People  generally  ignore the amazing story of the ‘Commission for Relief in Belgium’. It is not taught in history courses in schools or colleges. In complete contrast, the story of Edith Cavell has been transformed into a myth bordering on a case for canonisation. Despite years of carefully focussed research and the growing evidence of Edith’s complicity in espionage, Hugo Lueders, an independent policy analyst based in Brussels, remains impressed by the refusal of officialdom to acknowledge newly available facts and insights. We invited him to express his experiences in researching what he terms the ‘Second Edith Cavell’

A British poster to entice recruits by using the propaganda driven by Edith Cavell's execution

BBC Radio 4’s recent broadcast about the spying activities of the ‘Cavell network’ timed to precede the century celebrations of Nurse Edith Cavell’s execution by the German Army in Brussels on 12 October, [1] remind us of Pope Francis’s landmark apologies in July 2015 for the ‘many grave sins’ perpetrated by the Catholic Church against the indigenous peoples of America. Many grave sins have indeed been committed by those who extolled Edith Cavell’s virtues in a manner which misrepresented her activities to promote disingenuous propaganda and damn the Germans as murderers.

A ‘confidential and secret report’ on German war crimes, submitted to His Majesty’s Government as early as February 1920, concluded that the execution of the British war heroine, now ‘identified’ a saint by the Church of England, [2]  was legally justified. In contrast to the original claims that Edith was summarily shot in cold blood, the report concluded that the German court martial “was justified” in condemning her to death. [3] This report was not made known to the public, nor recorded in the many official statements and hagiographies which continued to promote the myth of Edith’s innocence. They all, including the Church of England, stirred world opinion against ‘the murdering Hun’ to their own purposes, namely to turn world opinion and in particular America, against the Germans and encourage young men to enlist in the infantry.“The blood of this brave woman will be the seed of armed men” – “They could have done no deed better calculated to serve the British cause”. [4] It is estimated that as many as three full battalions were formed on the back of Edith Cavell’s execution. [5] Even today, articles and speeches, even those from allegedly responsible by UK Ministers [6]  continue to talk about the ‘assassination’ of Edith Louisa Cavell.

Dame Stella Rimington, former Director-General of MI5On top of this, the powers who ordain Cavell’s espionage revelations have suddenly produced an acknowledgement that Edith was involved in a network which was clearly spying for the British secret service while actually managing to confirm that she was just an ‘incidental  spy’. This alone is an amazing admission. ‘Incidental spy’? What an amazing concept. It is as likely as ‘half pregnant’. Dame Stella Remington, formerly head of MI5, fronted a BBC Radio 4 broadcast called ‘Secrets and Spies’ in September 2015 [7] and admitted that Nurse Cavell kept close company with several members and was herself ‘a leading member’ of a spy network based around Brussels.

After nearly a century of sustained denial, the British services involved have apparently changed their position. Now they want to be seen as the honest brokers willing to uncover the truth. Or at least, part of the truth. The major source for Dame Stella’s revelation comes from documents held in the ‘Musée Royal de l’Armée’ (in Flemish: ‘Koninklijk Legermuseum’) in Brussels; documents that have been happily ignored by mainstream historians till just recently, fearful perhaps, that by investigating the original sources, a very different story would emerge. Fearful too of writing about the spy network lest it brought Edith’s name into disrepute just at the point of their centenary ‘commemoration’.

Edith was shot along with another patriot, Philippe Baucq, but all of the others who had been condemned to death in October 1915 had their sentences commuted to years of hard labour in prison. One of her friends and co-conspirators inside the network which rescued hundreds of soldiers isolated behind enemy lines was Louise Thuliez, a schoolteacher and underground activist. [8]  When she returned to Brussels after three desperately difficult years in a German prison, she wrote a pamphlet about the ‘Cavell organisation’ which specifically detailed their secret service contacts and the espionage with which they were involved. Concerned that this would disturb the proceedings at the Versailles Peace conference, and destroy the myth of Edith the martyr, Louise Thuliez’s memoire was denied permission for publication. [9]

Brussels Museum of the Army - a worthy visit.

The evidence held in Brussels recorded by another Belgian patriot, Herman Capiau, [10] was unearthed quite recently, but only given the stamp of official acknowledgement by Dame Stella’s radio broadcast of 16 September 2015. The real Edith was not as they wanted to portray her. She was undoubtedly a very brave and religious patriot, and like all of the brave men and women who risked so much to save those stranded British, French and Belgian soldiers, deserves recognition and praise for her patriotism.

What has made Edith Cavell’s position so vulnerable today is the preposterous level of disinformation unleashed by the secret British War Propaganda Bureau installed at Wellington House in London, swallowed so willingly by the Church of England and deliberately contorted into anti-German hysteria from 1915 onwards. Had the truth been told, we might never have heard anything about Edith Cavell. Her brave story was but one of several. Though there were not many, female spies were shot by both sides during the war, [11] but Edith Cavell’s fate was dressed in other clothes. Most importantly, she had not been executed as a spy, and only later the Germans referred to her as ‘the spy Cavell’. Now, the ‘Cavell – the – spy’ deniers are in quandary. How far can they admit Edith’s involvement in espionage? Was she just an ‘incidental spy’ or perhaps ‘an occasional spy’? Indeed, our experience has been to ask, do they want to know the truth at all, or do they simply want to live in the past, wrapped in the confidence of their propaganda? What are they afraid of?

