A contemporary Franco-Belgian representation of Edith's arrest and judgement. Completely fabricated.

Edith Cavell was arrested in her office at the Berkendael Institute in Brussels on Thursday 5 August 1915. [1]

In his self-serving memoirs, Hugh Gibson, first secretary to the American Legation in Brussels and close friend of Herbert Hoover, claimed that Edith was ‘quietly arrested’ and that ‘it was some time’ before the news reached the Legation. [2] That is simply untrue. Edith was escorted from her office by Otto Mayer, head of the German Secret Police, and her distraught nursing staff witnessed the deed. She had expected to be arrested. Her associates in the underground network, Louise Thuliez and Philippe Baucq, had been taken into custody on Saturday 31 July and news of their fate spread fast. Realising that the whole network had been compromised, Reginald de Croy rushed to Brussels to warn Edith, and other members of the group to destroy all evidence. This was no quiet affair. For a start, Edith was just one of seventy initially imprisoned of whom thirty-five were charged with harbouring soldiers and conducting them back to the enemy. [3] Marie de Croy’s arrest followed soon afterwards, but to the chagrin of the German authorities her brother Reginald, Prince de Croy, escaped their clutches. To claim that the arrest and imprisonment of such distinguished people went unnoticed by members of the CRB is utterly ridiculous.

The Kommandantur in Brussesl, barely 200 metres from the CRB headquarters

Edith was first held in a communal women’s cell in Brussel’s main police station at the Kommandantur, opposite the Royal Park, and held there for two days until she was transferred across the city to the harsher quarters of  St Gilles prison. Hugh Gibson’s claim that he did not know about Edith Cavell’s arrest becomes even more preposterous when weighed against the fact that she was initially incarcerated barely one street away from Hoover’s headquarters. At the end of December 1914, Herbert Hoover had moved his commission’s offices from 48, Rue de Naples to take possession of three floors of the magnificent Societe Generale building at 66, Rues de Colonies. [4] It had formerly served as the headquarters of the Banque Belge pour L’Etranger and comprised a glorious sweep of imperial grandeur on the hill leading to the Kommandantur. They were virtually neighbours, barely 200 yards apart.

From the very beginning, everyone officially associated with the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) denied knowledge of what was happening. Given that the de Croy’s network had close ties to the Americans, [5] that when arrested, Edith had in her possession a letter sent through the American Legation [6] and the general stir caused by the flurry of arrests, it is simply incredible that Hugh Gibson and his colleagues did not know what was happening around them. But that was their claim; a claim accepted without demur by the British government. It formed the basis of their justification for being unable to take steps with sufficient speed to save Edith Cavell.

What unfolded was no less that a macabre pantomime in which all of the key players who might have influenced the Germans managed to delay their intervention sufficiently long enough to ensure that Edith could not be saved from her fate. The American Legation had accepted international responsibility for all British citizens in Belgium after the German occupation and thus had a legal duty of care for Edith Cavell. The senior diplomat responsible for her safety, and head of the American Legation, Brand Whitlock, ‘was ill in his bed at this time’. [7] His role was assumed by Hoover’s loyal agent at the Legation, the aforementioned Hugh Gibson. He had been a member of the CRB in Brussels from October 1914.

A formal letter from Maitre Gaston de Leval, the Belgian legal advisor who had worked for the Americans for many years, was sent to Brand Whitlock, the chief of the United States Legation, on 12 October 1915, the day Edith was executed. It claimed: ‘As soon as the Legation received an intimation that Miss Cavell was arrested, your letter of August 31st was sent to Baron von der Lancken’ [8] (who was in charge of German political department in Brussels.) De Leval clearly felt it necessary to send a formal letter to his friend and employer, Whitlock, to have it appear on the record that the American legation did not hear of Edith’s arrest until more than three weeks after the event. The immediate American reaction to her execution was to cover their own backs.  The letter served to excuse, retrospectively, their studied inaction.

