Nurse Edith Cavell's Funeral Procession to Westminster Abbey, 15 May 1919

In 1919 Edith Cavell’s body was disinterred from its unmarked grave in Brussels and given a formal memorial service in the Gard du Nord in the presence of the Allied Commanders. The coffin was loaded with all reverence onto a special train draped in black and covered with beautiful flowers. Her remains were met with great ceremony in England, and Queen Alexandra attended the military service at Westminster Abbey. Finally, Edith was laid to rest outside Norwich Cathedral with all the panoply of a grateful nation. [1] Let it be clearly understood that she was a patriot who willingly gave her life to save other brave men. Her self-sacrifice is beyond doubt and worthy of high honour. They called her a martyr, and amid the holy pomp and circumstance of the iconic cathedral, she was lauded in triumph. [2] On the other hand we now know that Edith was knowingly and unrepentantly a key figure in a Belgian resistance network which was spying for the allies and sending military intelligence to London. [3] Furthermore, she had a tale to tell.

And the deliberate myth-making, the manipulation of her contribution, contrived to deflect criticism away from the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB) and the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation (CNSA) and the fact that through these organisations the allies were effectively feeding the German army. With the Cavell/de Croy organisation broken, the flow of adverse criticism from Belgium was somewhat stemmed. There would be no more compromising letters from the Berkendael Institute. The supply of food available to the German army continued; so too did the fighting. The British Foreign Office and War Office, the German Foreign Office and the elites who ordained the war, needed to sustain the flow of foodstuffs through Belgium. The CRB’s massive international organisation comprising bankers and financiers, shipping magnates and grain exporters could breathe more easily. So too could the Belgian bankers. The whistleblower had been silenced.

Edith Cavell recruitment photograph in Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum

In addition there was an ironic bonus for the Secret Elite. With her body buried in an unmarked Belgian grave in 1915, the monsters of propaganda twisted Edith Cavell’s Christian values so that the protective Angel of Mercy was translated into an Avenging Angel. [4] The Bishop of London pronounced that ‘the blood of this brave woman will be the seed of armed men’ [5] Recruitment posters appeared with Edith’s image set against an emboldened background which proclaimed ‘Murdered by the Hun’. Sadly her example of selflessness was transformed into a rallying call for enlistment. Her life’s purpose had been to save others but her image was rebranded and distorted to send tens of thousands to their graves on the Western Front. A recent estimate claims that 40,000 more men, or somewhere between two and three infantry divisions were formed on the strength of the Cavell propaganda. [6] It was such perfect timing, for the flow of volunteers to Kitchener’s rallying call was fast drying up. Edith’s sacrifice smoothed the path to conscription in 1916. And it was all based on vile propaganda.

The British War Cabinet set up a secret committee under the Attorney-General in November 1918 to ‘Enquire into the Breaches of the Laws of War’ committed by the German army, and considered the case of Nurse Edith Cavell. In a report that was kept buried deep, the committee duly found that the court-martial (Feldgericht) was justified in finding that she had committed the offences of which she was charged, and had the power in law to condemn her to death. [7] In the cool reflection of a two-year old victory, the secret report of 26 February 1920 decided that; ‘it seems impossible to say that the tribunal which tried Miss Cavell, or the persons which carried out its sentence, were guilty of a war crime’ [8] and there was ‘no prospect that the prosecution of any of the persons concerned in the trial of Miss Cavell would result in a conviction.’ Having buried the truth, the Secret Elite had no interest in any further debate. So much for Lord Desart’s rhetoric of ‘tried in cold blood’. [9] Edith was a patriot, but she was guilty of the charge the Germans chose not to bring against her. Espionage.

Edith Cavell was certainly a victim of war, but whose victim?

Let us recap the main points raised over the course of our blogs. Nurse Cavell was a strong-minded, principled woman who, when war was declared, chose to return to her teaching post in Brussels. From August 1914 she became part of an underground network which was structured to aid and repatriate British, French and Belgian soldiers stranded behind enemy lines. The network, which was originally led by Prince Reginald de Croy, also spied on German trench positions, armaments stores, and general morale and passed information back to London.

