Execution of Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell, an English nurse, who was brutally put to death by her German jailers, in Brussels, on October 13, 1915, excited the pity while drawing down upon Germany's head the condemnation of the whole world.

Miss Cavell was directress of a large nursing home at Brussels, Belgium. On August 5, 1915, she was arrested by the German authorities and secretly confined in the prison of St. Giles, charged with aiding British and French stragglers to escape across the Dutch frontier, and with supplying them with money, food and clothing.

Brand Whitlock, the American Ambassador to Belgium, who had been entrusted with the protection of British interests in the occupied portions of Belgium was left uninformed of Miss Cavell's arrest for several days. When finally apprised of the fact of her arrest, Ambassador Whitlock requested authorization for the legal counselor of the American Legation, M. Gaston de Levai, to visit Miss Cavell and arrange for her defense. Ambassador Whitlock's request was ignored for weeks, but on September 10, 1915. he urged Baron von der Lancken, chief of the German political department, to take immediate steps to insure for Miss Cavell an impartial trial.

Von der Lancken brutally refused, "as a matter of principle," to allow M. Gaston de Levai to interview Miss Cavell, saying that her defense was in the hands of the German advocate Braun, "who, I may add, is already in touch with the competent German authorities." He further declared that Miss Cavell herself admitted that she had concealed in her house several French and English soldiers, as well as Belgians of military age, furnished them with the necessary money for their journey to France, and provided them with guides who enabled them secretly to cross the Dutch frontier.

Maitre de Levai repeatedly asked permission to visit Miss Cavell in prison, but was told that attorneys engaged in defending prisoners before German military courts, was never allowed to consult with their clients before the trial and were not entitled to examine any of the evidence in the Government's possession. He was even cautioned against attending the trial of Miss Cavell lest the German judges should resent the presence in court of a representative of the American Legation.

The travesty of a trial was held on Thursday, October 7, 1915, continuing through Friday, October 8, 1915. Not until the following Sunday, however, was the American Legation able to glean the meager facts disclosed concerning the trial. It was alleged that Miss Cavell frankly admitted that she had aided young soldiers to cross the frontier into Holland in order that they might return to England and France. It was further alleged that Miss Cavell acknowledged receiving letters from these soldiers, thanking her for the assistance rendered them.

By a strained interpretation of the German military law, Miss Cavell was adjudged guilty of a "crime," and upon this technical foundation the public prosecutor urged that sentence of death be passed upon her. The sentence was duly passed, not in open court, however, but in the secrecy of her cell. Maitre de Levai renewed his efforts to see Miss Cavell; he also asked that Reverend M. Gahan, the English chaplain, be permitted to visit her. Herr Conrad, the German official in charge, refused M. de Levai permission to see Miss Cavell until such time as the judgment of the military court should have been pronounced and signed. He also refused the request that an English chaplain be allowed to visit the prisoner, saying that Miss Cavell should have the ministrations of a German Lutheran chaplain. He promised, however, to notify the Legation immediately upon the confirmation of the sentence, in order that the necessary steps might be taken to secure the pardon for Miss Cavell. This assurance was renewed during the day.

The American Legation drew up a petition for clemency, addressed to the Governor General von der Goltz, and a covering note addressed to Baron von der Lancken. In this note, the Governor's attention was called to the fact that of the many persons arrested for aiding soldiers to cross the Dutch frontier, none had suffered the death penalty. Accompanied by the Spanish Minister (the Marquis de Villalobar), Secretary Gibson of the American Embassy that evening searched for Baron von der Lancken, finding him at length with some of his cronies at a disreputable theater. They presented the note urging clemency. Von Lancken refused to lay the petition before the Emperor. Moreover, he declared that the Military Governor of Brussels had ratified the sentence of death "and not even the Emperor could intervene."

That night Reverend M. Gahan was admitted to Miss Cavell's cell, offering her the last consolations of her faith. Early on the morning of October 13, 1915, the brave nurse was shot in the prison courtyard. The German minister who attended her, and gave her burial, declared that she was courageous to the end; she professed the Christian faith, and said she was glad to die for her country. It may not be amiss to add that, in 1918, evidence was forthcoming that Miss Cavell had been betrayed into the hands of the Germans by a renegade Frenchman. After the Armistice, this wretch was convicted as a traitor to France and put to death.

Edith Louisa Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse and humanitarian. She is celebrated for helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was executed. This led to worldwide sympathetic press coverage of her.

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". Cavell was also an influential pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.