Was Edith Cavell As Innocent As She Seemed?

The death of nurse Edith Cavell by firing squad on October 12th 1915 shocked the nation. Not only was she a woman, not only was she a nurse who tended German wounded and her own countrymen alike, and as such in theory protected by the Geneva Convention, but her only crime had been to shelter and protect her wounded charges by helping to smuggle them out of Belgium to the safety of Holland. Worst of all, she was shot at dawn immediately after being convicted in a hasty trial on October 11th, with no opportunity for an appeal for a Stay of Execution to be launched; this seemed nothing short of murder.

Nurse Cavell at home with her dogs before the start of the war

As if that wasn’t enough of a PR nightmare for Germany, reports of this good lady’s last words were fit to jerk a tear from the eye of the hardiest serviceman. ‘Nelson’s History of War, Volume 11’, in our Historic Documents archive, cites a report by Mr Gahan, the British Chaplain of Brussels, in which he states that when he was allowed to see Nurse Cavell after her sentencing, she was calm and resigned, and ready to lay down her life for her country. He quotes her as saying, “I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me… I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no bitterness or hatred towards anyone.”

It’s no wonder that these words touched the hearts of thousands of would-be recruits for the Forces. How could such a gentle-spirited and compassionate lady deserve death, especially in view of her previous good works? For Nurse Cavell had travelled to Brussels in 1906 to become Matron of a school for nurses, and on the outbreak of war started a Red Cross ambulance that catered for all in need. Speakers in Trafalgar Square used her image to ‘appeal for avengers’ who would fight for King and Country. It was an appeal that would prove to be extremely successful. A grand memorial service was held in her honour on October 29th 1915 at St Paul’s Cathedral, and at the end of the war her body was escorted to the station with great pomp and solemnity, eventually being returned by ship to Britain on May 14th 1919.

There is no doubt that every bit of honour and respect was well deserved, as this was certainly a dedicated and exceedingly brave woman. However, it now seems that the calls for an ‘avenger’, on top of going against her express wishes for peace, may have been completely unjustified. Assuming everything was as it seemed, there is some question as to whether the Geneva Convention would have covered a nurse who was harbouring enemies, which would render the judgement, although appallingly rapid and brutal, perfectly legal. Even the Red Cross supported this view.

As well, according to today’s The Guardian, Cavell’s biographer Diana Souhami attests that MI5 went out of its way to suppress any rumours that she could have been a spy. Meanwhile, Stella Rimington, a former Director General of MI5, recently went further, stating on BBC Radio 4 last month that, while the degree of her involvement is unclear, that ‘we have uncovered clear evidence (after researching the Belgian Archives) that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies’. If Edith Cavell was indeed a spy – and, as head of the organisation, it would be strange if she had been unaware of the subterfuge going on – then she certainly would not be protected by the Geneva Convention, and execution was a standard punishment for her crimes. Indeed, this would account for the swiftness of her trial, as the Germans would be afraid that she might find ways to send messages to her government if her punishment was delayed.

Whether as a nurse or a spy, we owe Edith Cavell a debt of thanks for her work for her country. One hundred years later, it is very appropriate that her name should be widely known, and that a new memorial has today been unveiled to her memory.

Read more about Edith’s work and tragic death in our Historic Documents archive today. 

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