Of the 70 people initially arrested by the German secret police, 35 were tried together in the Senate House in Brussels on 7th and 8th October 1915. The 22 men and 13 women were charged with a variety of related crimes including, conveying soldiers to the enemy, assisting with their safe-keeping, circulating seditious pamphlets and illegally carrying letters and correspondence. [1] It was a closed trial, and neutral observers were not permitted to attend. The five German judges were unnamed, but the central prosecutor, Kriegsgerichtsrat Eduard Stoebar, had allegedly been ‘brought to Brussels especially for this case as he was known as a hanging judge’. [2]

Edith's trial as depicted in propaganda poster.

Edith pled guilty to the charge laid against her, namely aiding enemy soldiers to return to their homeland and was not questioned about her other activities. The precise nature of the charge under paragraph 68 of the German military penal code included ‘conducting soldiers to the enemy’ which carried the death sentence, [3] though no-one apparently expected it to go that far. We know that she was a prolific correspondent, and the Germans had in their possession a letter that had been recently delivered to her through the American Legation, but though she was clearly in possession of illegal correspondence, Edith was not accused of illegally sending or receiving mail. What embarrassment would that letter have caused had it been produced in court? Yet no reference was made to it at all. Why? It has been suggested that in her plea of guilty, she took the opportunity ‘to conceal greater and more serious activities, including spying’. [4]

While that is an interesting way of suggesting that Edith somehow set the parameters of the charges she faced, the responsibility for framing the trial lay entirely with the German court. The pertinent question would ask why she was not interrogated about the content of the letters she had sent or the frequency of such correspondence? She was known to be an honest, frank, God-fearing woman who would not have lied under oath. Had she been asked, would Edith have spoken out about the German use of the food imports facilitated through the CRB? Was this what she meant when she told her mother that she ‘could tell you many things, but must save them till later?’ [5] Could the Germans or the Commission for Relief in Belgium have afforded to take that risk?

Reginald de Croy, head of the spy network

Edith was not the only non-Belgian, nor even the only English woman on trial. The highest profile female prisoner, Princess Marie de Croy, was born in London, a fact recorded on her charge sheet, and made known to the court. [6] If the purpose of the exercise was to frighten or subdue the population and stop the repatriation of refugee soldiers, then the execution of that noblewomen alone would have sufficed. She was both English and of Belgian aristocracy. Her brother was held to be the leader of the underground movement. But they spared Marie de Croy and executed the English nurse and one unlucky other, Philippe Baucq, the man responsible for La Libre Belgique which had lampooned General von Bissing. The Spanish Ambassador, the King of Spain [7] and even Pope Benedict XV became involved in international pleas for mercy. The remaining members of the network who were condemned to death with Edith had their sentences remitted to imprisonment with hard labour. Only  Edith and Philippe Baucq were summarily shot by firing squad. Members of the CRB, the American Legation and the CSNA would have us believe that they did everything humanly possible to save Edith Cavell. Judge that for yourself, please.

Brand Whitlock was unwell and kept himself out of the action. He did however know about Edith Cavell’s dire circumstances. In his journal, Whitlock casually recorded on 11 October, ‘I don’t remember whether I mentioned her in my notes before of not. She was arrested weeks ago….’ [8] He could not remember whether he had mentioned her before? Amazing. Apart from the convenience of poor recall, Whitlock was admitting prior interest in Edith’s fate, though nothing about her was included in his earlier diaries or journals. However, at the eleventh hour, he sprang into action. If the accounts from Hugh Gibson and Gaston de Leval are to be believed, and these are the sources from which historians have drawn their conclusions, the charade of last minute pleadings went as follows.

Whitlock records that he was brought news of Edith’s death sentence at 9.00 pm on 11 October by his friend and confidante, de Leval who had ‘just heard from the nurses who were keeping him informed…that the sentence of death had been pronounced on Miss Cavell at two o’clock that afternoon and that she was to be shot next morning.’ [9]. In his later account, Belgium Under German Occupation, Whitlock altered the timing to read, ‘the sentence of death had been pronounced on Miss Cavell at half-past four in the afternoon and she was to be shot at two o’clock the next morning.’ [10]

Edith Cavell's execution in French poster with the banner headline reading 'The Greatest Barbarian Crime'.

Perhaps he just wanted to heighten the tension. There is a further point. No-one has ever explained how these nurses knew what was happening, yet the most influential men in the land apparently did not. But that is not all. With divine prescience or, more likely, in the expectation of such news, Brand Whitlock, on the advice of Maitre Gaston de Level, had that very afternoon signed a plea for clemency to the Governor General (von Bissing) and a ‘letter of transmittal’ to be given to the head of the German Political Department,  Baron von der Lancken. Whitlock described it as a ‘premonition’ [11] They claimed not to know about the court’s verdict, but had prepared letters of appeal in advance. What amazing foresight.

