Inspirations: The legend of Edith Cavell

  • In 1915, Nurse Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans for helping British soldiers evade capture.
  • Recent research by Dame Stella Rimington reveals she was also involved in military espionage.
  • British propaganda lionised Cavell as a patriotic martyr, and her spying received little attention.
  • At the centenary of her death, her spying activities have appeared from under the legend.

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Edith Cavell (Vivedatica [Wikimedia Commons])


A hundred years ago last week, a pale, thin woman was led out to the firing range at Schaerbeek, near Brussels in Belgium. At seven o’clock in the morning, it was probably cold enough for her breath to mist the air as a blindfold was tied on. It was to be her last breath. The bark of eight Mauser rifles ended the life of Edith Cavell, nurse, aider of fugitives and, it has recently been established, secret agent.

Cavell was the daughter of a vicar, born and raised near Norwich in England. She worked as a governess and then a nurse. In 1907, at the age of 38, she was recruited to establish a nursing school in Belgium, where she introduced modern nursing techniques.

War comes to Belgium

In August 1914, the outbreak of the First World War saw the German army storm into Belgium in an attempt to outflank the French army. Cavell was visiting her mother in Norwich at the time but she returned to her hospital on the Rue de Couture in Brussels.

Meanwhile, the British army clashed with the German juggernaut at the Battle of Mons. Outnumbered two to one, the ‘Old Contemptibles’, as they proudly called themselves, briefly checked the German advance but were ultimately forced to retreat. By the time Brussels fell in November, hundreds of British soldiers were caught behind German lines.

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Dame Stella Rimington in 2013 (nick ford [CC / Flickr])

The German occupiers did not initially interfere with Cavell and the other British nurses who worked with her, as they cared for both Belgian and German casualties. However, Cavell was not as neutral as her nurse’s uniform declared her to be. She played a major role in helping British soldiers slip across Belgium’s northern border to neutral Holland.

A Cold War spook investigates her antecedent

A century after Cavell’s death, Dame Stella Rimington delved into the Belgian military archives and found that Cavell was also passing military intelligence to the British Secret Service. Rimington is best known as an author of bestselling thrillers, but she only embarked on that career after three decades working for the British counter-intelligence service, MI5, where she served as director-general from 1992-1996.

She described her investigation into Cavell’s activities in a half hour programme for BBC Radio’s The Report. She interviews several historians, while her own background makes her uniquely qualified to understand Cavell’s covert activities.

Cavell was recruited into a network run by Dr Tolemache Bull, an Englishman who, like Cavell, was caught in Brussels. At the same time as she helped her first two fugitive British soldiers to Holland, she sent Nurse Millicent White to the Dutch border with documents strapped to her thigh. White’s account, recorded nearly fifty years later, is a tale from a more innocent time. She describes being searched by a German officer who was too polite to feel her thigh properly.

‘Learning as they go along’

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The Royal Fusiliers in Mons Square, the day before the Battle of Mons (Gsl~commonswiki [Wikimedia Commons])

By the winter of 1914, the German army had overrun most of Belgium, but not quickly enough. The French army had time to redeploy to meet it. Britain was rapidly building up its army to join them. As the opposing armies faced each other, they did what armies do when they are in one place for any length of time: they dug in. They kept digging until they had built over six hundred kilometres of trenches, often separated by only tens of metres, between France’s border with Switzerland and Belgium’s North Sea coast. For the next three years, the Western Front would see both sides mount enormous attacks that sent hundreds of thousands of men to the slaughter while achieving very little. Maintaining the stalemate was as bloody a business as attempting to break it. Both sides feared an enemy breakthrough as much as they craved one of their own.

The allies needed to know where and when the Germans were massing troops for an attack, but scouts could not get across the enemy trenches. With military aviation in its infancy, reconnaissance was limited to what could be seen from an observation balloon.

Strategy was dictated by the machine gun and the magazine rifle, newly designed weapons that allowed an entrenched army to hold its ground against many times its own number of attackers.  The Secret Service’s response was a novel approach to intelligence gathering, involving networks of spies behind enemy lines that took information to contacts in neutral countries. It was a model of spying that remains in use today, and Edith Cavell was one of its first practitioners.

