“MURDERED BY THE HUNS: ENLIST IN THE 99th AND HELP STOP SUCH ATROCITIES,” one Canadian postcard cried, circulating a photo of a woman with one of those prim Victorian collars looking angelic. “MISS EDITH CAVELL: MURDERED,” a British postcard cried, this time with the victim, clad in nurse’s white, being shot by a German soldier. Another one, “MISS EDITH CAVELL COWARDLY MURDERED,” upped the ante, depicting a German soldier shooting her as she lay prone. And, driving it home, a contemporary poster challenged: “LATE NURSE CAVELL—SHE GAVE ALL—YOU BUY PEACE BONDS!
One hundred years ago, the civilized world, meaning the British-led Allies, were enjoying an old-fashioned, full-throated, orgy of righteous indignation. It seemed that the Germans had cold-bloodedly executed the saintly Edith Cavell, “our Joan of Arc,” a lovely British woman living in Belgium. Her crime: nursing British and French soldiers to health. The depictions showed this “Christian martyr” being shot to death, in her nursing whites—with some accounts claiming the nasty Germans fired the fatal shot after she fainted. The act was so unchivalrous, so brutal, that it sold hundreds of thousands of War Bonds, er, Peace Bonds, and doubled the British army’s weekly recruitment totals to ten thousand soldiers per week. This drive was essential because Britain only instituted a draft in 1916, and the bloody trench warfare was decimating the ranks.
Ah, for the good ole’ days, when stories were so linear, and the line between good guys and bad guys was so clear. Back then, it was easier to whip ourselves into a hurricane of hatred against our enemies, secure as we were in our goodness and their evil. Alas, even then, those pesky facts journalists and historians relish uncovering often muddied the story and obscured the moralizing.