So the lady was a spy, after all

Historically minded readers will doubtless be aware of the execution of Edith Cavell, a British nurse, by the German occupiers of Belgium in 1915, for the crime (under occupation law) of assisting British soldiers to get back to their own lines.  Germany also accused her of being a spy (hotly denied by Britain, which used her death as a focal point for anti-German propaganda for the rest of the war).

Now we learn that she was, indeed, almost certainly a spy.  The Telegraph reports:

The German claim that Cavell [pictured below] was a spy was vehemently denied by the British government and she became a national heroine whose death inspired tens of thousands to join up for the war effort.

But Dame Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5, has made a startling claim on the centenary of Cavell’s death.

. . .

It is well documented that [Cavell] and her associates aided soldiers cut off behind enemy lines after the Battle of Mons, arranging for them to be smuggled back to Britain via Holland.

But Dame Stella said her evidence showed “that the Cavell organisation was a two-pronged affair” and that espionage was the other part of its clandestine mission.

The Belgian archives contain reports and first-hand testimonies collected at the end of the First World War.

They include an account by Herman Capiau, a young Belgian mining engineer who had brought the first British soldiers to Cavell in 1914 and was an important member of her network. He was arrested alongside her but escaped the firing squad, instead being sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour in a German labour camp.

He wrote: “Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly.”

Capiau referred to information about a German trench system, the location of munitions dumps and the whereabouts of aircraft.

Details were written in ink on strips of fabric and sewn into clothes, or hidden in shoes and boots.

There are also notes in the archive linking Cavell to a character called ‘Dr Bull’. He was Dr Tollemache Bull, an Englishman who had lived in Brussels for many years and later admitted to working for the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to MI6.

In the Radio 4 programme to be broadcast on Wednesday, Secrets and Spies: The Untold Story of Edith Cavell, historian Dr Jim Beach said military espionage was in its infancy at the beginning of the First World War, and Cavell’s associates were amateurs.

“They are learning as they go,” he said of Cavell’s network. “The boundaries between different kinds of clandestine activity were a little bit more blurred.”

Dame Stella added: “We may never know how much Edith Cavell knew of the espionage carried out by her network. She was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies.

“Her main objective was to get hidden Allied soldiers back to Britain but, contrary to the common perception of her, we have uncovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies.”

A year into the war, Cavell was arrested, interrogated and put through a show trial. She was shot at dawn by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915.

There’s more at the link.

I suppose it was logical and entirely rational for Britain to insist on Nurse Cavell’s innocence during World War I.  After all, they derived great propaganda benefit from her execution.  However, why was that denial carried on for a century after her death?  Surely, if she’d been acknowledged as an agent after the war and accorded the recognition her bravery surely deserved, there would have been no harm in it?  It seems to have been a grave disservice to Nurse Cavell to keep her gallant service a secret for so long.



  1. From the Bryce report on, there was a tremendous amount of lying by the UK government. False reports, misstatements in Parliament, altered intelligence reports, false munition production statistics, and many many more lies. By the end of the war, this mountain of lies was so huge nothing could be done with it. So rather than shift the mountain, they covered it with a turf of official histories, and left things be.

    Also, coalition government left no major political parties hands clean. By the end of the post war civil unrest few people, in and out of politics, had little wish to revisit wartime experiences.

    It is good to see some things coming into the open, even 100 years after the fact.

  2. For the brits, lying about The Great War is pretty much the status quo. They pretty much have to. Their official war history writes up Haig as some kind of hero.

  3. We're seeing the same thing today. Dozens of intel analysts are speaking up to say that the current administration is lying about what's going on with ISIS.

    One of the interesting things I've learned about the UK in World War I is how they recruited writers to author stories in the popular press about how things were going. Well-known writers like HG Wells were involved. Author John Buchan (The 39 Steps) was in charge of it for a while.

    One can actually get Buchan's Richard Hannay books, all of them, on Amazon for 99 cents. They're a very early sort of James Bond story.

  4. Quite possibly because they wanted to reuse the technique, and didn't want future such organizations to come under any scrutiny.

  5. "I know we absolutely and continually promised for years that we weren't lying but now that the war is over we can tell you that we were absolutely continually lying. Please vote for us in the next election. We're absolutely not lying now."

  6. The Girl from Alsace by Burton Stevenson was a novel from 1915 that I think was supposed to help make the war more popular . . . it was made into something like an early version of a movie, too (the novel still would make a good movie, although I think some of the bloodiest parts might have to be left out).

  7. Is that really so hard to figure out?

    If a murderer is tried and executed without convincing evidence, merely to gain a scapegoat, is it not a show trial even if later forensic evidence proves him guilty?

  8. Seems a bit like the Lusitania – Germans torpedo it, oh dear what a beastly thing for them to do.
    Took them decades to finally get around to confessing that, actually, kind of, it actually DID have the ammo aboard and it WAS a legitimate target.

    Not to say that the Germans didn't behave execrably, but not everyone they killed was an innocent bystander.

  9. "Is that really so hard to figure out?"

    Actually Dai, that was the reason I put the link in.

    If wikipitan is right, she was not executed for espionage anyway. She was executed for assisting allied soldiers to escape back to the allied lines through neutral countries.

    Evidently, she admitted this in court.

    My point was that propaganda still controls the mind of the author to the extent of calling the trial a show trial. Yet there seems to be no particular reason to think it was. And all this in an article saying 'well, maybe the Jerries had a point.'

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