Americans are particularly interested in the story of Edith Cavell,
because the American minister in Brussels on behalf of the American
people asked German officials to spare her life, or at least to
postpone her execution, until he might have an opportunity to see that
she was properly defended. Germany's disregard of America and the
wishes of the American people was clearly shown by the scornful manner
in which Germa
y set aside as of no importance American protests and
requests. Her action in this case was similar to her action earlier in
regard to the Lusitania, involving in both cases direct falsehoods by
representatives of the German government.
Germans wondered that the shooting of an English woman for treason
should cause a sensation, just as they wondered why even their enemies
did not applaud them for murdering more than a thousand non-combatants
on the Lusitania. They did not realize that both of these crimes
would add thousands of volunteers to the armies fighting against them,
and that they would always be recorded in history as among the most
despicable deeds of a civilized nation. Some one has said, "Attila and
his Huns were ignorant barbarians, but the modern Huns know better and
therefore they are more to be condemned."
Edith Cavell was so brave, so frank, so honest that it would seem that
even to the Germans her virtues would
plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of her taking-off.
But not so, for German education and training have evidently made the
German people look upon almost everything in a way different from that
of Americans, Englishmen, and Frenchmen. And yet the common German
people do at times show that they have a feeling of admiration, if not
of affection, for peoples of other nations; for we are told of a German
city erecting a statue to the French and English soldiers who died as
captives in the German prison located there, with the inscription, To
our Comrades, who here died for their Fatherland.
But we must remember that there are many kingdoms in Germany and cruel
Prussia rules them all. It was Prussian savagery and barbarity that
approved the massacre by the Turks of almost an entire people, the
Armenians, and it was done under the eyes of German officers. The same
is true of the wholesale slaughter of non-combatant Serbian men, women,
and children by the Bulgarians. A word from Germany would have stopped
When the war broke out, Edith Cavell was living in England with her
aged mother. She felt her duty was in Belgium and she went to Brussels
and established a private hospital. An American woman, Mary Boyle
O'Reilly of Boston, a daughter of the poet, John Boyle O'Reilly, worked
with her for a time. When Miss O'Reilly was expelled from Belgium, she
begged Miss Cavell to leave that land of horror, but Miss Cavell only
said, "My duty is here."
She and her nurses cared for many a wounded German soldier and this
alone should have insured her fair treatment, if not gratitude, from
She was arrested, kept in solitary confinement for ten weeks without
any charge being made against her; then was tried secretly for having
sheltered French and Belgian soldiers who were seeking to escape to
It is probably true that Miss Cavell did this, but the history of war
in modern times records no case where any one has been put to death for
giving shelter for a short time to a fugitive soldier. Such an act does
not, according to the custom of civilized countries, make one a spy,
nor is it treason.
Those who have investigated the case carefully have come to the
conclusion that the Germans decided to make a terrible example of some
of the women in Brussels who were sympathizing with and perhaps helping
French and Belgian soldiers to escape to Holland, for about the same
time twenty-two other women were arrested on the same charge as that
finally made against Edith Cavell.
When Brand Whitlock, the American minister, learned from an outsider
(he could get no information from the German officials) that Edith
Cavell had been condemned, he sent the following letters, one a
personal one, the other an official one, to the German commandant:
MY DEAR BARON:
I am too ill to put my request before you in person, but once
more I appeal to the generosity of your heart. Stand by and save
from death this unfortunate woman. Have pity on her.
Your devoted friend,
I have just heard that Miss Cavell, a British subject, and
consequently under the protection of my Legation, was this
morning condemned to death by court-martial.
If my information is correct, the sentence in the present case
is more severe than all the others that have been passed in
similar cases which have been tried by the same Court, and,
without going into the reasons for such a drastic sentence, I
feel that I have the right to appeal to your Excellency's
feelings of humanity and generosity in Miss Cavell's favor, and
to ask that the death penalty passed on Miss Cavell may be
commuted and that this unfortunate woman shall not be executed.
Miss Cavell is the head of the Brussels Surgical Institute. She
has spent her life in alleviating the sufferings of others, and
her school has turned out many nurses who have watched at the
bedside of the sick all the world over, in Germany as in
Belgium. At the beginning of the war Miss Cavell bestowed her
care as freely on the German soldiers as on others. Even in
default of all other reasons, her career as a servant of
humanity is such as to inspire the greatest sympathy and to call
for pardon. If the information in my possession is correct, Miss
Cavell, far from shielding herself, has, with commendable
straightforwardness, admitted the truth of all the charges
against her, and it is the very information which she herself
has furnished, which has aggravated the severity of the sentence
passed on her.
It is then with confidence, and in the hope of its favorable
reception, that I have the honor to present to your Excellency
my request for pardon on Miss Cavell's behalf.
But no real attention was paid to the American notes. Edith Cavell was
sentenced at five o'clock on the afternoon of October 11, and was put
to death that same night.
Permission was refused to take her body for burial outside the prison.
It is doubtless still buried in the prison yard unless the Germans have
removed it for fear a monument may be erected above it. The English are
to erect a monument in her honor in London. Dr. James M. Beck, in
writing about her case, says of her burial in the prison yard, "One can
say of that burial place, as Byron said of the prison cell of Chillon:
'Let none these marks efface, for they appeal from tyranny to God.'"