Edith Cavell in her matron's uniformLike many of her generation, Edith Cavell was an avid letter-writer. She served on the editorial board which launched Belgium’s first nursing magazine, “L’Infirmiere”, in 1910, and wrote occasional articles for the weekly Nursing Mirror and Midwives Journal in Britain. Edith believed passionately about nursing, about nursing techniques and good practice and understood the value of promoting educational articles. When war broke out she wrote to the editor of the Times on 12 August 1914, [1] launching an appeal for subscriptions from the British public to support her preparations to deal with ‘several hundreds’ of wounded soldiers anticipated to arrive shortly in Brussels, signing herself as Directrice of the Berkendael Medical Institute. She was concerned about her widowed mother’s health and welfare, and as the German occupation made life ever more restricted, she rarely knew if her letters reached home.

When the war began, Edith contacted the editor of the Nursing Mirror and Midwives Journal and wrote an article headed ‘Nursing in War Time’ which was published on 22 August 1914. In March 1915, she repeated the process, and sent both a covering letter to the Editor and an article about Brussels under German rule. This in itself contravened German military law. She did not identify herself by name but signed the missive ‘from your Nurse Correspondent’ [2]

Nursing Mirror and Midwives Journal photographed at the Royal College of Nursing Archives in Edinburgh

The Editor was at great pains to explain to the readers of Nursing Mirror that the package sent from Brussels had been ‘torn open on both sides’ and that the letter arrived at his desk ‘resealed by the General Post Office in London’. It had originally been dated 24 March, but the date-stamp on the envelope was 15 April. The most likely reason for this was that Edith had given the letter to some trusted person or someone from within the American Legation for onward transfer to England. It had been opened, presumably in London, by a government official. We do not know what else was in the package. Had other material been removed? Who, inside the War Office, Foreign Office, or the intelligence services, had a primary interest in Edith Cavell’s correspondence?

Questions has to be asked about the letters and postcards Edith received from soldiers whom she had helped escape from Brussels. Though it might seem ridiculous to us today, grateful soldiers did send messages back to Matron Cavell to announce their successful return to England. One such incriminating postcard was presented as evidence at her trial. Since she received mail from England it had to be sent via trusted contacts or the American Legation, and since the latter only accepted mail from British government departments, it had to have passed through official channels. This means that Edith Cavell was a known and trusted contact for officers in the British intelligence services.

Edith sent news to England, and not just to the Nursing Mirror. She maintained a steady flow of correspondence to her family and friends. She wrote a cautious letter to her mother on 15 September 1914, in which she claimed that ‘life goes on as usual’ and to her sister, Florence, three days later, in which she expressed concern about the homeless and the misery that might follow a bad winter in Belgium. [3] In these instances her mail was routed through Vecht and later, Bergen op Zoom in Holland, but Edith’s letters home became progressively incautious. In a reply to her cousin Eddy, dated 11 March 1915, she explained that she received his missive through the American Consul and enclosed a list of soldiers about whose safe return to England she had concern. Unwittingly, Edith Cavell became indiscreet. She told her mother on 14 March that she could ‘tell you many things but must save them till later’, [4] and described a Zeppelin passing overhead in Brussels. Ten days later she sent her epistle to the editor of the Nursing Mirror.

Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador at London to whom Edith advised her family to send appeals should she be imprisoned.

The international mail system had been subject to all kinds of restrictions and was virtually closed to unofficial correspondence, but Edith Cavell had diplomatic contacts which gave her a sense of confidence. On 14 June 1915 she confirmed to her mother that ‘if anything very serious should happen to me you could probably send me a message through the American Ambassador in London (not a letter)’ [5] Clearly this was a privilege which she greatly valued, but had to keep secret. That point was reinforced by her request to the editor of the Nursing Mirror not to try to forward a copy of the paper to Brussels. She had no wish to make public her contacts with London. [6]

Edith’s second article in the Nursing Mirror reads at first as a calm and considered account of daily life in Brussels. Indeed it was so non-controversial that the reader would wonder the value of printing it at all. The point of the article appeared to contradict the prevailing message from the Commission for the Relief of Belgium that the country was in crisis. She took the reader through the hoped-for success in the early days of August ‘when we were full of enthusiasm for the war and confidence in the allies’, to the arrival of the Germans with much ‘pomp and circumstance’. However, in stark contrast to the widespread impression that Belgium was being systematically raped by the advancing German army, Cavell’s article painted a widely different picture;

Edith's article as printed in the Nursing Mirror.