Jim Beach, a military historian at the University of Northampton, told Rimington they were ‘learning as they go along’. Certainly, the operations Rimington describes have a dangerous ring of amateurishness about them.

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One of a series of postcards issued during World War One, depicting the life of Edith Cavell (Aussie~mobs [CC / Flickr])

There was little direction to the intelligence gathering. The network of Belgian dissidents and British nurses simply sent whatever information on military movements and installations they thought might be interesting. There is no mention of whether the people gathering the information knew enough about military matters to ensure either its accuracy or its relevance. Further, there appears to have been no separation between the tasks of smuggling intelligence and fugitive soldiers, which are clandestine by their nature, and of distributing the underground newspaper, La Libre Belgique. By the time Rimington was playing that game, it was basic tradecraft to separate covert agents from political agitators, who cannot avoid a relatively high profile.

Englishmen abroad

Further problems came from the British soldiers who Cavell hid and fed until she could sneak them into Holland. Private Harry Beaumont described the unfortunate consequences of allowing some of the fugitives out of hiding to visit a café:

Some of them became the worse for drink and a fight was soon in progress. Then, having caused some damage to the café, they were ejected and now rolled back in a bunch singing Tipperary at the tops of their voices. To me, it seems almost unbelievable that men of the British army could have so far forgotten themselves for the sake of a drink…they had placed themselves, Nurse Cavell, and all the many others who were working to save their lives in the greatest danger.

Beaumont did not record what Cavell had to say, but she was not renowned for her sense of humour. By all accounts, she was the type of nursing sister who would have found words to match the occasion.

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One of a series of postcards issued during World War One, depicting the life of Edith Cavell (Aussie~mobs [CC / Flickr])

In later decades, the sight of Englishmen having a drunken punch-up would not surprise the residents of Brussels as it did Private Beaumont. In the 1980s, they happened whenever an English football team played there, but rarely without attracting the attention of the police. The Germans’ failure to notice suggests the occupation was carried out with a light touch. They similarly failed to intercept the misguided efforts of more polite British soldiers, who sent Cavell postcards to thank her for helping them escape.

Crackdown

The German army was not completely oblivious to what was going on under its nose, and soon employed a counter intelligence unit in Brussels. It wasn’t long before their attention was drawn to the Rue de Couture, though it’s not clear whether that was because they had been tipped off or simply because they were suspicious of the British nurses. Nurse Edith Wilkins described the first search for British soldiers, or ‘Tommies’ as they called them:

I said, “Well, what do you want”.

“Well”, he said, “have any more left?”


I thought he wanted nurses because they were always coming for nurses.

He said, “Oh no, I’m not looking for nurses. I’m looking for Tommies. Are there any about?”

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Remember Edith Cavell propaganda stamp issued in 1916 (Philafrenzy [Wikimedia Commons])

And with that, he lifted his lapel and showed me the badge of the secret police. Then I thought, ‘Oh well, we’re in for it now’. He said I want to search the house.

I jumped into the WC and stood on the seat, and pushed the papers into the cistern. They found nothing so they hauled me off and kept me there for four hours, questioning, questioning. Of course, I denied all knowledge of everything.

The Germans found nothing that day, but it didn’t take them long to crack the Bull network. Two of its members were arrested with lists of the names and addresses of their contacts.

The game was up.

Cavell was arrested along with 26 other members of her network. In her trial, she admitted to helping 35 British soldiers to evade capture. Rimington credits Cavell and her network with smuggling around 900 men into Holland.

The night before her execution, she received Holy Communion from Reverend Stirling Gahan, an Anglican chaplain. He recorded the words that were to become her epitaph:

Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

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Cover of Daily Mirror, 22nd October 1915, six days after Edith Cavell’s execution (Daily Mirror)

Her execution was controversial even among the German authorities. Although the stated penalty for aiding British soldiers or spying was death, it was rarely carried out. Of the 27 defendants at her trial, she was one of only two who were executed. Even the German civil governor, Baron von der Lancken, argued for a reprieve as she had saved many German lives in her work as a nurse.

