Posts Tagged ‘Edith’

Revealed: New evidence that executed wartime nurse Edith Cavell’s network was spying

September 13th, 2015

The daughter of a Norfolk vicar, Cavell was invited to set up a nurses’ training school in Brussels in 1907.

When war broke out, she was visiting family in England but insisted on returning to Belgium.

Edith Cavell and probationers at the Brussels Nursing School, Belgium

It is well documented that she 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.

Dame Stella Rimington, DCB, the British author and former Director General of MI5

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.

Her death provoked international condemnation, with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing: “Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood.”

Funeral cortege of Edith Cavell

The German military governor of Belgium who signed the warrant for Cavell’s execution, General Moritz Von Bissing, maintained that she had knowledge of the espionage operation.

“This Cavell woman… had guilty knowledge of much of their work. Such a system of spying assails our very safety and we proceeded to stamp it out,” he said when asked to justify Cavell’s death.

According to Julian Hendy, producer of the documentary, circumstantial evidence points to Cavell being aware of the espionage, even if not directly involved.

He said: “Cavell was certainly not a naive woman – her shrewd testimony before her German interrogators proved that.

“As so many leading members of the network were involved in espionage, it would have been truly extraordinary for her to have been completely unaware of the intelligence-gathering.

“The story we have always been led to believe – of a simple nurse just doing her duty helping soldiers – turns out to have been a lot more complicated, nuanced, and dangerous than we had ever previously thought.”

Cavell’s name lives on in the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which provides financial support for nurses in need.

A spokesman said: “We’re looking forward to the BBC’s radio programme but what’s clear is, even without Edith’s courage during the war, she was a remarkable nurse and we’re proud to be here for nurses as her lasting legacy.”


World War Two

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