Plaque outside the Ville d'Audenaarde in Ghent where Edith met Marie de Croy in April 1915.

Despite the ban on sending mail between Belgium and Britain, Edith was a regular correspondent, and defied German edicts by writing both to her family and the press. The image of Edith, bedecked in red-cross uniform, and tied to her office in Brussels suits the propagandists but evidence proves that she secretly met Marie de Croy in Ghent in April 1915. [10] She was very conscious of the dangers that surrounded the network, but would not abandon her involvement.

Senior officials close to the Secret Elite knew of her activities. At least two different departments of government in London, the Foreign Office and the War Office supported the de Croy network. British Intelligence was linked to Edith’s underground group through Harry Barton, and the French Intelligence service through Herman Capiau. [11] Who was running the show? Capiau named the ‘grand chef’, the controller of networks, as Dr. Bull, a person about whom little was known until his identity was confirmed in a recent BBC Radio broadcast. In the programme, Stella Rimington, formerly Director-General of MI5, named Dr Tollemache Bull as a senior British intelligence officer in charge of several spy networks. [12] According to a report in an American newspaper in 1922, Tollemache Bull was a dental physician who regularly met with Edith Cavell in Brussels during the war. [13] Bull was also related by marriage to the Whitlocks. (see Edith Cavell 3:) He was arrested and tried by the Germans in 1916 for providing Edith with funds and was defended by Maitre Braun. Not only did this British secret agent meet her regularly, but he was also channeling funds to her. [14] His cover was perfect. Who would have suspected a dentist as the link between several spy networks? This was not opportunistic or occasional espionage, but a carefully managed intelligence organisation that lead directly to London.

Old Contemptibles, the BEF resting before Mons

And Edith’s work delved into ever more clandestine activity. When the soldiers she had helped save landed back in Britain, they were extensively debriefed by intelligence officers from the War Office [15] before returning to their regiments. Many were inadvertently carrying secret messages sewn into their clothing, penned in microscopic handwriting. [16] Interestingly, Edith sewed her own diary, written in microscopic handwriting, into a cushion. Sadly only a fragment survived, [17] but it is surely instructive to realise that Edith used the art of miniature calligraphy herself. Was this one of the threads of her espionage?

The Americans also knew what was going on. By March 1915, her letters were routed through the American Legation in Brussels where they had every opportunity to read her mail. We know that her surviving letters became more openly incautious, [18] possibly because of the confidence she had misplaced in the diplomatic safety afforded by the Americans. Edith contributed her second report from Brussels for the Nursing Mirror, dated 29 March 1915. The editor, clearly annoyed that something had been removed, told his readers that the postmark on the envelope was 15 April, and that it had arrived at his offices four days later ‘torn open on both sides and resealed by the General Post Office.’ In other words he believed that he had not received everything that Edith had sent him. Having read and several times reread both the editor’s notes, placed on page one, and the anodyne article that followed, we cannot help but suspect that something much more controversial had been removed. What could Edith have written that upset British Intelligence? The article spoke of a very calm and unremarkable Brussels, far from the extreme alarm for a starving population which had been circulated by Hoover, Whitlock and the CRB. But given the knowledge she garnered from all of her underground contacts, the word her nurses heard on the street and what she saw for herself on her visits outside the capital, did she also write about the abuses of food being imported into Belgium through the CRB for the German army? It makes sense. Was it a question of what she wrote about Belgian Relief, or spoke about German food supplies to Dr Bull, that alarmed the Secret Elite in London? It may well have been both.

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover, as head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, spent much of March and April fire-fighting the angry claims from Britain that the CRB was feeding the German army. He was most indignant at ‘the rumours in England of misuse of food supplies by Germans’ and the ‘severe drilling’ he had been given at the Foreign Office. [19] Unquestionably the War Office and British Intelligence knew precisely what was going on in Belgium, but not the general public. A strict embargo was placed on such information. Every soldier who made it back was not only debriefed but, under the Official Secrets Act, was strictly forbidden to tell anyone about their experiences. [20]

Hoover was in Brussels during Edith Cavell’s trial. He lunched with Brand Whitlock on 6 October and had discussions with Baron von der Lancken on the afternoon of 8 October. [21]  The Chairman of the CRB left the city on 9 October, the very Saturday on which the German Judges sat in secret session to decide the sentences of the military court [22] and only three days before Edith Cavell’s execution.

