It’s August 25th, 1914 near Mons, Belgium, one month into World War I.
British Lance Corporal J. Doman rides on horseback with his cavalry regiment to reinforce a group of British riflemen, pinned down by unrelenting German gunfire.
As he charges forward, Doman unsheathes his sword, ready to protect the riflemen and buy them time to escape. But as he spurs his horse onward… an artillery shell explodes on the ground next to him. Doman feels shrapnel hit his back like a punch thrown by a giant, and he’s tossed from his saddle. He lands headfirst on the ground, and his vision swims. His fingers fumbled around behind him, trying to find the source of the awful burning, metal embedded in his flesh. His uniform is wet with blood and for a moment, the world seems to spin around him. Then, Doman’s vision goes dark.
When Doman regains consciousness, he recoils in horror at what he sees. British soldiers lie dead on the ground in every direction.
Then Doman hears footsteps approaching. He tries to sit up, but he’s too weak from blood loss. A pair of boots come into view and Doman looks up weakly, hoping to see the brown and khaki uniform of a British soldier. But tucked into the man’s boots are the black and grey colors of the enemy.
The soldier calls out something in German. And as another enemy soldier runs over, Doman wonders if he’s about to be shot. But instead, the German soldiers lift Doman off the ground, put him face-down on a stretcher, carrying him off the battlefield and out of harm’s way.
The Battle of Mons, as this engagement will become known, marks Britain’s first involvement in World War I. The bloody conflict leaves hundreds of British soldiers trapped behind advancing German lines. Lance Corporal J. Doman and many other wounded soldiers will be taken from the battlefield to German-controlled hospitals and held as prisoners of war. But Doman will not stay imprisoned long.
As soon as his wounds have started to heal, Doman will escape the German guards. His attempt to flee Belgium will eventually lead him to a British nurse named Edith Cavell, she is part of a network of civilians risking their lives to help wounded British and French soldiers get out of the country. Over the course of the war, Edith will save the lives of soldiers on both sides, and she will help more than 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. But in the end, her bravery will come at a cost. Edith will be arrested and executed by a German firing line after she’s tried for treason on October 7th, 1915.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is October 7th, 1915. Edith Cavell is Tried for Treason.
It’s January 27th, 1915, at the Brussels Training School for Nurses in Belgium, about six months after the Battle of Mons.
Inside the school, 49-year-old nurse Edith Cavell is assisting a wounded civilian when she hears a knock at the entrance. Edith walks toward the front door and opens it to find three men standing in the cold. Unlike the injured patients inside, these three men shivering on the doorstep aren’t here for medical treatment. They’re here to get help escaping the country.
Originally from England, Edith has worked as the nursing school’s matron for the past seven years. When World War I broke out last year, Edith insisted on staying in Brussels to help. To aid the injured, the school has turned into a Red Cross hospital. And here, Edith and her nurses treat civilians and wounded soldiers, no matter their allegiance.
But when the front lines moved from Belgium and into France, the school's stream of patients dried up. Still, Edith was determined to continue saving lives in any way she could. So she joined a resistance network helping Allied soldiers escape the German occupation of Belgium.
For the last few months, civilians on the French border have guided soldiers to Edith’s school and other safe houses in Brussels. From there, Edith has found other guides to lead the soldiers over the border and into neutral Holland. On her doorstep today stands one of the men who's been helping her, another member of the secret resistance network named Georges Derveau.
Georges tells Edith that he’s brought the two other men here from Yorc. When she hears the word “Yorc”, Edith nods. It’s a secret password, meaning that these men are actually British soldiers who need help getting out of the country.
As Edith brings the soldiers inside, Georges thanks her and then leaves. She nods and shuts the door of the training school. Then leads the two soldiers down a hallway, as the men introduce themselves as Corporal P. Chapman and Lance Corporal J. Doman.
Edith leads them to a basement, where a dozen other British and French soldiers in civilian clothes are playing cards and talking quietly. Over the next few weeks, Edith finds guides to take many of them to Holland. Until, finally, it is Doman and Chapman’s turn to leave.
Edith comes into the basement and tells them to gather their things. They’re going to a cafe to meet a man that will take them to the Dutch border. The two men follow Edith through the streets of Brussels, ducking out of view of any German officers that cross their path.
