Execution of British nurse riveted world attention in October 1915

Published on November 12, 2011
This illustration of the execution of Edith Cavell is from a French postcard, designed to spread the wartime propaganda of Germany as a brutal nation that cared nothing for anybody or anything that got in its way. — Submitted photo

The British nurse standing straight before the German military tribunal was invited “to sign a petition to the Kaiser to reprieve her of the death sentence.” She shrugged her shoulders and left the hearing room.

The greatest war ever to grip the world had been raging just over a year. The tiny neutral country of Belgium had been overrun early in the war — its neutrality of no interest to Germany, which needed an open corridor to France.

Flanders, that vast belt of farmland from the channel at the Belgian-French border and for many miles southeast, became the main theatre of war, its soft earth pock-marked by artillery shells and cut through with zig-zag trenches.

Travelling to the continent from Norwich, Edith Cavell volunteered to help and had set up a clinic in the Belgian capital before it was overrun. She remained there, even as the Germans swept into the small country. She must have been a particularly brave person.

The Germans had believed their progress through Belgium would be rapid. It wasn’t. The tiny Belgian army put up a vigorous fight and, while they never stood a chance, they delayed the aggressor’s timetable and German ire escalated. At random, they shot civilians; rounded up male farm workers and executed them in groups; burned homes and in some instances were said to have locked people inside their homes and barns before setting the structures on fire.

There is a story of one young woman who, as she was hustled to the place of execution, cried out repeatedly, “I am only a hairdresser!”

You can imagine the day-to-day tension in the city of Brussels.

But through it all, Cavell and the other nurses persevered.

At one point in 1915, Cavell had been asked to conceal a couple of British servicemen so that they would not fall into German hands — and she did.

This single act became the first of many, and Cavell was soon a key player in an underground escape route. She is said to have been careless in this activity — perhaps, as a woman, she was more confident than any man could have afforded to be in a similar role.

Chivalry was not quite dead in 1915.

The Germans occupying Belgium became suspicious and planted a Frenchman (posing as a doctor) in her clinic. In due course, the truth was known and Edith Cavell was arrested.

 As she was brought before a military tribunal, the conclusion was foregone. Elsewhere in wartime, a woman would be brought only before a civil court. The British were quite smug on this point when Nurse Cavell’s story got out.

The British Home Secretary, Sir John Simon, said that the fate of Miss Cavell could have no parallel in the records of Britain’s treatment of persons accused of military offences.

He noted that “a woman, whatever her nationality, is always tried by civil court … this was at Brussels where the Germans claimed to have established an orderly government, comparable with their government at home,” he pointed out, in an attempt to embarrass Germany.

That last sentence was the kernel of the public relations nightmare brought on by this execution.

There are several, if not many, versions of what actually happened. One thing is certain, as indicated above: Germany sustained a lasting black eye by the killing of Cavell. The execution at early dawn on Oct. 15 rippled around the world. It was second only to the torpedoing of the passenger vessel Lusitania six months earlier, resulting in the loss of more than 1,100 lives.

At a time when heart-stopping news was almost daily fare, the execution of a British nurse serving in Belgium monopolized front pages internationally.

It is said that when she was led before the firing squad, Cavell’s straight-backed resolve crumpled. She fainted and fell to the ground.

The firing squad, ordered to fire, refused to do so. They would not, so the story goes, “fire upon the prostrate body of a panting, trembling woman.” Perhaps they felt a measure of compassion for a nurse who had also ministered to wounded German soldiers.

The officer in charge was then said to have coolly stepped forward, drawn his revolver, leaned over Nurse Cavell “and blown her brains out.”

The postcard with this article is one artist’s attempt to depict the scene.

There is also a postcard (thought to be little more than anti-German propaganda) which shows the alleged body of a member of the firing squad quite mutilated by bullets. He was said to have been summarily shot for refusing to fire upon Nurse Cavell.

On Oct. 23, 1915, The Evening Telegram added its voice (now sounding somewhat antiquated from this distance in time) to the expressions of sorrow and indignation as Cavell’s story spread. But, as it was wartime, comment was designed not so much to grieve as to throw their crime in the faces of the Germans and inspire our troops:


Seldom have we read anything more inspiring than the story of Miss Edith Cavell. She appears to have been the head of a nurses’ training school at Brussels and, although she knew she was spied upon by the Germans and under suspicion of aiding British soldiers who escaped from the Germans, she was resolutely determined to remain at her post as long as there were British soldiers to relieve in the cots under her care.

In pursuance of the policy of frightfulness by which they imagine they can cow their foes, she was charged (by the Germans) with succouring escaped British soldiers, taken before a military tribunal, condemned to death and sentenced to be shot.

Invited to sign a petition to the Kaiser to reprieve her of the death sentence, she shrugged her shoulders and walked out with the dignity of a pure English lady, too proud to supplicate a Herod and too peerless in spirit to succumb to the deeds of an Atilla.

Face to face with the muskets of the Huns, she refused to allow them to bandage her eyes, but fearlessly looked them in the face and proudly pinned a Union Jack of her breast; in life, defying German frightfulness and in death, testifying to the spirit that Britons prefer death to degradation.


The unconquerable spirit of Miss Edith Cavell,” The Telegram continued, “will send a thrill through the heart of the Empire that must have its effect in calling to the colours hundreds of thousands of men of fighting age and fitness who have not been able to respond in the past.

“In Newfoundland, we are proud of the 3,000 men who have responded without any very special appeal, to the call for men for the Newfoundland Regiment and the Newfoundland Naval Reserve. We are no less proud of the six or seven hundred Newfoundlanders who have joined the colours in Canada and elsewhere.

“It is an assurance that the spirit of Miss Edith Cavell lives among Newfoundlanders and that as long as there is fighting to be done for the flag, more and more men will flock to it.”