Chapter 23 of my searing, thought-provoking novel Christobel. Back in 1915, it’s day two of the military tribunal and the tension mounts as judgement approaches . . .
If you would like to begin reading Christobel at the beginning, please go to the post Angels in the family in the January 2017 archive (it’s at the bottom of the list) and then read each successive post on from there, except Unwelcome to Britain? which is not a chapter post.
Chapter 23: the journal
8th October, 1915
The second day of the charade which passes for a trial. I must keep writing, keep my fevered brain occupied, or I will go mad. Thierry has again promised to get this, almost certainly my last ever testament whatever tomorrow might bring, to the American legation.
After a sleepless night in spite of all my efforts to tire myself out, and another early start to the day, we were again transported to the government building. Again we more “important” accused sat in senators chairs facing the rostrum whilst the others crouched on benches with their backs to it. Henri had already arrived and was seated, and I caught his eye. He gave me a wan smile, and the one I returned must have been equally pallid. Our five defence lawyers were seated behind us again but there was still no opportunity to talk to them. Their presence seemed utterly pointless.
The proceedings commenced with the prosecutor on his feet giving an interminable speech, his final one, in German of course. There was no translation for the majority of it, so again there was no way in which we non-German speakers could know what was being said against us.
It was a mild autumn day and no windows seemed to be open in the chamber, and the temperature steadily rose. As did my physical discomfort too. The Judges and Prosecutor had carafes and glasses of water, but we had nothing. My throat quickly became parched. No doubt that was due to the stress; my nerves felt stretched to breaking point. I felt like screaming, succumbing to my desperate feelings.
The only words most of us understood were our own names, which began to creep in and punctuate the Prosecutor’s extravagantly-gestured oration, and which was delivered again as if he were an actor declaiming to a theatre audience rather than a court of law. But then it was by no generally accepted, civilised measure a place of justice. Clearly, when our names began to appear, it meant that he was talking about us, levelling his exaggerated claims against us individually. And then, towards the end, came two dread phrases we knew the meanings of only too well: Todesstrafe: death penalty, and verrat: treason.
My spirits plummeted when they were repeated with increasing frequency. And then suddenly the tribunal translator began to speak, reprising the Prosecutor’s words in French for our unwilling benefit. They were the sentences he was demanding for each of us. He began with a general charge that the German army had been greatly endangered by the nefarious actions of we “insurgents”, which was absurd of course. We had simply been a relatively small group of patriots trying to do our best and help our fellow-man in a dreadful situation. As if stating an obvious fact, he said that therefore we were guilty of treason, punishable by death according to paragraph sixty-eight of the German Military Code, which included in that category “conducting soldiers to the enemy”.
Then he came to the cruel crux of the matter. He demanded the death penalty for those of us he described as ringleaders: Miss Cavell, Louis Séverin, Philippe Baucq, Herman Capiau, The Countess Jeanne de Belleville and two or three others whom I didn’t know. And Henri.
My heart felt as if it were being gripped by a merciless iron fist when I heard the words. I could barely breathe. And then the prosecutor’s following words seemed to fade, come from a great distance, as though the room was receding. I felt disembodied, light-headed; unable to fully understand the import of what was being said. I thought I was going to faint. One of the prisoners on the bench, a young woman, did so, slumping against her neighbour. I couldn’t see Henri now because he was on the opposite end of the row, so I couldn’t tell what his reaction was. Others cried, groaned or shouted “No!” and “Mon dieu, aide moi!”, my God, save me! Next to me, Louis shut his eyes tightly, as if to shut the awful reality out. Next to him, Miss Cavell stared calmly ahead, her mouth clasped tightly shut, maintaining a dignified composure.
It was difficult to concentrate on the proceedings after that. I think the prosecutor demanded lengthy imprisonment with hard labour for the other defendants and then he finished his speech. The defence counsel were then invited to make their arguments, but it was a complete farce because each of them seemed to be “representing” several defendants, in some cases about ten of us, with none of whom they had had any discussion whatsoever. So they could have had no time in which to prepare any sort of defence.
The first lawyer, who seemed to be Belgian because he spoke fluent French, rose to his feet behind us. Speaking for, amongst others, Herman Capiau and Philippe Baucq, he tried nervously to insist that there was no centrally-organised resistance or sabotage organisation, certainly nothing devoted to actively fighting or endangering the German forces; that his clients were simply a collection of disparate individuals doing what they felt to be his or her patriotic duty and relieve suffering. That was not strictly true; of course we acted co-operatively as part of a network, but it wasn’t dedicated to armed resistance as our accusers were trying to maintain. We were simply trying to help soldiers escape. But obviously, the defence counsel could not admit that.
He really had no other points to make – certainly none about the individual prisoners; just his generalised denial that there was any organised resistance group. His words were translated into German (although we had no way of knowing whether accurately) back to the Prosecutor and judges. They seemed to cut no ice though, judging by their stony expressions. Then that batch of defendants was invited to say anything they wished in their own defence. With varying degrees of boldness some tried to maintain that they had acted individually, but many remained silent as if in shock.