The forbidding walls of St Gilles prison in Brussels

Others, on the other hand, immediately tried to have Edith released. The loyal nurses who witnessed her arrest rushed to the Kommandantur but were subjected to ridicule by the guards. On 10 August they learned that Edith had been transferred to the prison at St Gilles and  turned to the one friend  ‘in whom we could confide or from whom we could ask information’, Maitre van Alteren. He was the lawyer who represented the governors of the Nursing School and he agreed to plead her cause with the military authorities. Van Alteren was promptly arrested and imprisoned. [9] The medical confraternity in Brussels knew of Edith’s arrest, as did the governors of the Nursing School, but de Leval alleged that the American Legation knew nothing  for almost a month.

Consider the implication of the timing of these events. Edith Cavell had been arrested on 5 August in plain daylight, yet the Legation, itself fully aware of the de Croy network, claimed not to have known for 26 days. This is not just unlikely, it is impossible. Networks by their very essence, connect, and breaks to the connection become immediately apparent. Edith’s own family in England were notified by a Dutch source that she had been imprisoned. They even knew that the date of her arrest was 5 August. Having heard no more than that, her brother-in-law, Dr Longworth Wainwright wrote directly to Sir Edward Grey at the foreign office on 24 August. The British Foreign Secretary, Grey, formally asked Walter Page, the American Ambassador in London to investigate what had happened in Brussels. [10] Page cabled Brand Whitlock on 27 August, yet the official record later released by the Foreign Office and published in great detail in The Times [11] would have us believe that it was 31 August before the American legation knew about the arrest and contacted the German authorities. Hugh Gibson’s published journal clearly claimed that that was the case. Again, it was an outrageous lie.

Gaston de Leval, legal adviser to the American Legation in Brussels.

It beggars belief that it took the Legation a further ten days before their lawyer, Maitre de Leval, officially requested permission to visit Edith Cavell in prison. Two days later, according to him, the German authorities refused. [12] Edith’s legal representation was an orchestrated farce. De Leval neither met with her nor represented her, though ‘history’ was to claim otherwise. As ever, when the Secret Elite bury their involvement, facts and circumstances become mired in confusion. So it was with Edith’s legal representation.  While it was the duty of the American Legation to represent  British citizens in Belgium who might be in trouble, for some unfathomable reason in Edith’s case that duty was assumed by Emile Francqui’s Comite Nationale de Secours et Alimentation (CNSA). One of its senior committee members, Eugene Hanssens, agreed to defend her. [13]

However, since he was a constitutional lawyer, Hanssens had no accreditation to plead before a military tribunal. He in turn chose as his substitute, Thomas Braun of the CNSA. [14] Braun hailed from a distinguished legal family and his father, himself an eminent lawyer, had been appointed to represent Princess Marie de Croy. The crucial point to note is that Hanssens and Braun were senior members of the CNSA and can be identified in the Belgian war-time records of the Comite National in session.  [15] Despite the claims of ignorance made by the Americans and their paid counsellor, the men from the CNSA with whom they met on a regular, often daily basis, had put together a legal team to represent the de Croy/Cavell network. The men with whom they shared responsibility for the daily disbursement of foodstuffs had stepped forward to protect the captive network … including Edith Cavell.

The Comite National de Secours et Alimentation in session

Matters became mystifyingly convoluted. According to the documents and letters released by Brand Whitlock, when the Legation wrote to Baron von der Lancken for clarification about Edith Cavell on 31 August, [16] it was informed that the legal representation for Miss Edith Cavell was in the hands of Advocate Braun, who ‘has already been in touch with the competent German authorities’. This official reply from von der Lancken was written on 12 September, [17] but there was a fatal and worrying flaw to his claim. ‘Advocate’ Braun had previously been removed from the case. Braun had received a letter from the German government of occupation dated 1 September, 1915 accusing him of improper behaviour in defaming them in court, being incapable of objectivity and of using his position to his own political advantage. [18] As of 1 September, Thomas Braun was banned from representing anyone, by order of the German Military. Yet Whitlock could produce a letter from von der Lancken dated ten days later, which claimed that Edith’s case was being represented by Braun, her appointed lawyer. Either one or both were lying.