‘On August 21st many more troops came through….some were too weary to eat and slept on the street. We were divided between pity for these poor fellows, far from their country and their people…and hate of a cruel and vindictive foe bringing ruin and desolation on hundreds of happy homes and to a prosperous and peaceful land. Some of the Belgians spoke to the invaders in German and found they were very vague as to their whereabouts, and imagined they were already in Paris; they were surprised to be speaking to Belgians and could not imagine what quarrel they had with them. I saw several of the men pick up little children and give them chocolate or seat them on their horses and some had tears in their eyes at the recollection of the little ones at home.’ [7]

This image does not sit easily with that of the propagandist. No rape, no pillage, no starving children, no shootings or other such hideous maltreatment? Goodness, the Bryce Report was due for publication in May, and the story in the Nursing Mirror was completely at odds with the horror-stories and anti-German allegations contained in that shameful instrument of propaganda and hate. Edith’s City of Brussels is an almost silent one without cars or bicycles in the street; no sense of bustle, no newspapers except German-sponsored editions, nothing permitted from England; no telephone contacts and movement by train was greatly restricted. In her final paragraph, she depicts the Belgian attitude to the invader as one of quiet but studied rejection.

‘The people have grown thin and silent with the fearful strain. They walk about the city shoulder to shoulder with the foe and never see them or make a sign; only they leave the cafes they frequent and turn their backs to them, and live a long way off and apart. A German officer on a tram politely asked a gentleman for a light; he handed him his cigar without a word, and receiving it back, threw it in the gutter. Such incidents happen often and are typical of the conduct of this much-tried nation.’ [8]

So life in occupied Brussels was quiet, and the spirit of the people remained defiant. But what about the picture of national destitution being put about by the Commission for Relief in Belgium? What about the starving population that had become the international concern of Herbert Hoover? Perhaps these unfortunate people were in the countryside? Yet in Belgium, a mainly rural and agricultural nation, you would expect to find the starving populous in the great cities, like…well, like Brussels. Of course there was need and poverty. Such was the fate of the poor everywhere. Those with nothing are always the first to suffer. It was as true in Glasgow and London as it was in Bruges and Brussels. But this was not the focus of Edith’s attention. She wrote about the strain of the people, not the hunger. The café culture continued as before and gentlemen were still smoking cigars. Something does not ring true here. It is not possible to have both sets of circumstance. And Edith had no axe to grind. Her agenda was to save lives and repatriate allied soldiers. (We will revisit this important document in a future blog.)

The Royal Palace in Brussels was used as a military hospital during the war.

Not that the German authorities would allow Edith and other British nurses to deal with their wounded. She found herself disbarred from her professional duties. Most of the wounded German troops were ‘sent straight back home, as far as possible’, and Allied wounded ‘do not come’. A few wounded men, too seriously damaged to be able to fight again, were nursed at the King’s Palace in Brussels which served as a military hospital. But they were ‘nursed by Belgians under their own doctors’. [9] Edith found herself isolated from her calling, left more like the head of a religious order than a nursing school. She was not involved in ministering to the injured and dying from either side, as the legend would have it, but instead, rendered unemployed, or at best, massively underemployed. This explains why she had the time to be so actively involved in the underground movement.

