The Execution of Edith Cavell


The Execution of Miss Cavell at Brussels” is a British government publication in the Museum’s archival collection of correspondence between the U.S. ambassador in London, Walter Page, and the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, about the arrest, trial and execution of British nurse Edith Cavell. Within their correspondence are reports from the U.S. minister to Brussels, Brand Whitlock, and his correspondence with authorities from the German military government occupying Belgium.     

Edith Cavell was a British nurse who operated a medical clinic and nursing school in Brussels, Belgium when the war started in August 1914. She did not abandon her adopted homeland when the Germans invaded and provided medical aid to Allied and German wounded until arrested by German occupation authorities in August 1915. Cavell was charged with aiding the escape of Allied servicemen to Holland, some of whom were repatriated and rejoined the fight against the Germans.

Cavell was charged under paragraph 58 the German Military Code, which reads: “will be sentenced to death for treason any person who, with the intention of helping the hostile Power, or of causing harm to the German or [German] allied troops…”

She admitted to having helped the servicemen escape and that some even had contacted her to say they had safely arrived in England. Cavell was sentenced to death not for aiding the escape of enemy servicemen, but because some of them had been able to return to a country at war with Germany. She spent eight weeks in Brussels’ St. Gilles Prison and despite protests from the United States and Spain, she was executed by a German firing squad at the Belgian National Shooting Range at dawn on Oct. 12, 1915.

Edith Cavell immediately became an international symbol of German brutality and a martyr for the nations fighting against Germany, but in her last words spoken to a British chaplain in her prison cell, she conveyed understanding and forgiveness: 

“I know now that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred and no bitterness toward anyone.” 

- Edith Cavell

Two political cartoons from Louis Raemaekers related to Cavell were included the Museum’s Drawn to War exhibition (March 24 - Oct. 18, 2015). View other Cavell-related items in the Museum’s collection.