Nurse Edith Cavell: Heroine or Spy?

Updated on November 29, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

British nurse Edith Cavell used a secret network to smuggle Allied soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. When her scheme was uncovered and she suffered the consequences, the British seized on her story as propaganda gold in order to paint the Germans as unspeakably evil. The affair confirmed the oft-quoted notion that “the first casualty of war is the truth.”

Nurse Edith Cavell.
Nurse Edith Cavell. | Source

A School for Nursing

At the start of the Great War, Edith Cavell was running a nursing school and clinic, the Berkendael Institute, on the outskirts of Brussels, Belgium. The city was on the route chosen by Germany in its attack on France and was soon occupied.

A website dedicated to Edith Cavell notes that she impressed on her staff “that their first duty was to care for the wounded irrespective of nationality.”

The clinic was turned into a Red Cross hospital and Edith Cavell stayed on to continue her work. She is quoted by Helen Judson in The American Journal of Nursing (July 1941) as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”

Edith Cavell (centre) with her nursing students.
Edith Cavell (centre) with her nursing students. | Source

Sheltering Soldiers

As often happens in the chaos of war, some soldiers became separated from their units. In the fall of 1914 two British soldiers, marooned behind German lines, showed up at Edith Cavell’s clinic. She took them in and others that followed and then smuggled them into neutral Holland.

The Prince and Princess de Croy at a chateau at Mons helped establish an underground escape route that sent wounded men to Nurse Cavell and then onwards to the Netherlands. The BBC says she helped 200 allied soldiers escape.

However, she was working under the protection of the Red Cross, and that meant she had to remain strictly neutral. The consequences of harbouring allied soldiers in German-held territory could be very grave. William J. Bausch writes in An Anthology of Saints that the Germans had put up posters in Brussels warning that, “Any male or female who hides an English or French soldier in his house shall be severely punished.”

The website dedicated to Miss Cavell’s life points out that, “To her, the protection, the concealment, and the smuggling away of hunted men was as humanitarian an act as the tending of the sick and wounded.”

German Authorities Tipped Off

In August 1915, the German occupiers of Belgium received a tip about what Nurse Cavell was up to.

The Encyclopedia Britannica records that, “On Aug. 6 Edith Cavell was arrested at the Berkendael Institute and sent to the prison of St. Gilles. She made three depositions to the German police, Aug. 8, 18, and 22, admitting that she had been instrumental in conveying” allied soldiers across the border. She made the same admission at a court martial and a finding of guilt was inevitable, as was the sentence of death.

The German action was well within the confines of the law. The Geneva Convention in force at the time guaranteed the protection of medical personnel. However, that safeguard did not apply to doctors or nurses who used it to conceal giving help to enemies.


Execution of Edith Cavell

Within ten hours of the sentence being passed Edith Cavell faced a firing squad. As a devout Anglican she received Holy Communion from an Irish chaplain, Reverend Stirling Gahan. She told Rev. Gahan “I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”

A German Lutheran priest, Paul Le Seur, attended her during her last moments. His reminiscences were later recorded by Wilhelm Behrens, who was in charge of prisons in Brussels at the time.

Pastor Le Seur said he “took Miss Cavell’s hand” and said a small prayer, “she pressed my hand in return, and answered in those words: ‘Ask Mr. Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.’ ”

He then led her to a poll fixed in the ground to which she was tied. “A bandage was put over her eyes,” recalled Le Seur, “which, as the soldier who put it on told me, were full of tears.”

Within seconds the command to fire was given to eight soldiers standing six paces away. At about 7 a.m. on October 12, 1915 Nurse Edith Cavell died instantly at the age of 49.

Final Scene of the 1939 Movie “Nurse Edith Cavell” with Anna Neagle in the Title Role.

Cavell’s Death Used as Propaganda

The execution of Edith Cavell was a propaganda gift to the British and they squeezed every last drop of sympathetic misinformation juice out of it.

Her death was embellished with creative accounts of how she had fainted and a German officer has dispatched her with a revolver shot to the head. A German soldier was said to have refused to fire and to have been executed for disobeying orders. Paul Le Seur, who witnessed the execution, said there was no such reluctance from members of the firing squad.


The British War Propaganda Bureau stirred up anti-German feelings internationally by portraying the killing of an angel of mercy as typical of a barbaric and depraved people.

Nurse Cavell’s death was used to spur recruitment. In an article in The European Review of History Anne-Marie Claire Hughes makes the point that the British press urged young men to join up and take revenge on the monstrous Germans on the battlefield.

The anti-German resentment fomented by the British propaganda machine lasted long after the end of hostilities in 1918. A poster published by the British Empire Union sometime after the war carried depictions of alleged German atrocities, including the execution of Edith Cavell. The poster warned “Remember! Every German employed means a British worker idle. Every German article sold means a British article unsold.”

Nurse Cavell: the Spy

The curious niceties that governed the conduct of war at the time meant that spies, if caught, could be shot and nobody would lift a finger to stop the killing.

The Germans claimed that Nurse Cavell was using her underground network to deliver intelligence to the British. The allegation was vigorously denied; to admit the nurse’s guilt would have tarnished the pure, compassionate image of her that had been so carefully constructed.

It might have a negative impact on recruitment, and that could not be allowed to happen. The meat grinder of trench warfare demanded a constant supply of young men, stirred by patriotism, to volunteer to lose limbs and lives on the front line.

But, it turns out that the innocent and angelic Nurse Edith Cavell was a spy. At least, that is the conclusion of Dame Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5, Britain’s security and counter-intelligence agency.

According to The Telegraph “Dame Stella delved into the military archives in Belgium, where she said evidence hitherto overlooked by historians proves the dual nature of Cavell’s organisation …

“We may never know how much Edith Cavell knew of the espionage carried out by her network. She was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies.”

Bonus Factoids

  • There are memorials to Edith Cavell all over the world. There are at least 11 streets named after her in France. A mountain in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies carries her name. Horticulturalists in the Netherlands and United Kingdom have created Edith Cavell roses. She is commemorated in a statue outside England’s National Portrait Gallery in London.
  • Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek was a Polish woman who became a British spy during the Second World War. She survived the war only to be stabbed to death by a rejected lover in 1952.

Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


  • “Revealed: New Evidence that Executed Wartime Nurse Edith Cavell’s Network Was Spying.” Anita Singh, The Telegraph, September 12, 2015.
  • “Edith Cavell (1865-1915).” Encyclopedia Britannica, undated.
  • “War, Gender and National Mourning: The Significance of the Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell in Britain.” European Review of History, Anne-Marie Clare Hughes, August 19, 2006
  • “Officials Tried to Save War Nurse.” BBC News, October 12, 2005.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor


    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 

      5 months ago from Ohio

      Even if she was a spy, she was still a hero in my book.


    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at:

    Show Details
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the or domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)