Above: Amy Hodson stands top centre in 1919.
By Monica Kendall (St Hugh’s College, 1973)
At dawn on 12 October 1915, English nurse Edith Cavell was shot at a Brussels rifle range for treason against the German occupying forces. A few hours later, the news had spread to an English schoolgirl who lived near the ‘clinic’ where Miss Cavell had hidden Allied soldiers.
The schoolgirl, Amy Hodson, wrote in her diary that day: ‘Several people who saw Miss Cavell yesterday said that she was perfectly calm and dignified. She has died like a martyr ... Mr de Leval, the Spanish Minister, and the American Minister went last night to the Kommandantur to beg for her release, and they answered “No.”’
The Germans had posted notices about the execution that morning, but the further details can only have spread through word of mouth.
My great-aunt Amy was fourteen. I never met her, as she emigrated to Canada after the war. Her diaries are in exercise books and date from 3 August 1914 to 1920. Some years ago, my mother mentioned to Amy’s widowed son-in-law on the phone that I was interested in our family’s history. On a visit to England he gave me her diaries and some photos.
Managing to decipher her handwriting — eventually even when she lapsed into French — I was fascinated. She writes of the constant gunfire noise, zeppelins, spies in trams, the lack of food. Also intriguing were Amy’s many mentions of a ‘Mrs B’. On 10 October 1915, Amy writes: ‘Met Mrs B.’s children coming back from the Kommandantur, and they said that they spoke of Miss Cavell being shot, and as she has not had half so many Tommy Atkins as Mrs B they are very much frightened of their mother being shot too.’ It is only two days later that Amy feels it safe to name her: Mme Bodart, sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour. I found that she was born Annie Doherty in Northern Ireland.
I didn’t know what to do with the diaries. For a decade they slumbered in my filing cabinet. Then I saw that the Imperial War Museum was interested in acquiring first-hand accounts. I tentatively emailed them. I thought they might be interested in a faint, fragile, typewritten account by Amy of the start of the war when she was trapped on the Belgian seacoast with her two younger brothers.
I took the tissue-like pages carefully to the museum. I was stunned to be told that the account was ‘exceptionally interesting’ and ‘full of historical value’. I woke up in the middle of night: I had to transcribe and publish her diaries.
Amy’s mentions of Ada Bodart turn out to be hugely important for research into the secret network. In Britain we focus only on the brave Edith Cavell and ignore others involved. At the National Archives I found a fat document of letters between Ada Bodart and the British Government for recompense on her release from a German prison in 1919. On 14 May she wrote: ‘There are four months, since I gave my reports, to the General Lyon, English militaire attaché to the Legation to Bruselles, till this present date. There is not an answer, which I think is very unkind, considering all I have done and suffered in a German Prison, during three years for having kept, fed, clothed and conducted into Holland the English soldiers. The circumstances in I and my two children at present is very sad, as we have lost all. . . . I am Ada Bodart condemned with Miss Cavell, in 1915 as we worked together.’ The Government eventually agreed that she had saved 850 British soldiers, and she was awarded an OBE. She is now mostly forgotten.
But Amy’s diary brings her back to life and I hope it will give her some recognition in this centenary. In Amy’s diary of 11 May 1915, she writes: ‘Mrs B.’s house is again being spied on. The Belgians round about her house have given her away. Four more English soldiers came to her this morning. They are all in a terrible funk each time a bell rings. If a suspicious-looking person rings they scramble up two ladders that are at the end of the garden.’
Did Amy want her diaries published? She took them to Canada with her and they survived many changes of home. Amy writes on 20 July 1915: ‘I have written a long story about my experience during the bombardment of Middelkerke, and am going to write them in books and sell them.’ That account is now in a published book: and sold in a bookshop in Brussels. I hope she would be pleased.
Monica Kendall’s ‘Miss Cavell Was Shot’: The Diaries of Amy Hodson, 1914–1920 is published by SilverWood Books. She is speaking at The Forum, Norwich, on 7 October and Waterstones Brussels on 9 October.
Archive and diary images and author photo are all © Monica Kendall, reproduced with permission. Book jacket © Silverwood Books.