As the circus gathered, key figures could not be found. General von Bissing was at his chateaux at Trois Fontaine, apparently playing bridge. Hugh Gibson and Gaston de Leval found the Spanish Ambassador, Marquis de Villalobar at Baron Lambert’s house in the company of the most powerful banker in Belgium and the executive president of the CNSA, Emile Francqui. Happily the meal was not greatly ruined since they were already at coffee. All, save Francqui, rushed round to Baron von der Lancken’s empty offices at Rue Lambermont, only to be told he was at ‘Le Bois Sacre’, a seedy variety theatre. [12] Von der Lancken insisted on waiting until the end of the performance. He dismissed claims of Edith’s impending execution as ‘impossible’, but was prevailed upon to phone the prison. He claimed that it was only at that point that he learned Edith was indeed to be executed in the dark of night. Or so the story was written by the Americans. Let us recap here. Von der Lancken claimed not to have known about the decision to shoot Edith Cavell and Philippe Baucq. Von Bissing was at his chateaux playing cards. The most important figure in Belgian politics and finance, Emile Francqui chose to remain at his friend’s house and finish his coffee while the others rushed about like headless chickens. At what point did coincidence collide with convenience and mutate into fiction?

While Hugh Gibson, de Leval and the Marquis de Villalobar appealed for clemency or at worst, the postponement of the death sentence, a different round of buck-passing began. Baron von der Lancken claimed that von Bissing, though Governor-General, had no power to over-rule the new Military Governor, General von Sauberzweig, on matters decided by a military court, and it was up to him to grant a stay of execution. Von Sauberzweig refused. He had been appointed only days before, and his temporary stay in Brussels raises questions which will be considered in a future blog. Interestingly he later became quarter-master for the German army, which suggests that von Sauberzweig had more than a passing interest in the work of the CRB.

The token appeals for clemency were dismissed about midnight and, according to Hugh Gibson, two hours later Edith Cavell faced the firing squad. [13] The phrase ‘you couldn’t make it up’ summarises Gibson’s account. Edith was executed at dawn on 12 October 1915, in the company of another hero, Philippe Baucq. In her last hours with the British chaplain, the Reverend H Stirling Gahan, she calmly reflected: ‘I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.’ [14] She died as she lived, a heroine and a patriot … and a key member of a successful underground network working against the German invaders.

Yet another provocative poster portraying Edith's execution as a cowardly deed

Spies were regularly shot and it was not unknown for women spies to suffer the same fate. The French authorities had executed Marguerite Schmidt and Ottillie Voss for spying in March and in May 1915, [15] but Edith Cavell had not been charged with espionage. Though she was later referred to as the ‘Spy Cavell’ by the German authorities, no-one appeared to have expected that the military court would pass the death sentence even though warnings about the consequences of harbouring enemy soldiers had been widely posted across Brussels. Spies were shot, yes; smuggling soldiers across the border was cause for imprisonment. Not this time.

The German Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmerman, issued a formal press release from Berlin about Edith Cavell’s execution. It stated: ‘no war court in the world could have given any other verdict, for it was not concerned with a single emotional need of one person, but a well thought out plot, with many far-reaching ramifications, which for nine months succeeded in doing valuable service to our enemies to the great detriment of our armies.’ [16]

This claim was perfectly fair. He added that her execution was regrettable but necessary and just, because as a result of the underground activities, ‘countless Belgian, French and English soldiers are again fighting in the ranks of the allies’ thanks to the group ‘whose head was the Cavell woman.’ [17] The German authorities in Belgium knew that Edith Cavell was not in charge of the network. Von Bissing, wrote a letter to his cousin on 23 October 1915 in which he categorically stated that ‘the brother of the princess (Reginald de Croy) was the leader of the organisation and, if arrested, would undoubtedly have been condemned to death.’ [18] So the Germans knew that Edith Cavell was directly involved but not the leader of the organisation. Did the German Under-Secretary lie, or was he not made party to all the facts?

General Von Bissing, Governor General of Belgium.

Governor General von Bissing was not interested in clemency. Marie de Croy thought that she saw him sitting amongst other officers in the Royal Box in the Senate House during the first day of the trial, ‘but later it was announced that he was out of Brussels at the time’ [19] What a strange denial. Why would the German authorities need to distance the General from the trial? Unless of course his complicity goes far deeper than historians have recorded. And of what were they so scared that they sentenced Edith to death in camera, and carried out the sentence almost immediately? These are questions on which we should ponder, for the consequence of Edith Cavell’s execution was far reaching. It stirred violent emotion and the cycle of blame was rapidly twisted into a whirlwind of propaganda, lies, and contempt for Germany, much of which is being repeated as truth in the current centenary commemorations.

Now, as then, there is a darker purpose. Edith’s death deflected attention away from the CRB and its role in feeding the German army. A role which Belgian historians seem determined to suppress.

[1] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 325.
[2] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 176.
[3] Brand Whitlock, Belgium Under German Occupation, Vol. 2, p. 11.
[4] Katie Pickles, Transnational Outrage – The Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavel, p. 29.
[5] Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 249.
[6] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 179.
[7] Ibid., p.190.
[8] Brand Whitlock, Letters and Journals, 11 October, 1915. http://www.ourstory.info/library/2-ww1/Whitlock/bw05.html
[9] Ibid.
[10] Whitlock, Belgium under the German Occupation, vol. 2., p 15.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid., p 19.
[13] Hugh Gibson, ‘A Journal from our Legation in Belgium’.
[14] firstworldwar.com Primary Documents – The Rev H. Stirling Gahan on the execution of Edith Cavell. Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923.
[15] Exchange Telegraph, Paris, November 2, 1915.
[16] firstworldwar.com – Primary Documents – Alfred Zimmern on the execution of Edith Cavell
[17] Ibid.
[18] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 165.
[19] Ibid., p. 176.