It may already be apparent to our regular readers that every aspect of Edith Cavell’s arrest, imprisonment and execution was framed by the CRB or its Belgian partner, the CNSA. All the received histories have built their accounts of Edith’s fate on ‘evidence’ presented by members of the American Legation who were associated with the CRB. Furthermore, this ‘evidence’ is still accepted as fact. Thus the lies continue.

And they grow darker. The German military governor who ordered that Edith be shot at dawn on 12 October 1915, General Traugott Martin von Sauberzweig, was a burly, aggressive brute of a man who endorsed violence as a tactic. [23] His stay in Brussels was so comparatively short that one can but conclude that he was specifically sent there on a mission. Sauberzweig was allegedly unknown to Brand Whitlock, who claimed never to have met him. On the day before Edith’s execution, Whitlock noted in his diary that von der Lancken ‘Finally telephoned the Military Governor, a new one, I must get his name…’ [24] We are asked to believe that the Head of the American Legation did not know the name of the recently appointed German military governor when so many Belgian citizens were being tried by a military court? Perhaps Whitlock’s memory had simply failed him once again. By 2 November, Sauberzweig was reported to have been removed from office and replaced, [25] but that may have been wishful thinking. Other sources claim that he held on to his post until June 1916. [26] Whichever, we believe that he was parachuted in as military governor to ensure that Edith Cavell was silenced.

General von Sauberzweig, known to be a hard ruthless commander.

How strange it all was, but no stranger than the later meeting that the cursed General apparently requested with Herbert Hoover and his CRB colleague, Vernon Kellogg, when they ‘happened to be in Berlin’ in August 1916. According to Hoover, Sauberzweig, haunted by remorse, [27] asked to speak with him and confessed that he had been responsible for having Edith Cavell shot before there was any time for an effective appeal. How convenient for Hoover and the CRB that Sauberzweig should accept full responsibility, referring to himself as ‘the murderer’. [28] Here for the historical record was their ‘proof’ that Cavell’s death had nothing to do with the CRB.

In his account, Vernon Kellogg painted a very different image of Sauberzweig’s remorse. He was drunk, ‘on his nth whisky’, and had just come from his son’s hospital bed where the young man was lying blinded and disfigured. ‘And the sight of his son – and the memory of Miss Cavell made him remark that this was a horrible war.’ [29] He repeatedly referred to ‘Die Cavell’; that ‘Die Cavell was a thing that interfered with German control of Belgium. It had to be got rid of, so I had her shot’. [30] Not much remorse there, no matter how you read it, but what did Sauberzweig mean by stating that Edith Cavell interfered with German control of Belgium? After his stay in Brussels, Sauberzweig was appointed Quartermaster-General at the Imperial German Supreme Headquarters. [31] Who better to understand the importance of the unfettered CRB supplies reaching his troops than the man responsible for feeding the German army?

No matter how it was dressed up in fraught meetings and bitter recriminations, the CRB’s relationship with the German war effort could only be described as collaboration. Anyone who endangered the status quo was indeed interfering with the war effort, but not just Germany’s. A sense of a multi-layered self-interest pervaded the Commission and its work. We believe that decisions were taken at the highest levels of real power which embraced America, Britain, France and Germany. Had the CRB collapsed, the American economy would have been immediately damaged. So much had been invested through the Morgan – Rothschild axis, the Kuhn, Loeb and Co. banking house, through Bethlehem Steel and America’s blossoming armaments industry, that any action which risked a sudden end to the war would have affected them all. Some writers have claimed that the decision to have Edith Cavell killed could be traced back to the British Head of the Secret Service in New York, Sir William Wiseman. Not so. Wiseman was recuperating in Britain from gas poisoning inflicted on him in Flanders earlier in 1915, and when he was posted to the United States in December, Edith Cavell had been dead for two months. [32] Never the less, the American connection was spread much further than Herbert Hoover and the Brussel’s Legation.

