Edith Cavell Faces Firing Squad;
Captors Ignore Pleas for Mercy
Special to The Great War Project
(10-12 October) Edith Cavell is dead.
The British nurse is executed by a German firing squad this morning October 12th exactly one hundred years ago.
Cavell, a British nurse working to save lives in German-occupied Belgium, is tried and convicted by a German court-martial for aiding the enemy. She is working as a nurse in Brussels, the Belgian capital, when the war breaks out. She remains in Belgium to carry on her work, even with the German seizure of Brussels.
She confesses to providing aid to wounded British and French soldiers and civilians to escape from Belgium to Holland and then, for some, on to Britain.
It is believed she helped more than 200 such soldiers and civilians to escape to Holland and Britain.
It is this last charge – aiding enemy soldiers to escape to enemy territory – that leads to the German guilty verdict, and the punishment, death by firing squad.
At the execution posts, writes historian Martin Gilbert, the 49-year-old Cavell “asks the guards for some large pins, which they gave her. She then pinned her long skirt tightly round her ankles, so that her dress would not flare up after she had been shot.”
Cavell is struck by four bullets, Gilbert reports. “One pierced her heart and killed her instantly.”
There are widespread appeals to the Germans to show her mercy, but to no effect. According to Gilbert, “Protests by the American diplomats in Brussels, who were in charge of British interests, had no effect.” Once the sentence is passed, writes one senior German diplomat, “even the Kaiser himself could not intervene.”
The night before her execution, Cavell tells a visiting American clergyman that she has been treated well by her jailers. “They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realize that Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred nor bitterness towards anyone.”
“Despite this Christian sentiment,” writes Gilbert…
“Her execution led to an upsurge in anti-German feeling in Britain and the United States.”
These sentiments are inflamed by a false story about her execution that quickly circulates widely. According to this account of her execution, she faints on the way to the execution post “and had been shot while lying on the ground by the officer in charge of the firing squad.”
This is an imagined story and not accurate. But it is “depicted in the New York Tribune in a drawing of the prostrate and bleeding body of Edith Cavell, lying on her back, with a tall German officer, wearing a spiked helmet, standing over her and holding an enormous revolver.”
A caption reads: Gott mit Uns – God is With Us.
The execution of Edith Cavell has a profound effect on sentiment in the United States. It is used as a powerful tool in making the case for the United States to enter the war.