Nurse Edith Cavell: Heroine or Spy?
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.”
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.”
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.”
- 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