The German secret police became increasingly suspicious of the de Croy organisation and they in turn became aware of this. As 1915 wore on, it was evident that the police were watching them and their safe houses. In April of that year they met secretly in Ghent. Both Marie de Croy and Edith Cavell suffered the indignity of having their homes searched and realised the great danger they were facing. Marie wanted to close down the network, but Edith would not take her advice, insisting that ‘if one of these men got caught and shot, it would be our fault’. [1] A compromise was agreed whereby no more allied soldiers would be sent to her clinic, but Edith would continue to organise and direct the guides who ran the escape routes to Holland. It was too late.

La Libre Belgique, lampooning General von Bissing

Inevitably, traps were set and, betrayed by a collaborator, Gaston Quien, most of the members of the network were apprehended. In all, the secret police arrested 70 suspects in a wide sweep around Brussels and the surrounding area. [2] The first to be apprehended were Phillipe Baucq and Louise Thuliez.  Baucq was an architect and committed patriot who printed and disseminated free newspapers which carried anti-German stories. His clandestine news sheet, La Libre Belgique, incensed the German Governor-General with its sarcasm and jibes. [3] Indeed von Bissing took personal umbrage at being lampooned. [4] Louise Thuliez , a school teacher, was one of the principal guides who ferried lost soldiers across Belgium to safety in Holland.

Thuliez was originally condemned to death, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. On return from captivity in Germany in 1918 she penned a long report on what she termed ‘The Cavell Organisation’ in which she admitted that, while working with Edith Cavell, she had actively sought out military intelligence about a supply dump at Cambrai in German occupied territory in north east France. [5] This evidence clearly indicated that Edith was operating inside a Belgian spy ring. But it ran deeper. Matron Cavell ‘was closely connected to Britain’s intelligence services’. [6]

Henry Baron, a British agent in France, was ‘working with the Cavell Organisation’. [7] When he later learned that his former contact, Louise Thuliez, was about to publish a booklet ‘on the Cavell affair’, Baron reported his fears to British Intelligence. Her revelation not only implicated Edith Cavell in spying but also ‘speaks about the participation of members of the agency in the Cambria spy affair’. [8] Such explosive information had to be suppressed. Knowing that proof of Edith’s involvement in espionage would blow apart the official British narrative, publication was forbidden. Baron was instructed that the British military authorities considered it ‘highly undesirable that anything that implicated Edith Cavell in ‘matters of espionage’ should be published until after the Versailles Treaty had been finalised. [9] It never was.

Yet another source of incriminating evidence was recently unearthed from private archives in the Royal Museum of the Army and History of War in Brussels. [10] Herman Capiau was part of the de Croy / Cavell underground network in 1915, and like Louise Thuliez was arrested, tried and condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted to 15 years hard labour. [11]

Brave women from the de Croy / Cavell underground movement. Louise Bettignies, Comptess de Belleville and Louise Thuliez. All were condemned to death but imprisoned. Louise Bettignies died in prison, the other two heroines survived.

Before his arrest, Capiau wrote a secret report in which he identified another agent linked to the underground network’s spying activities and yet again, Edith Cavell knew and approved. He wrote: ‘ … In agreement with Miss Cavell and Mademoiselle Thuliez, I sent the French government, through the intelligence agent Paul Godefroy, a request for material assistance for large-scale organisation of an evacuation service for young French recruits. …’ So not only were British intelligence services supporting Edith’s work in Brussels, but the French government was directly approached for support and aid. This was likely to be financial since repatriation was an expensive business. Although the majority of Belgian citizens willingly helped the underground network without personal gain, some looked for payment. [12]

But Capiau’s report revealed that the network’s activities went beyond helping stranded soldiers to escape: ‘… whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly’. [13] Spying was not an occasional activity. Capiau was clearly admitting that at every opportunity, information about German military activity was passed to British Intelligence, ‘punctually and rapidly’. By May 1915,  precise information on trench formations, vehicle and troop movements, arms caches and aircraft manoeuvres around Valenciennes was sewn into the clothes of soldiers who were being repatriated. [14]

Herman Capiau's handwritten note in the Brussel archives

Herman Capiau cited Paul Godefroy as his link with the secret services, but unfortunately Godefroy died in the Rheinbach prison in 1916. [15] After the war the prison was occupied temporarily by British military units and his files disappeared. How often is the truth denied through such action? Herman Capiau also left a handwritten note, now in the archives of the Royal Museum of the Army and History of War in Brussels under the title, ‘L’Affaire Cavell’ which names Edith, Louise Thuliez, Paul Godefroy and himself as members of the ‘organisation’ with a further list of names attached. [16] In addition to its recognised work on behalf of displaced soldiers this was a clandestine organisation which was spying on Germany.