Ghent plaque to EdithRecent investigations and findings about Edith’s clandestine visit to Ghent in April 1915, only a few months before her arrest, have been ignored by Cavell historians and apologists seeking to maintain the myth that she was not involved in anything other than her nursing school and the saving of displaced and wounded soldiers. A memorial plaque on the side of the former café ‘La Ville d’Audenarde’ in Ghent (today’s ‘Residentie Cavell’ with the plaque still intact) was clearly placed there in commemoration of Edith’s visit.[12] The Times of London published a photograph of the hostelry in 1924, with the caption ‘Nurse Cavell’s Hiding Place’, but without any accompanying explanation. The café and guesthouse ‘La Ville d’Audenarde’ was described in the local press of that time as a meeting place for racketeers, members of the resistance movement and would-be-spies. [13]  According to the many newspaper and other local sources, Edith Cavell stayed there for several days and, according to local reports,  met, beside others, Princess Marie de Croÿ. We are left to assume – until this secret meeting can be be confirmed through much needed in-depth research – that they had much information to impart, and that they were aware of the world around them. When historians write about Edith it is as if she stayed in her office and limited herself to the confines of the Berkendael Institute. She was braver and more daring than that. [14]

One of the many problems researching the ‘Second Edith Cavell’ is the constant and stubborn denial and opposition to new evidence by official historians and so-called Cavell-experts. For them the evidence from the café ‘La Ville d’Audenarde’ is just an ‘anecdote’ devoid of any relevance. They even deny that Edith Cavell had ever been in Ghent, and insist that she never visited this secret hub of underground activity. The memorial plaque and the inauguration ceremony in August 1924 (in the presence of many high-level representatives including British officials) does not count as proof. They act like the priests who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope: ‘What may not be, cannot be’. It is more than just turning a blind eye; their attitudes constitute a deliberate denial.

Dame Stella Rimington, in her aforementioned BBC Radio 4 transmission contributed another lesser known fact. The spy network sent secrete information to London in minuscule handwriting, sewn into the clothes of the repatriated soldiers. Edith kept a diary, sewn into a cushion for safety, and what has survived from that was also written in minuscule handwriting. [15] Coincidence or what?

Edith's death proved valuable for British propaganda and recruitmentWhat is at stake here is not Edith Cavell’s reputation. Her bravery, selflessness and daring determination to save others marks her out as an example to be admired. That she was also spying is immaterial to her valour. But such an admission has darker consequences. The British propaganda machine at Wellington House in London [16] unleashed an onslaught against Germany based on a lie. Edith, the ‘Angel of Mercy’ was wilfully translated into Edith the ‘Avenging Angel’. Young men were inspired by that lie to give their own lives in a futile struggle. They were exhorted to join up by priests in the pulpit, by women’s groups in the street, by newspaper tirades against the ‘Huns’, and pompous parliamentarians in the House of Lords crying that she had been ‘shot in cold blood’. [17]  To admit the full extent of her activities would unmask the shadowy people who manufactured her image to such cruel ends.

Will it take another hundred years before the world can learn the full truth, if ever possible and not just a vague acknowledgement that Edith was ‘associated with a spy network’? Will we ever be told the truth about the information she sent home? Recent ‘Hidden History’ blogs have shown on this site that her associations with the ‘Commission for Relief in Belgium’ and its side-kick, the ‘Comité National de Secours et Alimentation’ raises further questions about their involvement in her death. Will we ever see some serious academic research about it? Possibly not, but it is up to us to continue piecing together the puzzle from the scraps that continue to reveal a deeper truth about the real Cavell tragedy?

This original monument to Edith in Brussels looks remarkably like that of a saint. It has since been removed and apparently disappeared?
It would be so much simpler to follow Pope Francis’s example, not to wait for five hundred more years before apologising for all the lies and give the world the full picture. Such apologies which in all fairness are morally required, should be presented tmore sincerely than the recent ‘qualified apology’ for the Iraq War. [18] When can Edith Louisa Cavell’s reputation be finally spared the embarrassment of gross over-exaggeration and downright untruths so that she can rest in peace? An apology from those who perpetuate the lies would be a welcome start.

