CODEX Entry 5500: Edith Cavell
Cavell’s story is particularly resonant because she saved the lives of both Allied and German soldiers. In 1907, Edith Cavell, an English nurse, was recruited to be matron of a new nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées in Brussels. By 1911 she was training nurses for three hospitals, twenty-four schools in Belgium.
In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Edith Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Wounded British and French soldiers as well as Belgian and French civilians were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers and money to reach the Dutch frontier. This placed Cavell in violation of German military law. German authorities became increasingly suspicious, not helped by her outspokenness. She was arrested on 3 August 1915, betrayed by Georges Gaston Quien. She was held in prison for ten weeks, the last two of which were spent in solitary confinement. She admitted that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers, as well as about 100 French and Belgian civilians to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house. Cavell declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when they arrived safely in Britain. This admission confirmed that Edith had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but also escape to a country at war with Germany. Her fellow defendants included Princess Marie of Croÿ who had provided the false papers.
The penalty, according to German military law, was death. Specifically, Cavell was charged for “conveying troops to the enemy”, a crime punishable by life imprisonment in peacetime. But she was charged with war treason, despite not being a German national, but as a foreigner “present in the zone of war”. While the First Geneva Convention ordinarily guaranteed protection of medical personnel, that protection was forfeit if used as cover for any belligerent action.
Baron von der Lancken the civilian Governor General believed Edith should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and for saving so many German and Allied lives. However, General von Sauberzweig, the military governor of Brussels, ordered that “in the interests of the State” the implementation of the death penalty against Baucq and Cavell should be immediate, denying an opportunity to consider clemency. Of the twenty-seven defendants, five were condemned to death but only Cavell and Baucq were executed.
Cavell was not arrested for espionage but, in 2015, documents were uncovered by MI5 in Belgian military archives that suggested she had been performing intelligence duties for British Secret Intelligence Service. She made no attempt to defend herself during the trial.
The night before her execution, she told the Reverend, “I am thankful to have had these ten weeks of quiet to get ready. Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
An eight man firing squad carried out the sentence at 7:00 am on 12 October 1915. After the war, her body was taken back to Britain for a state memorial service at Westminster Abbey. Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Edith Cavell’s execution was widely publicised in North America to encourage US entry into the war. She became the most prominent British female casualty of the First World War. Recognising the damage to their reputation, In January 1916, the Kaiser decreed that, from then on, capital punishment should not be carried out on women without his explicit prior endorsement.