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

Published May 9, 2018
Updated October 24, 2018

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

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. She was definitely a nurse and she may have been a spy, but she is forever viewed as a heroine.

Edith Cavell Becomes A Nurse

Edith Cavell was the first of four siblings born in the village of Swardeston, England on Dec. 4, 1865. She learned French while attending boarding school and in 1887 she began working as a governess for different families across Europe. She was working in Brussels in 1895 when her father became sick.

After returning to England to take care of him, Cavell was inspired to become a nurse and enrolled in a four-year program at the Royal London Hospital. Connections she made while in Brussels proved handy once she began her new career. One such connection was Royal Family Surgeon Antoine Depage, who invited Cavell to return to Brussels and run a secular training school for nurses at the Berkendael Medical Institute.

Since nursing in Belgium was run mostly by nuns at the time, Depage saw Cavell’s medical training as a major benefit. She quickly advanced while working at the school – L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées – and by 1910 was the Matron for Berkendael hospital.

During The War

Cavell was visiting her mother in England when World War I broke out in 1914, with Germany invading Belgium that August. Hearing the news, Cavell returned to her clinic in Brussels, which was turned into a Red Cross hospital during the German occupation. Cavell is 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 were suspicious that Cavell had been helping smuggle out captured Allied soldiers, as well as Belgian collaborators. It was first determined that she was helping them escape from occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. But later, she was accused of also accused of helping some of the soldiers return to their native Britain or France.

The Battle of Mons in Belgium took place on Aug. 23, 1914, which was the British army’s first major battle. Afterward, wounded Brits were left stranded in enemy territory. Many hid in the countryside to avoid capture. In November, two refugee British soldiers appeared at Cavell’s clinic where she took them in and nursed them to health.

This was allegedly one of the first instances of Cavell’s defiance. By that point, penalties for helping Allied troops were made clear, as the Germans had hung warning posters around Belgium. Despite knowing the trouble she could get into, she couldn’t bring herself to turn the men away. Instead, she sheltered them until a plan was formulated to safely evacuate them from occupied territory.

Arrest, Trial, And Execution

The suspicious German secret police had been conducting surveillance on Berkendael. On Aug. 3, 1915, they arrested Edith Cavell and charged her with treason for aiding at least 200 soldiers in escaping. Following her arrest, propaganda efforts on each side portrayed Cavell as either a kind nurse or an enemy operative.

Edith Cavell gave three depositions confirming that she helped Allied soldiers escape to a country at war with Germany. But 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 she was signing.

Cavell was tried in secret so that diplomats from neutral countries wouldn’t be able to intervene. She was kept in solitary confinement for 10 weeks before being declared guilty of treason. She was sentenced to death.

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 firing squad.

Edith Cavell Propaganda

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

Cavell’s death led to a wave of publicity and 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 merciless death. 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, alleged that Cavell was not just rescuing Allies, but was also a spy smuggling intelligence back to Britain. This is a controversy that lingered long after the war ended. As recent as 2015, the ex-head of the United Kingdom’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, Stella Rimington, revealed new evidence suggesting Cavell was indeed a spy.

A distant relative of Edith Cavell who also happens to be a historian, Dr. Emma Cavell, 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.”

Emma 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, she has largely been recognized as a martyr and humanitarian who saved hundreds of lives. Her moral compass and reports that she forgave her executioners right before she was killed have confirmed her bravery.

Her last words reportedly were, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.” These lines are inscribed on the Edith Cavell Memorial that stands in London.


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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