A legend is written

With her execution, the Secret Service lost an agent and Belgium lost a dedicated nurse, but British propagandists gained a cause célèbre. Britain and France were trying to draw the USA into the war by publicising German atrocities, but their efforts were hampered by the fact that the Germans committed very few of them. The execution of a nurse was the sort of news they had longed for.

Meanwhile, the British army was in desperate need of men to fill the trenches stretching across France, but was still resisting the introduction of conscription. ‘Avenge Edith Cavell’ became a recruiting slogan that Rimington credits with attracting enough men to fill two divisions.

After the war, Cavell remained a symbol of the allied cause in countries that were questioning what they had sacrificed so many men for. If the Germans were so barbaric as to execute a nurse, perhaps they had been an enemy worth fighting.

The first monument was unveiled in Norwich Cathedral, near her birthplace, a month before the armistice. Several more statues and monuments to her were erected in the following years, not only in Britain but also in Belgium, France, Canada and Australia. She has been portrayed on film many times, from silent propaganda films made months after her death to Anna Neagle’s performance in Nurse Edith Cavell, made in 1939 when a resurgent Germany was feared again. A mountain in Canada was renamed Mount Edith Cavell. She was never canonised, but Cavell does have an annual day of remembrance in the Church of England’s calendar of saints.

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The ‘Cavell Van’, which was used to transport Edith Cavell’s body. Several years later, the same van was used to transport the Unknown Soldier (Steven Hughes [CC / Flickr])

To mark the centenary of her death, the railway carriage that brought her body home is currently on display in Norwich. Two musical compositions, Eventide: In Memoriam Edith Cavell by Patrick Hawes and the Cavell Mass by David Mitchell, have been given high profile performances. The legend of Edith Cavell has lasted far longer than the 49 years of her life.

Martyr or deceiver?

Rimington’s findings put a slightly different light on her execution. At her trial, the court decided that her aid of British fugitives had forfeit her status as a non-combatant. Rimington has shown she was a spy at a time when execution of spies was not routine, but was not uncommon. The court lacked mercy, but it did not lack legal justification.

Cavell’s involvement in espionage also challenges the traditional depiction of her as simply a woman helping her countrymen evade capture. Rimington could not establish how much of Cavell’s work involved smuggling documents, but Elizabeth Wilkins’s account of hiding papers in a cistern suggests that it wasn’t just Tommies that were being hidden in the Rue de Couture.

The Secret Service, or MI6 as it would become known as in 1916, certainly knew what she had been up to, but it is in the nature of secret services to keep their secrets long after they have lost any importance to anyone other than historians.

Rimington reports no difficulties in finding the documents relating to Cavell’s activities in the Belgian military archives, although one of the Belgian historians she consulted did say that no British historians had shown an interest.

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Statue of Edith Cavell on Charing Cross Road, near Trafalgar Square, London (Steve Parkinson [CC / Flickr])

Perhaps the main reason why she is known as a nurse rather than a spy is the success of the British propagandists who made her into the martyr they needed her to be. A nurse is a woman whose job is to care for others, who needs strong young men in khaki to defend her, or avenge her if they left it too late. If she extends that role to protecting men from enemy soldiers as well as disease and injury, she shows no more duplicity than is necessary to exercise the compassion of her calling.

It’s also possible that the role of spy simply did not fit early 20th century conceptions of womanhood. Calling her a nurse places her in company with Florence Nightingale, whose legacy as the ‘Angel of the Crimea’ has largely eclipsed her enormous contributions to the science of public health. Conversely, calling Cavell as a spy would have put her in the company of Mata Hari, a notorious femme fatale who the French executed for espionage in 1917.

So was the court correct in seeing Cavell as abusing a supposedly neutral position to operate against the German army? Or was her execution as barbarous as allied propaganda portrayed it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted in Inspirations, Wednesday Pontification

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