Dame Stella Rimington, former Director-General of MI5

Nor should we imagine that British hands were clean. Though they never acknowledged Edith’s role as a spy (no government would) we have shown that she worked for the Intelligence Services. One hundred years later the former Director-General of MI5, Stella Rimington, admitted so in public. [33] Most of all, the Foreign Office in the personages of Sir Edward Grey and Lord Eustace Percy knew about the vast tonnage of food and thousands of livestock which were transferred into Germany while the CRB maintained its ‘humanitarian’ front. They knew the pressure that Hoover’s men were under to stop such information reaching London. This is a matter of record. [34] They were all in collusion.

On her way to prison in Germany, Princess Marie de Croy, sat on her cases in a railway station and inadvertently summed up this whole episode with a single observation.

‘The sergeant told me he was going on holiday and, like all the German soldiers whom I saw travelling, he was loaded with provisions to take home. Although a promise had been made to America that food should not be taken out of Belgium, which was the condition the United States had made for provisioning the population, this was certainly done.’ [35]

The Committee for Relief in Belgium was not supplying provisions for the sole use of the ‘starving’ Belgian population. It was feeding Germany too; feeding the German army and sustaining the German population. In dissecting the myriad of lies which have been woven around Edith Cavell, the conclusion we have come to is that the German, American, Belgian and British authorities colluded in her murder. Had she lived to expose the truth behind the CRB, the consequences for the Secret Elite would have been catastrophic. Her death ensured that the agony of a miserable war was prolonged.

[1] The Times, 16 May 1919 pp. 13-14.
[2] Ibid., p. 14.
[3] Phil Tomaselli, BBC History, September 2002, p. 6.
[4] Hugo Lueders,
[5] A G Gardner, The Guardian,  23 October 1915; quoted in Irene Cooper Willis, England’s Holy War, p. 231.
[6] Dame Stella Rimington, Secrets and Spies, BBC Radio 4, broadcast on 15/09/2015.
[7] National Archives, PRO/CP 1813, p. 424.
[8] Ibid., p. 428.
[9] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 20 October 1915, vol. 19 cc. 1100-1104.
[10] Again we are indebted to Hugo Lueders, an independent policy analyst in Brussels for advice and up to the moment research he is undertaking.
[11] See blog Edith Cavell 3: The Constant Threat.
[12] Rimington, Secrets and Spies, BBC Radio 4, broadcast 15/09/2015.
[13] The Batavia Times, April 22, 1922.
[15] Harry Beaumont, Old Contemptible, p. 187.
[16] Rimington, Secrets and Spies, BBC Radio 4, broadcast 15/09/2015.
[17] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 229.
[18] Ibid., p. 248.
[19] George Gay and HH Fisher, Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Document 33, page 52.
[20] Beaumont, Old Contemptible, pp. 187-8.
[21] Brand Whitlock, The Letters and Journals of Brand Whitlock, Chapter V,  6-9 October 1915.
[22] Souhami, Edith Cavell, p. 346.
[23] Ibid., p. 320.
[24] Whitlock, The Letters and Journals, Chapter 5, 11 October 1915.
[25] New York Times, 2 November 1915.
[26] Sophie Schaepdrijver, Gabriel Petit, The Death and Life of a Female Spy, p. 92.
[27] Brand Whitlock, Belgium Under German Occupation, p. 198.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Vernon Kellogg, Fighting Starvation, p. 66.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Schaepdrijver, Gabriel Petit, p. 92.
[32] The Times, 18 June 1962, p.14;  Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Sir William Wiseman, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Christopher Andrews, Secret Service, The Making of the British Intelligence Service, p. 209.
[33] Rimington, Secrets and Spies, BBC Radio 4, broadcast 15/09/2015.
[34] George Gay and HH Fisher, Public Relations of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Documents, 46-50 pp. 79-84.
[35] Marie de Croy, War Memories, p. 204.