[1] For a brief summary of Edith Cavell see: https//en.wilipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Cavell with many more references.
[2] The Church of England ‘Calendar of Saints’ appointed 12 October for Edith’s commemoration (see http://www.edith-cavell-belgium.eu/events.html and the above Wikipedia entry.) See also the Norwich ‘Sunday Worship’ in honour of Edith Cavell, ‘A nurse who tried to do her duty’, broadcasted by the BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 11th Oct. 2015, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06gthk2.
[3] HMG “Committee of Enquiry into Breaches of the Laws of War,” 26 February, 1920. pp. 419-428 ‘Execution of Edith Cavell: p. 424, ‘ … the Feldgericht was justified … to condemn her to death. (see http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/D7736306#imageViewerLink )
[4] A.G. Gardner, Bishop of London, The Guardian, 23rd Oct.1915, in: Irene Cooper Willis, ’England’s holy war; a study of English Liberal idealism during the Great War’, 1928, p. 231 (http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007555282); and ‘The Times’, 20th Oct. 1915.
[5] A conservative estimate of between two and three battalions was given by Dame Stella Rimington on the BBC Radio 4 transmission, Wednesday 16 September, 2015. Several other sources speak of hundreds of thousands and even of a million men. (Katie Pickles, Jan Van der Fraenen etc.)
[6] For example: Dr Andrew William Murrison M P (Conservative), ‘Surgeon Commander’, and since 2012, Minister for International Security Strategy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Murrison.) He spoke in Paris on 11 April, 2012 as UK representative at the 1st International Diplomatic Conference for the preparation of the worldwide WW1 remembrance years 2014-2018, referring again to the murder of Edith Cavell, of ‘l’assassinat’. Minutes of this conference can be viewed on http://sozial.goetheanum.org/fileadmin/sozialwissenschaft/2012/Initiatives/CR_r%C3%A9union_internationale_de_Paris_du_11_04_2012_doc.pdf page 18.
[7] Former Director-General of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington admitted that the ‘Cavell network’ smuggled secret information to British Intelligence Services (see ‘Secrets and Spies: The Untold Story of Edith Cavell’, BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 16 September, 2015. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b069wth6
[8] For Louise Thuliez see: https//fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louise_Thuliez
[9] Phil Tomaselli, BBC History, September 2002, p. 6.
[10] For Herman Capiau and newly discovered documents see: Lueders “Edith’s Wonderland – In Memoriam of Edith Cavell, 12 October, 1915, pp. 14-17. Chapter “From the Shadows” available online at ‘academia.edu: https//wwwacademia.edu/9532093/Edith_S Wonderland_In_Memoriam_of _Edith_Cavell_12_October_1915.
[11] Exchange Telegraph Company wire, printed in The Times, Wednesday 3 November, 1915, p. 9.
[12] For the Ghent ‘phantom story’, see (forthcoming): Arthur De Decker, “Edith Cavell in Ghent” (in Flemish). An advance copy, still without pictures, is available on-line at: http://www.dewereldmorgen.be/blog/arthurdedecker/2015/09/25/edith-cavell-in-gent (‘De Wereld Morgen’, 25th September, 2015. Additional information can be found (also in Flemish) through a rediscovered interview with the daughter of the innkeeper (24 years of age in 1915, and also honored, same as her mother, with a high-ranked Belgian decoration on 24th Aug. 1924), source:
interview with Mrs Berthe Kinsoen-Steurbaut by F. De Vynck, in ‘Het Laatste Nieuws’, 18th May1965 (p. 6); with a reprint available in the ‘Genealogia Steurbaut’, nr 2, 1999, pp. 46-52 and nr 5, 2002, p. 41.
[13] For local press article and other available sources, see: Arthur De Decker, “Edith Cavell in Ghent” as note above. Edith’s secret stay, hiding safely in the cafe, has been recently confirmed to the author by the granddaughter and other family descendants of the innkeeper at that time. Its focus as a hub for all of the activities mentioned in the text was also confirmed.
[14] Dr Emmanuel Debruyne’s recently published book, ‘Le réseau Edith Cavell’ (Racine, October 2015), a must-read for everybody interested in the Cavell tragedy, stands out for what is said, and even more so, for what is not said. A great book with great gaps: Beside many new and valuable nice-to-know insights into the working of the network, essential need-to-know elements are mentioned just by name or missing completely, such as: – the financial and logistical support of the network or parts of it through C.R.B. and C.N.S.A. channels; – the key role played by agents like the ‘grand chef’Dr Tollemache Bull; – a complete blackout on Edith Cavell’s presumed activities in Ghent and other places outside of Brussels; – hardly any new information given on even well-known spying activities through the network or the British propaganda, active in 1915 as today, to deliver and trying desperately to maintain an exclusive picture of the ‘First Edith Cavell’, the innocent, brave and religious Edith Louisa (but even here without any real understanding of the deeper spiritual nature of Edith Cavell, just calling her en passant a ‘saint laïque’). Additional research is urgently needed for all these matters, just to mention a few.
[15] Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell, 2010/2015, p. 229.
[16] For information on Wellington House and British propaganda see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wellington_House or H C Peterson, Propaganda for War, p. 16.
[17] Hansard, House of Lords Debate, 20 October 1915, vol. 19 cc. 1100-1104.
[18] On Tony Blair’s Iraq ‘apology’ of 25th Oct. 2015 see for example Lindsey German, from the ‘Stop the War Coalition’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=NQcAYc6bSkQ&app=desktop.