Thus at a stroke, in a crucial twenty-four hour period between 31 August and 1 September, Edith Cavell was cut off from any representation associated directly with the Commission for Relief in Belgium. Once the American Legation was obliged to admit that they knew about Edith’s arrest, the Germans banned Thomas Braun from the case. Was this an act of collusion? These had been trying months for Hoover. His negotiations with London and Berlin to keep the funds flowing and the food pouring into Rotterdam, despite the  mounting allegations in Britain that the Germans were greatly benefitting from it, had been fraught with dangerous allegations in newspapers. We have already established Edith’s links to both the press and the War Office in London. Furthermore, the threats  she made in her letters that she had damning information which would one day be made public [19] would have caused great concern, assuming that more than just her family read her mail. We have to ask whether the timing was chance or were the Germans asked to extricate the CRB/CNSA from any responsibility for Edith’s fate? Suddenly, no-one even loosely associated with Herbert Hoover was directly involved in attempting to save her.

Maitre Sadi Kirschen, the lawyer who did represent Edith Cavell in court.

Next in line for this poisoned chalice was an established member of the Brussels’ Bar, Maitre Sadi Kirschen, who was approached by both Hanssens and Braun on 7 September. [20.] Kristen was not involved with the CNSA. Sadi Kirschen wrote to ask Edith if she would accept him as her defence replacement, but his letter never reached her. Furthermore, the Germans decided to deny Maitre Kirschen access to Edith immediately before the trial [21] and he was not given sight of the prosecution’s evidence. Sadi Kirschen discussed the case with his legal colleagues, and the unanimous opinion was that the worst she might expect was five or so years in prison. [22]

In his later report, which was no better than a litany of excuses, Gaston de Leval made great play of his willingness to attend the trial in person and of being advised not to do so by Mr Kirschen lest the Germans be affronted by his presence.  Apparently de Leval’s attendance might have prejudiced Edith’s case! What a bizarre excuse. Every sentence in de Leval’s Report was written to absolve himself, the Americans and key figures of the CRB from responsibility or complicity. [23]

Why did the Americans go to such lengths to protect themselves but not Edith? Their constant denials begin to grate. By wrapping themselves around their own supposedly legal statement which was rapidly published by the British government, repeated in Gibson’s diary and apparently ‘authenticated’ by Brand Whitlock, these men wrote their own version of history; a version that goes uncontested, even although it is ridiculous. Their story became even more ridiculous.

In Brand Whitlock’s second volume about his years in Belgium, written in 1919, he opened his account of Edith Cavell’s tragic betrayal with the following words: ‘Early in August Brussels had heard, and all Belgium – or at least all that part of Belgium that lived in chateaux – had heard that Princess Marie de Croy and the Countess of Belleville had been arrested.’ [24] While concentrating on the Belgian noblewomen, he mentioned ‘Mademoiselle Thuliez, and certain others’ and claimed that the Princess did not know what became of the allied soldiers they were protecting ‘after they reached Brussels.’ Then with carefully chosen words, he stated: ‘One day in August it was learned at the Legation that an English nurse named Edith Cavell had been arrested.’ [25] To coin a phrase, this was utter drivel, a blatant attempt to misrepresent events to cover his back.

Whitlock photograph posed for his book, Belgium Under German Occupation.

By relegating his knowledge of her predicament until ‘One day in August’ Whitlock sought to alter history so that he could acknowledge that ‘all Belgium’ knew about the aristocrats and the demise of the underground network, yet distance himself from the responsibility he held for Edith Cavell. That it was the twenty-seventh day apparently slipped his mind. The lies simply got ever more ridiculous. His bold claim that Marie de Croy knew nothing about the fate of these soldiers once they reached Brussels is absurd. Princess Marie de Croy wrote a precisely detailed book when she returned from captivity, in which she detailed the underground work overseen by her brother Reginald.  This included her visit to Edith and and his admiration for her dedication. [26] Recent evidence doggedly researched by Hugo Lueders and his associate in Brussels has unearthed proof that Edith Cavell and Marie de Croy met together in Ghent in April 1915 at La Ville D’ Audenarde. Edith Cavell stayed several times at the guest-house, known to be an important hub for members of the Belgian and French resistance movements as well as profiteers associated with the relief movement. [27] Marie knew what she was talking about.

