Marietta Victorina van Aerde was born on the 2nd December 1888 or 1889 to Frans Joename van Aerde and Celestine van Aerde. Marietta was the eldest of five; Marietta, Terese, Seraphine, Pauline and little brother Alexander. Little is known of the van Aerde children’s early life but it may be presumed that Marietta and her three sisters were taught at home by governesses as her father was a wealthy man. We next hear of Marietta on a birth certificate for her son, Victor Adolphus Francois Somers on the 28th October 1908. It is easy to work out that after finishing her education, Marietta came out into Belgian society and married Charles Somers when she was sixteen or seventeen.
After 1908 and before 1914, Marietta trained as a nurse with the Belgian Red Cross and made acquaintances with the famed British nurse Edith Cavell, whom had set up a Belgian nursing school in 1907. How exactly Marietta came to know Edith is unclear as Edith’s nursing school did not accept married women for training due to the long nature of the nursing training course. Marietta’s training came to be useful: in 1914 she was stationed in Ostend, near Antwerp as a Red Cross nurse attending to wounded Belgian soldiers. Marietta had to cope with the loss of her husband just weeks into WWI, as well as the horrific injuries of the soldiers she cared for.
It is during this time that Marietta gained the nickname the “Angel of Antwerp.” Between August and October 1914 she saved the lives of three British marines from a burning house in Antwerp. After the German invasion of Belgium in late 1914 Marietta hid the marines in her hospital until it was safe for them to be moved. However, the German secret police found out what Marietta was doing, and she was arrested in October 1914 for aiding the escape of enemy soldiers. Marietta was whipped, beaten, burnt, stabbed and nearly drowned in her own prison cell. She was relentlessly tortured over a period of weeks until a sympathetic soldier slipped the prison guard a bottle of champagne, enabling the soldier to steal the prison keys and free Marietta. She managed to escape to the port of Calais dressed as a soldier and taken to London to recuperate after her horrendous ordeal in Belgium.
Marietta was awarded the Order of King Leopold II with palms and the Belgian 1914-1918 War Cross for her efforts in saving the wounded British marines. She spent the remainder of the war as a nurse in various hospitals in England where she met her second husband, George Edward Dixon, from New Zealand, at the NZ Convalescent Hospital in Hornchurch, Essex. After the end of WWI, Marietta and her son Victor immigrated to New Zealand where she gained New Zealand citizenship in 1922. However, her marriage to George Dixon was short lived as he died of complications from his war wounds in 1923. Marietta eventually re-married again, this time in 1924 to a Stanley Hull from Christchurch. Their marriage was to last until both their deaths in the early 1980s. Marietta’s story lives on in both New Zealand and Belgium, in the form of remembrances and exhibitions about her life. Perhaps one of her greatest achievements is that her son, Victor, eventually fought for the Free Belgian Airforce in WWII, spurred on by his mother’s brutal treatment at the hands of the Germans in WWI.