A British Heroine of WWII
A new memorial to Edith Cavell was unveiled in Brussels
Edith Cavell’s funeral, 1910’s – Film 1514
Edith Louisa Cavell (/ˈkævəl/; 4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
She is well known for her statement that “patriotism is not enough”. Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” 12 October is appointed for her commemoration in the Church of England, although this is not a “saint’s feast day” in the traditional sense.
Edith Cavell, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.
Early life and career
Edith Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father was vicar for 45 years. She was the eldest of the four children of the Reverend Frederick and Louisa Sophia Cavell and was taught always to share with the less fortunate, despite her family’s meagre income. After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels 1890–1895, she trained as a nurse at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes and worked in various hospitals in England, including Shoreditch Infirmary. In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, (or The Berkendael Medical Institute) on the Rue de la Culture (now Rue Franz Merjay), Ixelles in Brussels. By 1910, “Miss Cavell ‘felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal’ and, therefore, launched the nursing journal, L’infirmière“. A year later, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
When the First World War broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk in the East of England. She returned to Brussels, where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.
First World War and execution
In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Wounded British and French soldiers and Belgian and French civilians of military age were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers by Prince Reginald de Croy at his château of Bellignies near Mons. From there, they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell, Louis Séverin and others in Brussels, and furnished by them with money to reach the Dutch frontier and with guides obtained through Philippe Baucq. This placed Cavell in violation of German military law. German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse’s actions, which were backed up by her outspokenness.
She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She had been betrayed by Gaston Quien, who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator. She was held in Saint-Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two in solitary confinement. She made three depositions to the German police (on 8, 18 and 22 August), admitting that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers and about 100 French and Belgians of military age to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house.
In her court-martial she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and eventually enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial. Cavell declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when arriving safely in Britain. This admission confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany.
The penalty according to German military law was death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code said; “Will be sentenced to death for treason any person who, with the intention of helping the hostile Power, or of causing harm to the German or allied troops, is guilty of one of the crimes of paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code.” The case referred to in the above-mentioned paragraph 90 consists of “Conducting soldiers to the enemy”, although this was not traditionally punishable by death.  Additionally, the penalties according to paragraph 160 of the German Code, in case of war, apply to foreigners as well as Germans.
While the First Geneva Convention ordinarily guaranteed protection of medical personnel, that protection was forfeit if used as cover for any belligerent action. This forfeiture is expressed in article 7 of the 1906 version of the Convention, which was the version in force at the time. The German authorities instead justified prosecution merely on the basis of the German law and the interests of the German state.
The British government could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.” Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, said, “Any representation by us”, he advised, “will do her more harm than good.” The United States, however, had not yet joined the war and was in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the U.S. legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany’s already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:
“We reminded [German civil governor Baron von der Lancken] of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilised countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the rather irrelevant remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier, and his only regret was that they had not “three or four old English women to shoot.”
Baron von der Lancken is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. 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 higher authorities an opportunity to consider clemency. Cavell was defended by lawyer Sadi Kirschen from Brussels. Of the 27 put on trial, five were condemned to death: Cavell, Baucq (an architect in his thirties), Louise Thuliez, Séverin and Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Of the five sentenced to death, only Cavell and Baucq were executed; the other three were reprieved.
Cavell was not arrested for espionage, as many were led to believe, but for ‘treason’, though not a German national.  She may have been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and turned away from her espionage duties in order to help Allied soldiers escape, although this is not widely accepted. Rankin cites the published statement of M. R. D. Foot, historian and WW2 British intelligence officer, as to Cavell’s having been part of SIS or MI6.
When in custody, Cavell was questioned in French, but the session was minuted in German. This gave the interrogator the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor. A previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins, was ultimately rejected by the governor.
The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as, “Ask Father 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.”