An interesting piece of corroboration of life in occupied Belgium comes from Harry Beaumont, one of the allied soldiers whom Edith Cavell helped to escape. Harry was injured in the retreat from Mons on 24th August 1914 and saved from capture by a Belgian family called Neussy. His escape route included Brussels, Louvain and the Monastery of Averabode, where the monks looked after a group of wounded British soldiers with immense care. [10]

The Abbey at Averabode where Harry Beaumont was hidden by the monks.

Harry stated that Edith Cavell was ‘running’ the escape route and their Belgian courier ‘promised to report our position to Nurse Cavell’. His story is not one of hardship and austerity. He made no mention of starving children and desperate queues for food. The very opposite is true. Harry wrote of one safe house in glowing terms; ‘our hostess was a very wealthy woman. Her house was stocked with everything of the best and for eight days, we lived like Lords.’ [11] Indeed Harry Beaumont admitted that such was the generosity of the people that even when Belgian citizens were issued with ration cards, he and his fellow escapees received far more than they would have been entitled to had they depended solely on rations. There were shortages of meat and flour, but vegetable and eggs were plentiful and the local fraternity provided extras. [12]

He also, quite innocently, demonstrated the complicity of the Commission for Relief in Belgium which clearly knew all about the de Croy network. When one of the Belgian agents in Antwerp demanded cash payment for hiding him from the authorities, Harry and his companion, at that point an Irishman, went to the headquarters of the ‘American’ Commission for Relief in Belgium. They told the story of their escape and their need for funds. The money was forthcoming. Furthermore, the Americans took control and subsidised Harry’s relatively prolonged stay in Antwerp. He was given an allowance of sixteen francs a day and placed in a safe-house of their choice. Eventually, several weeks later, on 16 May 1915, having cracked open a bottle of celebratory champagne, he boarded a tram to the outskirts of the city and, through the trials and tribulations of naked determination, reached Holland safety. His guide was directly provided by the CRB. [13] Does anyone imagine that the Americans in Brussels were not fully informed of what was happening by their compatriots in Antwerp? Not only did the Americans know what was happening, they were actively and secretly complicit.

Harry’s account gives us some clear pointers. The network for escapees was organised in Brussels through Edith Cavell. The soldiers were well fed and well treated. There was no awareness of the alleged widespread hunger and want. The Americans knew all about them network, and actively supported it, albeit in a clandestine manner. They knew all about Edith’s correspondence, and most probably knew precisely what she was reporting to London. Spying on one’s allies is not a recent phenomenon. When she was arrested in her office by the Germans on Thursday 5 August, the police found a letter sent from London; it bore the seal of the American Consulate in Brussels. [14]

Propaganda. Edith's arrest bore no likeness to this dramatic image.

Thus Edith was a major figure in Brussels medical circles whose work was highly valued by her employer, the King’s personal physician. She was acknowledged as one of the leading nursing practitioners in the land, but forbidden to practice by the occupying forces. Edith was active inside an underground and espionage network which, amongst other work, repatriated soldiers stranded behind enemy lines. Her correspondence was widespread and fearless. We know that she wrote to her family, to the British press and the Nursing Mirror. She wrote about the conditions of the people as she experienced it, and hinted strongly of wrong-doing. Edith Cavell was sufficiently important to the authorities in London and Brussels that her correspondence was transmitted through the American Legation. They had just delivered a letter to her from London when she was arrested.

Yet the Americans at the Legation and in the Commission for Relief in Belgium apparently knew nothing about her arrest … or so they were to claim.

[1] The Times, 15 Aug, 1914, p.8.
[2] Nursing Mirror and Midwives’ Journal, vol. XXI no. 526, p. 57.
[3] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, pp 200-203.
[4] Ibid., p. 248.
[5] Ibid., p. 259.
[6] Nursing Mirror and Midwives’ Journal, vol. XXI no. 526, p. 57.
[7] Ibid., p. 63.
[8] Ibid., p. 64.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Harry Beaumont, Old Contemptible, p. 154.
[11] Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 221.
[12] Beaumont, Old Contemptible, p. 95.
[13] Ibid., p. 181.
[14] Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 271.