Whitlock didn’t  …

Marie de Croy’s autobiographical account of the trial added yet another twist to the tale. She was represented by Alexander Braun whose services had been employed by her many influential friends in Brussels, but she specifically identified his son, Thomas Braun as part of the defence team for all the accused.  He led the final defence summary  ‘with a fine appeal’  pleading that the Belgian defendants had been faced with the choice between helping their countrymen or denouncing them. [28] Thus Thomas had been removed from representing Edith, but retained as a leading player in the defence team. This astounding piece of evidence lends credence to the fact that the CRB wanted Edith’s defence distanced from their associates.

Let this blog end on a very worrying note. Maitre Gaston Leval’s report on the Execution of Edith Cavell is currently being presented on the net by firstworldwar.com as a Primary Document for readers, schools and universities. It is little more than a bundle of misleading, self-serving assertions that do not stand up to scrutiny.  It is part of the propaganda to which the British government was happy to accede in 1915. One hundred years later, it is still presented as the truth.

[1] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 271.
[2] Project Gutenberg, A Journal From Our Legation in Belgium, by Hugh Gibson, The Case of Miss Edith Cavell. http://net.lib.byu.edu/estu/wwi/memoir/legation/Gibson8.htm
[3] First World War Primary Documents, Maitre Gaston de Leval on the Execution of Edith Cavell  http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/cavell_deleval.htm
[4] Tracey Kittredge, The history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, p. 97.
[5] Harry Beaumont, Old Contemptible, pp. 173-4.
[6] Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 271.
[7] Princess Marie de Croy, War Memories, p.192. https://archive.org/details/warmemories00croyuoft
[8] Charles F. Horne, Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed., National Alumni, 1923. firstworldwar.com – Primary Documents – Maitre G. de Level on the Execution of Edith Cavell.
[9] Jacqueline Van Til, With Edith Cavell in Belgium, pp.125-131. https://archive.org/details/withedithcavelli00vant%5D
[10] Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 313.
[11] The Times, Friday 22 October 1915, p. 9.
[12] First World War.com – Primary Documents – Hugh Gibson on the Execution of Edith Cavell
[13] John Hamill, The Strange Career of Mr. Hoover, Under Two Flags, p. 333.
[14] Charles Tytgat, Nos Fusilles (raconteurs et espions) p. 67. http://www.bel-memorial.org
[15] La Belgique et la guerre. Georges Rancy Edition Henri Bertels 1927 http//www.1914-1918.be/photo.php?image=photos2/president hoover/president hoover 006.jpg
[16] Brand Whitlock to von Der Lancken, 31 August 1915 as quoted in Brand Whitlock, Belgium Under the German Occupation vol. 2, p. 4.
[17] Baron von Der Lancken to Mr Whitlock, 12 September, 1915 as quoted in Brand Whitlock, Belgium Under the German Occupation Vol. 2, p. 5.
[18] Tytgat, Nos Fusilles, pp. 68-69
[19] See previous blog: Edith Cavell 3: The Constant Correspondent.
[20] Sadi Kirschen,  Devant les Conseils de Guerre Allemands, p. 54.
[21] ibid., p. 136.
[22] Kirschen, Devant les Conseils de Guerre Allemands, p. 55.
[23] firstworldwar.com – Primary Documents, Maitre G. de Leval on the execution of Edith Cavell, 12 October 1915.
[24] Brand Whitlock, Belgium Under German Occupation, vol. 2, p. 2. http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/cavell_deleval.htm
[25] Ibid., p. 3.
[26]  Marie de Croy, War Memories, pp. 127-8. https://archive.org/details/warmemories00croyuoft
[27] Antoine Redier, La Guerre des Femmes, Histoire de Louise de Bettignes et de ses compagnes, p. 30.
[28] Ibid., p. 186.