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Ada Bodart (1874 - 1936):

Ada Bodart was one of those involved in underground activities in Belgium during the First World War, their purpose being to smuggle British soldiers out of that occupied country to England; its most celebrated figure was Nurse Edith Cavell whose execution by firing squad in 1915 was one of the most notorious causes célèbres of the entire war and certainly presented as such.

Ada Bodart was born Anna Maria Doherty at Newry, County Down, as would later be attested by her marriage certificate though not always by Bodart herself. She was the eighth of eleven children born to Richard James Doherty and Elizabeth Kelly, and she was known to the family as Annie. Her father has been variously described – not least by Annie herself – as an accountant, a shipping clerk, even a Town Clerk, though her uncle was indeed the third of these. At age five she was sent to boarding school at the French Convent of the Assumption, Richmond, where she stayed until age 18. She expressed an interest in learning foreign languages and the nuns suggested that she offer her services as a teacher of English at a convent in Europe. She applied to the Convent de la Providence at Metz and received a reply that, in exchange for teaching English, she would receive board and lodgings with lessons in painting, French and German. According to her later account she found the convent position too stifling, and sought a post outside, scouring newspapers for suitable positions. Eventually she secured a domestic position with a Baron Capelle who resided in Brussels and had a summer chateau at St Denis-Bovesse, near Namur. It was at the latter that Ada met Louis Joseph Godart, a “cocher” or coachman according to their marriage certificate, from 26 November 1898. Their son Philippe was born on the 3rd of April, 1899 in Brussels. Her daughter, Hilda, was born on the 16th of December, 1900 and Louis died on the 10th of August, 1909 in Brussels by which time he had established his own business and left Ada in comfortable circumstances in Rue Emile Wittmann, Brussels. A memorial card would seem to show that she was still known as Annie when Louis died. Sometime, though it is not clear when, she became acquainted with Nurse Edith Cavell, an Englishwoman of considerable courage, sang froid, and (perhaps most significantly) utterly firm religious faith.

The Cavell organisation, as it came to be known among some after the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell for espionage in 1915, was rather more amorphous than this name indicates. Its immediate impetus came from the serious failure of the British Expeditionary Force’s invasion of Belgium in Autumn 1914. The British, however bravely and professionally they fought, were so outnumbered by the German army they had invaded Belgium to attack. Many historians nominate the “Retreat from Mons” as the turning point of the campaign, a campaign which left hundreds of British soldiers stranded in German-occupied territory. The Cavell group certainly assisted British soldiers to find their way through the German rear to the Netherlands, a neutral power. Aid could mean concealment, food, clothing, maps and directions; accounts survive of Bodart flirting with German sentries, though it is not clear whether this primarily to distract them or even to bribe them. Furthermore it has been suggested that by providing a bed for a fugitive she was simply doing a wartime version of letting out rooms in her house during peacetime. The occupying power was not at all ignorant of these activities and this and eventually arrested and arraigned 36 individuals whom they accused of several offences up to and including espionage.

The trial conducted under German military law and therefore in German, saw Cavell called first, Bodart fourth; she had allegedly sheltered over 30 men of military age including two soldiers. The third to be called, Baucq, when asked if that was his name – “Sind Sie Baucq?” – answered “Oui monsieur, et bon patriote!”. Bodart, when asked if she too was a patriot, replied “Ce n’est pas un défaut!”. Eventually several defendants were sentenced to death though many of these sentences, including Bodart's, were commuted, in her case to 15 years’ penal servitude. It has been suggested by some historians that this may have been following a plea in mitigation of the defendant having dependent minors, a common plea at the time. Cavell was duly shot, and quickly passed, or, it has been suggested, was quickly passed, into legend. Apparently Bodart was one of the last people to see her on the eve of her execution. Naturally, Bodart’s incarceration ceased at the end of the War.

On release, Bodart was like many, financially in some trouble and claimed compensation in over 4000 francs from the British government for her expenditure in aiding fleeing servicemen. She was awarded at first 1000 francs, though later the full amount, and also the medal of the Order of the British Empire. In 1923 the Sunday Post newspaper published in instalments her own account of her life.

She also appeared in a controversial film. It was not uncommon after the War that films were made about which featured actual locations and actual actors in the historical sense. One of these productions was British, about the life and death of Edith Cavell, entitled Dawn and featuring as Cavell a leading actress of the day, Dame Sybil Thorndike. There had been an incident in court during the trial of the Cavell network, in which Philippe, Bodart’s son, was questioned from the Bench, and his mother rose to intervene as he was a minor. Bodart for this scene in the film appeared as herself and was billed second in the publicity of the entire production. The film met with positive critical acclaim, but not political: Austen Chamberlain, British foreign minister, refused to see it, provoking no little controversy, and prompting Bodart to return her OBE in protest. Dawn is often cited as an early example of official censorship in Britain; another view posited is that ten years after the War, people wanted to “move on” and felt the film was too anti-German, or blatantly so. Bodart was no Germanophile, and in protest at what she considered were too-warm British-German relations rescinded her British state pension. She occasionally gave talks about her past which would, one historian has observed, alter her place of birth according to where she was speaking.

Ada Bodart died aged 61 in her hometown of Brussels after a short illness. A funeral service was held on 10 February at the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula in Brussels. On 11 October 2016, the Ulster History Circle unveiled a blue plaque in William Street, Newry, dedicated to her.

Born: 22 July 1874
Died: 6 February 1936
Richard Froggatt

Rowland Ryder: Edith Cavell (London 1975); Conference, Newry Museum, 5 November 2016: Robert Whan: “Newry’s Ada Bodart and the Cavell Network”; Claudia Steinberg: “Ada Bodart, Edith Cavell and Dawn”; Alison Fell: “The Edith Cavell Network”; The Western Australia Genealogical Society/Marcia Watson: “A Place in History – Ada Bodart”