Capiau’s lists also placed Edith as the prime link in the Brussels hub of the network whose ‘grand chef’, literally ‘big chief’ was Dr Bull, War Office. (see above) Doctor Tellemache (or Telemachus) Bull was, according to the Whitlock family archives, King Albert’s personal  dentist, and a relation by marriage to Brand Whitlock. [17] He appears to have remained  inexplicably airbrushed from the Edith Cavell story until relatively recently, when a BBC Radio 4 programme, Secrets and Spies  [18] identified Bull as a British Secret Service operator who ran a number of networks from Belgium. He was arrested by the German secret police, charged firstly with treason and tried in Antwerp on May 19, 1916, but received an extremely light sentence of 3 months imprisonment and a five thousand mark fine. [19] No matter how distant, his family connections with the Whitlocks seems remarkably coincident. The head of the American Legation was preparing to throw a party for Doctor Bull to celebrate his release in July when he discovered that Bull was to face a second trial directly related to his involvement with Edith Cavell. [20] This took place on 16 October 1916 with a representative from the American legation present. Bull and sixteen others were charged with conspiring to help Edith Cavell in ‘aiding young men to cross the frontier’, and of supplying her with funds to assist them. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment. [21]

Apart from any further and as yet unknown connections, Bull’s direct involvement means that Edith’s activities were part of an ongoing War Office and Secret Service clandestine operation. Edith Cavell was deeply involved in more than nursing the wounded and the Brussels she wrote home about must have been on a planet far distant from that portrayed by Herbert Hoover.

The very survival of Hoover’s CRB was at risk in the first quarter of 1915. Continued support was threatened by the bad press it was receiving in Britain and the awkward questions raised in the House of Commons about the foodstuff ‘taken’ by the German army. Herbert Hoover was certainly suspicious that his organisation was being undermined by individuals inside Belgium. In a letter to Brand Whitlock dated 6 March 1915, he complained that he had been severely grilled about the amount of food which was requisitioned by the German army of occupation and was alarmed that the London government intended to follow up claims to that effect which had originated in Belgium. He berated the ‘constant lying reports which appear in the English press with regard to our foodstuffs being taken by the Germans or devoted to their requisitions in the operation zone …’ [22]

Who was this coming from? Who in Belgium had the contacts and confidence to make such damning allegations? Who would be so morally outraged that, if the government appeared to be doing nothing, they could write directly to their contacts in the British press? These were not ‘constant lying reports’, but the products of good intelligence.

Hoover was himself a consummate liar and master of press manipulation. Lies were his stock-in-trade. The CRB’s propaganda campaigns were immediately stepped up. A special meeting in the Carnegie Hall in New York, called in support of the Allies by American fund-raisers, heard a message from Brand Whitlock stating: ‘Supply of food now in Belgium is sufficient only to last through this month, and that after April 1st, the need of food and clothing would be as pressing as ever, and that the entire Belgian population must continue to depend for subsistence on the generosity of the American People’. [23]

The entire Belgian population? What nonsense; but a terrific sound-bite.

An outrageous misrepresentation of the German attitude to the work of the CNSA in a 1916 Magazine, The Graphic

Yet the Nursing Mirror reported in April 1915 that in Edith Cavell’s Brussels, the cafes were open and cigars were still being smoked. [24] Some commentators have claimed that Cavell’s article exposed the fact that the Commission for Relief in Belgium was feeding the German army. This is not so. Having carefully checked her published report in the Royal College of Nursing in Edinburgh, we can categorically state that no mention is made of the CRB. Not a word. Nothing about starving children. How strange is that in itself? Please remember that in our last blog we explained that when the editor of the Nursing Mirror received the correspondence from Edith Cavell, it had been opened and resealed. Which brings us back to the question of what other information was originally included?

What Cavell’s article did demonstrate was at complete odds with Hoover’s alarmist reports.