From his sick bed Brand Whitlock, the U.S. minister to Belgium, wrote a personal note on Cavell’s behalf to Moritz von Bissing, the governor general of Belgium. Hugh Gibson; Maitre G. de Leval, the legal adviser to the United States legation; and Rodrigo Saavedra y Vinent, 2nd Marques de Villalobar, the Spanish minister, formed a midnight deputation of appeal for mercy or at least postponement of sentence. Despite these efforts, on 11 October, Baron von der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed. Sixteen men, forming two firing squads, carried out the sentence pronounced on her and on four Belgian men at the Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 7:00 am on 12 October 1915. There are conflicting reports of the details of Cavell’s execution. However, according to the eyewitness account of the Reverend Le Seur, who attended Cavell in her final hours, eight soldiers fired at Cavell while the other eight executed Baucq. Her execution, certification of death, and burial was witnessed by the German poet Gottfried Benn in his capacity as a ‘Senior Doctor in the Brussels Government since the first days of the (German) occupation’. Benn wrote a detailed account titled ‘Wie Miss Cavell erschossen wurde’ (1928), which has recently been translated by David Paisey ‘How Miss Cavell was shot’ in Gottfried Benn, ‘Selected poems and prose’. (Gottfried Benn, Selected poems and prose, Fyfield Books, Carcanet, 2013.)
There is also a dispute over the sentencing imposed under the German Military Code. Supposedly, the death penalty relevant to the offence committed by Cavell was not officially declared until a few hours after her death.
On instructions from the Spanish minister, Belgian women immediately buried her body next to Saint-Gilles Prison. After the War, her body was taken back to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and then transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest at Life’s Green on the east side of the cathedral. The King had to grant an exception to an Order in Council of 1854 which prevented any burials in the grounds of the cathedral, to allow the reburial.
Role in First World War propaganda
In the months and years following Cavell’s death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicised her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain, and to help increase favourable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. She was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.
News reports shortly following Cavell’s execution were found to be only true in part. Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell’s execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad. Allegedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver. Numerous accounts like these stimulated international outrage and general anti-German sentiments.
Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Cavell’s execution was widely publicised in both Britain and North America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau.
Because of the British government’s decision to publicise Cavell’s story as part of its propaganda effort, she became the most prominent British female casualty of First World War. The combination of heroic appeal and a resonant atrocity-story narrative made Cavell’s case one of the most effective in British propaganda of the First World War, as well as a factor in enduring post-war anti-German sentiment.
Before the First World War, Cavell was not well known outside nursing circles. This allowed two different depictions of the truth about her in British propaganda, which were a reply to enemy attempts to justify her shooting, including the suggestion that Cavell, during her interrogation, had given information that incriminated others. In November 1915, the British Foreign Office issued a denial that Cavell had implicated anyone else in her testimony.
One image commonly represented was of Cavell as an innocent victim of a ruthless and dishonourable enemy. This view depicted her as having helped Allied soldiers to escape, but innocent of ‘espionage’, and was most commonly used in various forms of British propaganda, such as postcards and newspaper illustrations during the war. Her story was presented in the British press as a means of fuelling a desire for revenge on the battlefield. These images implied that men must enlist in the armed forces immediately in order to stop forces that could arrange the judicial murder of an innocent British woman.
Another representation of a side of Cavell during the First World War saw her described as a serious, reserved, brave, and patriotic woman who devoted her life to nursing and died to save others. This portrayal has been illustrated in numerous biographical sources, from personal first-hand experiences of the Red Cross nurse. Pastor Le Seur, the German army chaplain, recalled at the time of her execution, “I do not believe that Miss Cavell wanted to be a martyr…but she was ready to die for her country… Miss Cavell was a very brave woman and a faithful Christian“. Another account from Anglican chaplain, the Reverend Gahan, remembers Cavell’s words, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!” In this interpretation, her stoicism was seen as remarkable for a non-combatant woman, and brought her even greater renown than a man in similar circumstances would have received.
