Note: Before reading our series on Edith Cavell, it would be advantageous to the reader to peruse our previous two blogs on Belgian Relief.

Warning: Those who might be offended by evidence that Edith was much more than an Angel of Mercy, or do not wish to believe that she was sacrificed to prolong the agony of war, should not read these blogs.

A striking picture of the young Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell was the most celebrated British heroine of the First World War. The distinguished head of a Belgian nursing school, the Berkendael Institute in Brussels, she was executed by order of a German military court on October 12, 1915. She admitted aiding over two hundred allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium and return safely to their regiments in France or Britain, in direct contravention of German military code. According to a recent BBC Radio 4 programme  by Dame Stella Rimington, formerly director of MI5, it was more likely to have been nine hundred.[1]

She died a patriot and was transformed into a martyr of iconic status in England and Belgium. The truth of what happened to her has been mired in false claims, officially concocted reports and hagiographies that exaggerated her virtues into sainthood. Despite this, Edith Cavell was undoubtedly a courageous patriot who put the health and security of her charges before her own safety.

Executed in secret, her exploits were immediately championed by the British propaganda machine and transformed into a rallying call to men and women alike, proof positive of the evil Hun and his disregard for the sanctity of womanhood. [2] Her death boosted recruitment to the British army, and was almost as valuable in terms of propaganda as the sinking of the Lusitania.[3] It spawned posters, articles, pamphlets commemorative medals and statues. Streets, hospitals, schools, gardens, parks and even a mountain bears her name, yet the circumstances of her conviction and death do not sit easily with the official history as originally pronounced by the American Legation in Brussels and the British Foreign Office.

Edith Cavell was born in 1865 at Swardeston in Norfolk. The eldest child of four, her upbringing as the daughter of the local vicar was strictly Christian. She worked as a children’s governess for some years before deciding, at the age of thirty, to become a nurse. After four years training at the London Hospital Nurses Training School, she moved to St Pancras Infirmary as night supervisor. Her next move took her to Shoreditch as Assistant Matron at the Infirmary, but, at the age of forty-one, the straight-laced, devout Christian was appointed to a prestigious nursing post in Belgium.

Edith Cavell surrounded by her staff and nursing students at the Berkendael Institute, Brussels.
Edith Cavell’s work was recognised as pioneering. Well organised and demanding the highest of standards from her nursing staff, she was recruited by the eminent Belgian surgeon, Dr Antoine Depage, to be the Matron of his newly established nursing school in Brussels in 1907. The L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees grew steadily under her progressive direction and by the outbreak of War she was training nurses for three hospitals and thirteen kindergartens.[4] The project had been part-funded by the eminent Belgian industrialist and philanthropist, Ernest Solvay to the tune of 300,000 francs. [5] He was an exceptionally important businessman and later President of the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation. (CNSA) Edith’s arrival in Brussels did not please everyone for she effectively challenged the monopoly previously held by the Sisters of Charity, nuns who by custom and habit, ‘had there own way of doing things’. [6] She also branched out into journalism and had sufficient self-confidence to publish the professional magazine, L’Infirmiere, from 1910 onwards. [7]

At the outbreak of war, Edith was at home in England visiting her mother and might easily have stayed there in relative safety. Instead, she chose to return at once to Brussels, where the Depage clinics and nursing school were given over to the Belgian Red Cross. She immediately involved herself in the preparations for emergency hospitals and relief stations for the wounded. [8] Her biographers depict Matron Cavell attending to the war-wounded Belgian, French, British and to a much lesser extent, German troops, and there can be no doubt that she did so with magnificent grace; [9] But that was not her only contribution.

Edith Cavell (front left) seated beside Dr Antoine Depage and his wife Marie (front right).

Edith Cavell had become a very senior figure in Belgian nursing circles not least because of her association with Antoine Depage and his wife Marie. Antoine was the founder and chairman of the Belgian Red Cross and the Surgeon Royal, personal physician to King Albert, with whom he served in exile. Antoine had also founded the Boy Scout movement in Belgium in association with several figures from the upper echelons of Belgian society like Ernest Solvay, whose vast multinational chemical company had spread across central Europe. [10] Marie Depage, always active in the Belgian Red Cross, stayed behind in Brussells for the first two months of the German occupation but later joined her husband in exile with the King at La Panne. She agreed to go to the United States in 1915 to tour on behalf of the Belgian Red Cross and was magnificently successful in fund-raising across the continent of America before returning home on board the ill-fated Lusitania. [11] Marie Depage was drowned, her body recovered, taken to Ireland and reclaimed by a grieving husband, a victim of war like those for whom she gallantly campaigned.

