The Saintly Nurse Executed for Being a Spy
Edith Cavell is remembered as a martyr shot in her nursing whites by a German firing squad but her death was used to increase bloodshed.
“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.
In fairness, Edith Cavell was wonderful. A vicar’s daughter born in 1865 in Swardeston near Norwich, she trained as a nurse and moved to Belgium in 1907. At a time when most nurses were nuns, and the “respectability” of working women was questionable, Cavell established Belgium’s first secular nursing school. Her work put her in an awkward but advantageous position when the Great War started in 1914. Rushing back to Belgium from a visit home in England, suddenly, she was working behind enemy lines, as the nursing business boomed. She explained her return with the breathless humblebrag epitomizing Victorian womanhood: “At a time like this, I am needed more than ever.”
Nurse Cavell ministered to hundreds of young men suffering horrific injuries in this cruel war. But her beneficence didn’t get her killed. She smuggled as many as 200 wounded English and French soldiers out of Belgium to the Netherlands— for humanitarian purposes she would say when caught and forced to confess after nine weeks in solitary confinement. By British law too, enabling enemy combatants to rejoin their army is treason, subject to the death penalty. Moreover, a review of the Belgian archives by Dame Stella Rimington, MI5’s former chief, for this centenary commemoration in October, 2015 uncovered evidence that the martyred Ms. Cavell peddled intelligence about the German trenches, ammunition dumps and airplanes via her network as well. Some of the information was sewn into clothing or obscured in shoes and boots. That made her a spy not just a traitor.
Nevertheless, in this first major propaganda war, the German shooting at dawn of a female nurse by firing squad, backfired. Although she did not wear her nurse’s uniform, as she was shot for treason not nursing, most depictions showed her dressed beatifically in her nursing whites. Although she stood bravely until shot, most depictions showed her on the floor, having fainted. And although she uttered a pacifist, universalist sentiment—“Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”—the statue honoring her near Trafalgar Square made her a conventional patriot, dying for “King and Country.” (Her last words were added after protests in 1923). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame wrote, “Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood.”
The German Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Alfred Zimmerman, issued a detailed justification of the trial, conviction, and execution. Claiming that shooting this woman was treating her equally—even while stereotyping females—Zimmerman said: “Were special consideration shown to women we should open the door wide to such activities on the part of women, who are often more clever in such matters than the cleverest male spy.”
The British and their subjects, rushed to enlist and buy bonds. And the Americans became further inflamed against the Germans, setting the stage for America’s game-changing entry into the war in 1917. The New York Herald’s European edition, approvingly summarized the Bishop of London’s sentiment that “the cold-blooded murder of the poor English woman who had nursed hundreds of wounded German soldiers and who had been deliberately shot in Brussels by a German officer would run the sinking of the Lusitania a very hard race in the opinion of the civilized world as the greatest crime in history.”
Edith Cavell became a popular saint—the date of her death, October 12, is in the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints. A silent movie in 1928 celebrated her life—and death. The famous singer Edith Pilaf—who led a very different life—was one of many young women named after Cavell, whose name also graces an 11,000 foot mountain in Canada and a recently minted Five pound coin in Great Britain.
Edith Cavell’s deification helped inspire the Allies to counter German aggression during World War I. But such exaggerations also fed the vengefulness that led to harsher surrender terms being imposed on the Germans—which some historians believe helped trigger World War II. And the subsequent backlash against Allied exaggerations during World War I undermined Allied credibility three decades later, when the “Huns,” truly committed “the greatest crime in history.”
A century later, it is still worth honoring Edith Cavell, as a brave humanitarian and a British patriot. But there’s value in celebrating lives well lived as full color, 3-D modernist portraits, rather than yesteryear’s stiff, one dimensional black and whites. In democracies that are as noble yet flawed as ours, it’s helpful to have heroes who are flawed yet noble—like most of us, at our best.