graphic designer, house renovator and landscape gardener, I'm now retired and a writer of books with a passion.
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