Edith Cavell took charge of the clinics and hospital in Belgium in the full knowledge that she had access to all of the circles of influence and power that remained there. She was associated with the aristocratic De Croy family, the Depages, churchmen and diplomats at the American legation. Her work brought her into contact with increasing numbers of soldiers, many wounded, some lost or displaced from their regiments in the chaos of war, but all were refugees, striving to escape from the Germans and the certainty of imprisonment or worse if they were caught. German military law made it a capital offence to harbour enemy soldiers, and public notices warned of the dire punishments for any such infringement. [12]

Stranded soldiers were brought secretly to Brussels by members of an underground group with whom Edith collaborated. The official record of Nurse Cavell’s valour, leaves the impression that she was the sole figure in a dangerous wartime activity, whereas she was in reality a member of a highly organised and well-connected network comprising more than thirty equally courageous Belgian patriots working tirelessly to repatriate and save allied soldiers. [13]

Image of Belgian Army attacking German trenches in 1914.

As autumn 1914 passed into winter, the western front began to settle into a series of entrenched defences paralleling great stretches of no-mans’ land across the north of Belgium and then south across France. Stalemated defence systems and battlefield confusions made it difficult to determine precise boundaries. The first great battle at Mons, which began on 24 August 1914, resulted in men from both sides being isolated from their comrades in strange and unaccustomed terrain. Underground organisations were quickly set up in Belgium to assist displaced allied soldiers. These men also served to pass messages and information to London and to disrupt and unsettle the German forces of occupation. Spy networks abounded [14] and Brussels had long been a hub of intelligence activity. [15] While an essential part of this work was to assist Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines, wounded or otherwise, gathering information about the German army was also of great importance.

News of troop dispositions, the location of armament dumps and other supplies, railway timetables and information about enemy morale were equally valuable. The underground networks also carried mail and family messages to and fro between Brussels and London and aided in the distribution of anti-German news-sheets like ‘Private World’ and ‘Free Belgium’ [16] All of this was extremely dangerous work and marked anyone involved as a spy. The British Secret Service was the principle source and provider of funds for this activity, and regular reports on the German occupiers were channelled via Brussels and Holland to London and the war office. [17] British Military Intelligence knew about the organisation which successfully repatriated hundreds of soldiers, as did the foreign office, important players in what was to become a highly suspect game of denial.

The underground network in which Edith Cavell played a key role, operated from the Franco-Belgian border between Bellignes, Mons and Maubeuge, through Brussels itself and then on to Antwerp and various points on the Dutch border. It was a very prestigious organisation headed by Prince Reginald de Croy, the Belgian aristocrat and diplomat, and included his sister, Princess Marie de Croy, whose war memoirs provide a unique insight into the events surrounding the arrest and trial of the entire network in 1915. The de Croys belonged to one of the most prestigious families in Europe whose family ties crossed geographic boundaries.

Princess Marie de Croy

The de Croy network included men and women from across the social spectrum. War is always a great leveller. The grand chateaux of the de Croys at Bellignes housed many escaped allied soldiers, especially after the battle of Mons, who, once suitably recovered, were routed to safety via Edith Cavell in Brussels where they were kept hidden in safe houses. [18] Noblewomen, including the Princess de Croy and the Countess de Bellevilles, worked with servants and townsfolk to help transfer literally hundreds of desperate soldiers across dangerous forests, minor roads and little used paths to the border. The Catholic clergy and religious houses were involved in what they saw as a work of mercy, and all along the route, ordinary citizens risked their lives to aid and abet these harried and often starving escapees. Food, clothing, false documentation and money were provided for them, though it often took weeks to organise. The Belgians did this without reward and without regard to their personal safety. There is however no doubt that Edith Cavell ran the Brussels-based hub of the de Croy network. [19]

It is important at this juncture to explain the international connections enjoyed by the House of de Croy. Reginald, Prince de Croy was a Belgian diplomat, who doubled as a messenger and conduit for the Resistance. Prior to the war, he spent ten years in the Belgian Embassy in London and risked arrest constantly as he ferried to and fro across the Franco-Belgian-Dutch borders. [20] His sister Marie explained in her memoirs that ‘He was entrusted with various messages from the French to the Commission of Relief for Belgium (CRB). He carried these to Brussels where the Committee sat, and also to the American Embassy [Legation], as several concerned breaches of our rules of war. Of course it was useless to complain of abuses’ [21]