It sounded as though Miss Cavell had been tricked or pressured into implicating Philippe Capiau, because the Prosecutor suddenly rounded on her, ordering her to stand and explain why she now seemed to be retracting a confession she’d made – supposedly – that he, Philippe, had given her money for the organisation. He probably had, to fund the escaping, but I’m sure Miss Cavell wouldn’t have knowingly implicated him. Briefly losing her composure, she blushed and said that her memory was wrong on the matter; that now she remembered that it was not from him. After her words had been translated for him, the Prosecutor glared at her and told her to sit down.
Then it was the turn of the second defence lawyer to speak. He, it seemed, was representing Miss Cavell, Louis Séverin, five people I didn’t know, Henri and me. He also seemed to be Belgian, judging from his command of French. His defence too, such as it was, was that there was no organisation. He declared quite stoutly that Miss Cavell, Henri and I were simply following our professional and humanitarian instincts to care for and protect wounded soldiers from harm; that we had not intended to act subversively or in any way inimically to the interests of the German State.
Emboldened, he maintained that the tribunal did not have the right to condemn to death doctors and nurses; they had cared for German soldiers too. He contended that we were not guilty of treason but possibly attempted treason at most; that we should only have imprisonment to prevent any further activity of that sort. But after hearing his defiant words translated, the Prosecutor, unmoved, simply glared balefully at him too.
Then it was our turn to say our piece. Again there was a mixture of attempted denial and stricken silence. For myself I could find no words. It seemed that there was nothing I could have said in the face of such an implacable enemy bent on meting out such a travesty of justice. Tears came to my eyes though when Henri tried bravely to take all blame for our fugitive-sheltering upon himself, declaring that I knew nothing about the people we were harbouring nor the reasons for it. But of course the Germans knew full well that at my initial interrogation I had feebly tried to wrap my denial of any involvement in a lie. So, dear Henri, it was probably a well-meant but futile gesture.
The Prosecutor addressed Miss Cavell again, asking if she had anything further to say for herself. She rose once more and, her dignity restored, said firmly, “Je n’ai rien ՝a jouter”, I have nothing to add. The second Belgian lawyer stood up again too and attempted more defence of Louis and some of the rest of us, which seemed to infuriate the Prosecutor, who accused the lawyer of insulting him.
And then the third lawyer got up to speak. Again he was Belgian, addressed as Herr Braun, and representing just two of the defendants: the Countess de Belleville and Princess Marie de Croy, whom I didn’t know personally but Miss Cavell had spoken of her. She and her brother Prince Reginald had been very involved in our missions of rescue, although he had made his escape from Belgium before the net closed upon us. I suppose that because those two ladies were aristocratic and wealthy, they could afford to properly employ legal representatives.
But for all that they could buy expensive representation, he could only repeat what the other two had said: that his clients were not part of an organisation but had acted largely alone and cared impartially for German wounded too. And the prosecutor had asked for the ultimate penalty for the Countess de Belleville, all the same.
There were still all the remaining prisoners to deal with, the rest of the twenty-five or so who had been huddled uncomfortably on the benches against the rostrum. They had even slighter representation and were hurriedly charged and tried, in German again with little translation. There was confusion over names and charges at times but the word verrat, treason kept punctuating the prosecutor’s oration. So they were not going to be let off lightly either. Judging by the hurry to get things done, it looked as though the tribunal was anxious, as it was a Friday, to complete the proceedings before the end of the day.
And so the mockery of a trial went on, without a break and with no food or water for we prisoners, until the last prisoner had been judged and the hands on the chamber’s ornate clock told five o’ clock.
We then waited with our hearts in our mouths and lead in our stomachs for what might be coming next, assuming it would be the final judgement. But the translation of the tribunal’s final words was that we had to return to prison and that our sentences would be communicated to us in due course. And so we were driven back here to St. Gilles in a terrible state of anti-climax and anxiety. It would almost have been a release to know one way or the other what our fates are to be.
I suppose we will be told tomorrow. Our cruel oppressor will have decided whether we have posed such a serious threat to them that it warrants the ultimate penalty. But all we did was to help poor wounded boys escape – and a few who weren’t actually wounded but wanted in their patriotic idealism to enlist to fight the foe; to defend their mother land. I do find my Quaker beliefs of unswerving pacifism floundering a little now, I must admit. I’m as vehemently opposed to war and its utter, utter cruelty as I ever was, having now experienced its horrors first-hand, but I do not see how words alone, or pacifism, or appealing to the enemy’s better nature, will bring this nightmare to a finish. Only defeat, or the prospect of inevitable defeat, will do that now; only that will bring an armistice of any sort.
Well, it must be very late now. I seem to have been writing this for ages, trying to fend off dark terrifying thoughts; the horrors of the night. I dread to think what tomorrow might bring. I really am not brave at all, not like Miss Cavell. Well at least you are safe with your Grand-mama in Holland, my little Jacques. One day, surely, this madness will be over. If I and your Papa are one day reunited with you, that will be wonderful beyond words. But if it not to be, I hope you will know, from this testament, that your loving Mama died as bravely as she could. If I am not to see you again, please know that my love goes with you on your journey through a hopefully peaceful life. Goodbye my little one. I’m afraid your Mama cannot write any more.