For Memorial Day I’d like to share with you one of the most beautiful and saddest poems I’ve every read. Even today I debate reading it aloud, because I’m usually choked up by the second stanza. But its history, and the sacrifice it represented for freedom is worth the attempt.
This untitled poem by Violette Szabo was composed during World War 2 before her deployment. Violette was a French resistance espionage agent managed by British intelligence who worked covertly in Nazi-occupied France during World War 2.
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
You deserve a bit of an explanation of course…
During World War 2, secret agents working behind enemy lines transmitted with Morse code on portable wireless sets. Of course in Nazi-occupied France, the Germans were constantly listening for such transmissions. Therefore the tranmissions had to be encrypted. However since they didn’t have computers, the agents sat and encrypted each message by hand using "one time pad", single use encryption keys, that were often hidden or sewed into clothing.
For a while, British intelligence printed the keys on silk and sewed them into clothing. During a pat down search they were undetectable, and once used, that part of the silk was cut off and often burned, to ensure no one could later find the key and decrypt the message.
However in case an agent was caught, British intelligence assumed the agents would be tortured and forced to send another message back home, trying to convince British HQ that they were ok, and to continue using them for operations that would later become compromised. To avoid this, all agents made up a poem before going into the field. They would use the letters from the poem as an encryption key to encrypt any message sent after capture to signal that they were not to be trusted.
The hundreds of women who worked in the deciphering rooms of British Intelligence dreaded having to pull out the "poem codes" to decrypt a message. Success meant that one of their own was not coming home, and in all likelihood, soon to be executed.
Violette Szabo was caught by the Gestapo while helping another agent successfully escape and executed at Ravensbruck in April 1945 by the Germans as the war was winding down. It is not thought that she ever was convinced to send a message with her poem code.
You can read more about the activities of Britain’s less-famous codemakers and codebreakers that supported the French resistance in Leo Marks’ bestselling novel, "Between Silk and Cyanide".