Edith Cavell Was A Nurse Executed For Being A Spy – But Was She?

Published May 9, 2018
Updated February 17, 2020

Belgium nurse Edith Cavell was executed during World War I for helping Allied soldiers escape Nazi Germany. However, new evidence suggests that this wartime hero might have actually been a spy.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell in her garden with her two dogs.

Edith Cavell was shot by a German firing squad after being charged with smuggling Allied soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium during World War I. Depending on which side of the fight you were on back then, Cavell was either a beloved, empathic nurse — or a crafty spy working for the enemy.

While much is still unknown about her true motivations, today Cavell is forever viewed as a heroine.

Edith Cavell Becomes A Nurse

Edith Cavell was the first of four siblings born in the small village of Swardeston, England on Dec. 4, 1865. After attending Norwich High School for Girls, she went to several boarding schools where she learned French.

In 1887, 22-year-old Cavell began working as a governess for different families across Europe. She was working in Brussels in 1895 when her father, a longtime vicar for the local church, became sick with a serious illness. Cavell returned to England to take care of him and his recovery inspired her to become a nurse.

At the age of 30, she enrolled in a four-year program to be a nurse probationer at the Royal London Hospital and went on to work across England as a private traveling nurse who treated patients in their homes. She received the Maidstone Medal for assisting with the typhoid outbreak in Maidstone during 1897.

Cavell hit a major career milestone in 1907 when Royal Family Surgeon Dr. Antoine Depage recruited her to be the matron, or chief nurse, of a new n a secular training school for nurses at the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels.

Since nursing in Belgium was run mostly by nuns at the time, Depage saw Cavell’s medical training as a major benefit. He believed that religious institutions weren’t doing a great job keeping up with the latest medical advances.

Cavell quickly advanced while working at the school – called L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées – and by 1910 was the matron for the new secular Berkendael hospital at Saint-Gilles.

During World War I

Cavell was visiting her mother in England when Germany first invaded Belgium in August of 1914.

Immediately upon hearing news of World War I, Cavell returned to her clinic in Brussels to find that it had been turned into a Red Cross hospital during the German occupation. She quickly became known for attending to soldiers on both sides of the war. A devout Christian, she treated people on both sides of the fighting and reportedly once said, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”

Edith Cavell During World War I

Wikimedia CommonsEdith Cavell in Red Cross uniform. 1915

However, German authorities believed that she was doing more than just helping wounded soldiers. They were increasingly suspicious that Cavell had been helping smuggle out captured Allied soldiers, as well as Belgian collaborators.

On Aug. 23, 1914, over 3,000 soldiers’ lives were lost during the Battle of Mons in Belgium, which was the British army’s first major battle. Afterward, wounded Brits were left stranded in enemy territory, and many hid in the countryside to avoid capture.

In November, two refugee British soldiers showed up at Cavell’s clinic where she took them in and nursed them to health. This act of kindness was also allegedly one of her first instances of defiance.

German authorities believed that she was in direct violation of military law by guiding wounded British and French soldiers — as well as Belgian and French civilians who were of military age — to escape from occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Cavell was later accused of helping some of the soldiers even return to their native Britain or France.

By that point, penalties for helping Allied troops were made clear. Germans had hung warning posters around Belgium and the country’s military code stated that anyone found committing acts “with the intention of aiding a hostile power” would be punished to death.

Despite knowing the fatal trouble she could get into, Cavell continued to shelter wounded men no matter what side of the war they were on. She couldn’t bring herself to turn the men away and instead kept them until a plan was formulated to safely evacuate them from occupied territory.

Arrest, Trial, And Execution

The German secret police had been conducting surveillance on Berkendael for weeks until a tip by a man named George Gaston Quien — who was later convicted as a collaborator in France — motivated them to act.

On Aug. 3, 1915, Edith Cavell was arrested and charged her with treason for aiding at least 200 soldiers in escaping. She was kept at Saint-Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two of which were in solitary confinement, before her court-martial.

Edith Cavell gave made three depositions confirming that she helped Allied soldiers escape to a country at war with Germany and even sheltered most of them in her home. However, it was argued later by the British government and the rest of the Allies that since the papers were written in German and only translated into French verbally, Cavell didn’t understand what the deposition she was signing really meant.

One of those depositions was signed the day before the trial and in it, she confirmed that the soldiers she helped wrote her letters to thank her and let her know that they arrived safely in Britain. Even though she may have been misrepresented and misunderstood, Edith Cavel reportedly made no attempts to defend herself.

Cavell was tried in secret so that diplomats from neutral countries wouldn’t be able to intervene. There, she was found guilty and sentenced to death.

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15th May 1919: Celebrated war time English nurse and war time heroine, Edith Cavell’s funeral procession in Dover. She was shot by the Germans for spying in Brussels in October 1915. (Photo by A. R. Coster/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The United States and Spain did eventually did find out. However, their attempts, as well as those made by the British government to commute her sentence were futile. On Oct. 12, 1915, Edith Cavell was executed by a firing squad.

Following her arrest, propaganda efforts on each side portrayed Cavell as either a kind nurse or an enemy operative.

Edith Cavell's Execution

Wikimedia Commons/FlickrBritish postcards depicting Edith Cavell’s execution.

Her execution led to a wave of publicity as her story made international headlines. In Britain, Cavell’s image became a featured propaganda tool for recruiting British soldiers. Postcards and pamphlets were published depicting a grime scene of her merciless end. She was viewed as a heroine, and her death supposedly inspired others to join the war effort.

Spy Or Martyr?

The Germans, on the other hand, did not take so kindly to her saintly image.

They alleged that Cavell was not just rescuing Allies, but was also a spy smuggling intelligence back to Britain. This controversial claim was vehemently denied by the British, but questions surrounding the hero nurse’s legacy have lingered long after the war ended.

In 2015, the ex-head of the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency M15, Stella Rimington, revealed shocking new evidence that suggested Cavell was indeed a spy.

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00000000 — Edith Louisa Cavell (1865-1915), British nurse and patriot executed by the Germans in 1915. — Image by © adoc-photos/Corbis

Historian and distant relative of Edith Cavell, Dr. Emma Cavell, also shed some insight into her ancestor: stating:

“Despite the posters of a helpless young girl lying on the ground while she is shot in cold blood by a callous German, the truth is that Edith was a tough 49-year-old woman who knew precisely the danger she was placing herself in.”

Dr. Cavell added, “She admitted quite frankly what she’d done, and doesn’t appear to have been afraid of the consequences.”

Whatever Edith Cavell’s true motives were, we’ll never really know. Still, she is largely recognized as a martyr and humanitarian who saved hundreds of lives. Reports that she forgave her executioners moments before she was killed and her infamous last words inscribed on the Edith Cavell Memorial in London only confirm her bravery.

“Patriotism is not enough,” she said. “I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.”


If you liked this article on Edith Cavell, you may also be interested in the stories of these 21 war heroes. Then take a look at the real-life Rosie the Riveters, the factory women who helped the United States win World War II.

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