'American' Relief in Belgium displaying the Stars and Stripes, though distribution was the responsibility of the Belgian CNSA

What kind of breaches of the rules of war would concern the Commission of Relief for Belgium (CRB) ? What breaches would the American Legation in Brussels be interested in? The Americans claimed to be neutral; the Commission was allegedly only involved in the provision of food and clothing for the starving Belgians and French in occupied zones. The ‘abuses’ must therefore have referred to the supply of food, and the most likely scenario is that the Resistance could see that the food was going, not just to the Belgian population, but to front-line German soldiers. Indeed by 1915 such allegations were known within the highest echelons of the Foreign Office in London, and had caused adverse comment in what Herbert Hover referred to as the ‘constant lying reports which appear in the English press.’ [22]

Reginald’s brother Leopold served on the Ypres salient, and such was his level of importance to the British war effort that when he returned through London he ‘called at the War Office, wherein he was able to catch up with news from ‘home’ from a dozen men recently come back from Bellignes’ [23] Both brothers were frequent visitors to the War Office where the troops who had escaped through de Croy network were debriefed. British Intelligence was aware of what was happening in that part of Belgium from all manner of sources. They knew of de Croy’s valuable network, and the role of Edith Cavell, that is certain, but were they simply passive recipients of occasional information, or actively managing a high-level spy network?

One amazing security lapse almost blew the network apart. Marie wrote that her brother Reginald, ‘after calling at the War Office ’ was on his way to catch a boat back to Holland when his attention was drawn to a newspaper article which all but identified the underground network headed by the de Croy family. Reginald ‘rushed to a telephone and called an official, with whom he had been in touch, begging anxiously, that unless they wanted us all shot, this sort of publication should cease.’ [24] Thereafter the censors stepped in. Unfortunately they failed to stop some of the rescued soldiers from sending Edith Cavell postcards to express their gratitude and let her know that they had successfully returned home.

Marie de Croy stated that ‘Reggie’ was well aware of Edith Cavell’s personal investment in the safety of these Allied soldiers. She had spent all of her own savings on clothes and food ‘which had to be paid for in ready money, and Reginald was determined to try and obtain subsidies from the army, especially for Miss Cavell’. [25] Edith operated within a high-profile network, known to the British Government, the American Legation, the Belgian Government in exile, the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation in Brussels and the CRB. It actively liaised between them, was aided by them and sought funding from them as necessary.

Edith Cavell was a cog in a very influential organisation. However, evidence has emerged that proves she was more than a mere cog.

[1] Secrets and Spies, BBC Radio 4, broadcast on 15/09/2015
[2] Possibly the worst of the propaganda hagiographies is William Thomson Hill’s  The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell: The Life Story of the Victim of Germany’s Most Barbarous Crime. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1915.
[3] H.C. Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 61.
[4] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, p.105.
[5] Ibid., p. 19.
[6] The British Journal of Nursing, May 1924, p. 112.
[7] Helen Judson, “Edith Cavell”. The American Journal of Nursing, July 1941, p. 871.
[8] Nursing Mirror and Midwives’ Journal, vol. XXI no. 526
[9] Hoehling, A. (1957). “The Story of Edith Cavell”The American Journal of Nursing, 1320-1322.
[10] Kenneth Bertrams, Nicholas Coupain, Ernest Homburg, Solvay, History of a Multinational Family Firm, p. 2.
[11] New York Times, April 27, 1915.
[12] Paragraph 58 of the German military code.
[13] Princess Marie De Croy, War Memories, pp. 100- 211. https://archive.org/details/warmemories00croyuoft
[14] Debruyne, Emmanuel: Patriotes désintéressés ou espions vénaux? Agents et argent en Belgique et en France occupées, 1914-1918, in: Guerre mondiales et conflits contemporains, 2008/4, no. 232, p. 25-45.
[15] Christopher Andrew, Secret Service, The Making of the British Intelligence Service, p. 45.
[16] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 117.
[17] Ibid., p. 111.
[18] Harry Beaumont, Old Contemptible, p. 148.
[19] Princess Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 106.
[20] Ibid., p.111.
[21] Ibid.
[22] George Gay and HH Fisher, The Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Document 33, pp. 52-3 http://www.gwpda.org/wwi-www/CRB/CRB1-TC.htm
[23] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p.131.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., p.118.