Unlike the rest of the world, the Imperial German Government thought that it had acted fairly towards Cavell. In a letter, German undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Dr Alfred Zimmermann (not to be confused with Arthur Zimmermann, German Secretary for Foreign Affairs) made a statement to the press on behalf of the German government:
It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly…It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because committed by women.
From the Germans’ perspective, had they released Cavell, there would have been a surge in the number of women participating in acts against Germany because they knew they would not be severely punished. It was up to the responsible men to follow their legal duty to Germany and ignore the world’s condemnation. Their laws do not make distinctions between sexes, the only exception to this rule being that according to legal customs, women in a “delicate” (probably this means “pregnant”) condition could not be executed.
The German government also believed that all of the convicted people were thoroughly aware of the nature of their acts. The court paid particular attention to this point, releasing several accused persons because there was doubt as to whether the accused knew that their actions were punishable. The condemned, in contrast, knew full well what they were doing and the punishment for committing their crimes because “numerous public proclamations had pointed out the fact that aiding enemies’ armies was punishable with death.” The Allied response to this was the same as to Bethmann-Hollweg‘s announcement of the invasion of Belgium, or the notice given in the papers of intent to sink such ships as the RMS Lusitania; to make a public proclamation of a thing does not make it right.
Burial and memorials
Cavell’s remains were returned to Britain after the war. As the ship bearing the coffin arrived in Dover, a full peal of Grandsire Triples (5040 Changes, Parker’s Twelve-Part) was rung on the bells of the parish church. The peal was notable: “Rung with the bells deeply muffled with the exception of the Tenor which was open at back stroke, in token of respect to Nurse Cavell, whose body arrived at Dover during the ringing and rested in the town till the following morning. The ringers of 1-2-3-4-5-6 are ex-soldiers, F. Elliot having been eight months Prisoner of War in Germany.” Deep (or full) muffling is normally only used for the deaths of sovereigns. After an overnight pause in the parish church the body was conveyed to London and a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. On 19 May 1919, her body was reburied at the east side of Norwich Cathedral; a graveside service is still held each October. The railway van known as the Cavell Van that conveyed her remains from Dover to London is kept as a memorial on the Kent and East Sussex Railway and is usually open to view at Bodiam railway station.
Following Cavell’s death, many memorials were created around the world to remember her. One of the first was unveiled on 12 October 1918 by Queen Alexandra on the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, during the opening of a home for nurses which also bore her name.
To commemorate her centenary in 2015, work is to go ahead to restore Cavell’s grave in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral after being awarded a £50,000 grant.
The centenary has been marked by two new musical compositions:
- Eventide: In Memoriam Edith Cavell by Patrick Hawes premiered in Norwich Cathedral in July 2014 with a premiere due to take place on the exact centenary of Cavell’s death on 12 October 2015 in London.
- Cavell Mass by David Mitchell to be performed in Holy Trinity Pro-Cathedral, Brussels, and in Norwich on 10 October 2015 together with Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis.
Other honours include:
- Ararat, Victoria. Memorial in Barkly St, Ararat, VIC
- a dedication on the war memorial on the grounds of Sacred Trinity Church, Salford, Greater Manchester, UK
- a marble and stone memorial in Kings Domain in Melbourne, Australia
- a memorial by Henry Alfred Pegram outside Norwich Cathedral, UK
- a memorial tower added to St. Mary & St. George Anglican Church, in Jasper, Alberta, Canada.
- a memorial in Peterborough Cathedral, England
- a stone memorial in Paris, one of two statues that Adolf Hitler ordered destroyed on his 1940 visit (the other being that of Charles Mangin)
- a stone memorial, including a statue of Cavell by George Frampton unveiled in 1920, adjacent to Trafalgar Square in London
- an inscription on a war memorial, naming the 35 people executed by the German army in Tir National in Schaerbeek, Brussels, Belgium
- Monument to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage by Paul Du Bois in Brussels