Can you imagine how angry the vested interests in the CRB were when they were made aware of this? The woman was dangerous. What would she write next? Given her intelligence contacts all over Belgium, what else did she know? What else had she already reported? If the network was indeed the ‘Cavell Organisation’, as Herman Capiau suggested, rather than the more aristocratic ‘de Croy organisation’, then Edith’s role must have been more proactive. To whom was she reporting?

An example of Edith Cavell's handwritten letters to her sister.

In June 1915, Hoover left the comfort of his London home to go to Belgium in person to meet with Baron von der Lanken, head of the German political department in Brussels, and a key German figure in the international liaison of the CRB. It is important to remember that the leading members of the CRB and the Belgian Comite National de Secours and Alimentation (CNSA) moved naturally within the highest circles of the German administration in Belgium. Hoover was there to negotiate the fate of the coming harvest, a role he assumed, though the CNSA strongly objected to his presence. [25] He was well aware that London wanted an end to the press stories about German abuse of the relief organisation. So too did the Germans. Their war effort had become dependant on the food supplies they accessed through Belgium. 

In view of the strong links between the underground network for which Edith worked and its direct connections with the War Office, the Foreign Office and British intelligence that were facilitated by the de Croys, Edith was in a prime position to provide regular information to London. We know she wrote directly to the Nursing Mirror, and to the editor of The Times, [26], but given the evidence of Edith’s complicity in espionage, the British Secret Service would have known that and much more. She would have reported to them. Such knowledge would also be the concern of the CRB and the American Legation, for those were prime conduits for the transfer of information to London. Had Edith become a potentially dangerous thorn in the side of the CRB and the Secret Elite? Matron Cavell was a well-known professional figure who carried weight in the British press. Her word could poison their whole venture. She was a constant threat.

And the American, Belgian, British and German authorities knew it.

[1] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 127.

[2] Brand Whitlock, Belgium under the German Occupation, a personal narrative, vol.2, p. 46.

[3] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 199.

[4] La Libre Belgique, issue 30, June 1915.

[5] Phil Tomaselli, BBC History Magazine, September 2002, p. 6.

[6] Public Records Office papers released in 2001-2 and quoted in the above.

[7] Tomaselli, BBC History Magazine, September 2002, p. 6.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Our thanks here to our colleague in Belgium,  Hugo Lueders,  who shared his personal research with us. Hugo does sterling work on centenarynews.com https://www.academia.edu/9532093/EDITH_S_WONDERLAND_IN_MEMORIAM_OF_EDITH_CAVELL_12_OCTOBER_1915#signup/close

[11] Harry Beaumont, Old Contemptible, p. 192.

[12] Ibid., p. 172.

[13] Emmanuel Debruyne and Jehanne Paternostre, “La résistance au quotidien 1914-1918, Témoignages inédites”, Racine, Brussels, 2009: ‘Trois échelons vers la Hollande’, pp. 45-51 (here: page 51) as cited by Hugo Leuders, see below.

[14] Dame Stella Rimington, BBC Radio 4, Secrets and Spies, broadcast on 15/09/2015.

[15] Hugo Lueders, Edith’s Wonderland, footnote 35 p. 15. https://www.academia.edu/9532093/EDITH_S_WONDERLAND_IN_MEMORIAM_OF_EDITH_CAVELL_12_OCTOBER_1915#signup/close

[16] Undated hand-written note by Capiau, private archives Herman Capiau, Centre de documentation, Musée Royal de l’Armée et d’Histoire militaire, Brussels.

[17] See relevant page from website below. whitlockfamilyassociation.com.s3amazonaws.com/sources/newspapers/NP0261.pdf

[18]Dame Stella Rimington, BBC Radio 4, Secrets and Spies, broadcast on 15/09/2015.

[19] Brand Whitlock, Belgium under the German Occupation, a personal narrative, vol.2, pp. 138-9.

[20] Ibid., p. 183.

[21] Ibid., pp. 225-6.

 [22] Hoover to Whitlock, 6 March 1916, Document 33, Gay and Fisher, The Public Relations of the Commission for Belgian Relief, p. 52. http://www.gwpda.org/wwi-www/CRB/CRB1-TC.htm

[23] New York Times, 18 March, 1915.

[24] Nursing Mirror and Midwives’ Journal, vol. XXI no. 526, p. 64.

[25] George H Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, The Great Humanitarian, 1914-1917, p. 136.

[26] The Times, 15 August 1914, p. 8.