As they approach the cafe, Edith tells the two men to sit at a table behind her. As they take their seats outside, a waiter comes to Edith’s table. She pulls out a piece of blank stationery that has been ripped in half and places it on the table. Then, she orders a beer for herself and two beers for the Englishmen sitting behind her.
The ripped stationery is a signal that she is looking for a guide, and the two beers are to confirm the number of soldiers who need help. The waiter nods and walks back into the café.
Moments later, another man comes out - a fellow member of the resistance network, ready to lead the two men to safety. Edith stands and wishes the Englishmen good luck. Then, she heads back to the training school.
After her departure, the two soldiers follow their guide through a series of villages and finally across the Dutch border. When they get back to England, they write to Edith’s mother and reassure her that her daughter is alive and well. It is one of many letters that Edith’s mother receives from escaped British soldiers. Over the course of less than a year, Edith helps more than two hundred Allied soldiers escape the war zone.
But the Germans are not oblivious to the resistance movement. They’ve hired spies to gather information about the network. Men posing as construction workers watch the nursing school day after day. People show up on the doorstep asking for help without a password. Edith turns away the most suspicious ones, but she continues to help as many as she can.
But soon, her rescue operation will come crashing down. On August 5th, 1915, German officers will arrest Edith. When she is charged with treason, she will stand by her actions. Edith will assume the Germans will imprison her until the end of the war. But her captures have a much harsher sentence in mind.
It’s October 7th, 1915, two months after Edith Cavell’s arrest.
Today, the British nurse stands in the Belgian House of Parliament, facing five German judges and a military prosecutor.
The opulence of the chamber stands in stark contrast to the whitewashed prison cell where Edith has been confined for the last two months. The domed ceiling is decorated with gold leaf, and life-size paintings of Belgian rulers decorate the walls. This building was built as a monument of Belgian pride in the rule of law. But now, it is occupied by the Germans. And their sense of justice is different.
Edith knows the proceedings today is merely a show trial. She was assigned a defense lawyer, but she wasn’t allowed to talk to him before the trial. Of the 35 members of the network who have been arrested, Edith and five others have been singled out as the main culprits. But the military prosecutor and the judges have a particular resentment toward Edith because she’s from Britain, one of Germany’s primary adversaries in the war.
So Edith figures they’ve already decided her fate. And without the counsel of a lawyer, Edith has decided her only strategy is to be entirely honest about her actions. She was willing to be deceptive in order to save the lives of Allied soldiers. But she refuses to lie in an attempt to lighten her sentence.
So, Edith holds her head high as the prosecutor, Dr. Eduard Stoeber begins the proceedings. First, he cites the charge against her - paragraph 90 of the German penal code, which calls it a treasonous act against Germany to conduct soldiers to the enemy. A man standing next to Edith translates into French for her.
Then, Dr. Stoeber begins questioning Edith. He asks if she harbored soldiers in her clinic and helped them get out of Belgium. She says yes. He then asks why she would knowingly violate the law by helping soldiers. Edith tells him that she was trying to save lives.
Dr. Stoeber leans forward in his seat. He points out that military law doesn’t say that escaped prisoners of war would be executed if caught. Therefore, there were no lives to be saved. Edith calmly responds that she was sure that if she didn’t help those men, they would be dead today.
Then when asked about the structure of the network, Edith tells the prosecution that they had no central organization and their only orders was do what they thought was right. She explains that her religious and professional duty is to save lives, and because of that, she couldn’t turn away wounded soldiers seeking aid.
Dr. Stoeber asks her if she was aware that the men she helped had probably re-enlisted. Edith tells him that she doesn't know the motivations of the men passing through her clinic. She was only concerned with getting them out of an active war zone where their lives were at risk.
Within 10 minutes, the questioning is over. And as Edith sits back down among the other prisoners, Dr. Stoeber calls forward the next person to stand before the tribunal. One by one, the other members of the network are also quickly questioned. And after all 35 prisoners have spoken, the court adjourns.
The next morning, the prisoners are brought before Dr. Stoeber and the five judges to hear their sentences. Many of the prisoners tremble nervously. Edith stands still.
Dr. Stoeber looks them in the eye as he begins to rattle off their sentences. He reads 27 names and declares that their punishment is hard labor in prison. But Edith’s name is not among those called. Instead, Dr. Stoeber lists her and 7 others as chief organizers of the networks. For these eight, he declares the sentence is death.
One prisoner faints when she hears this. Another drops his head into his hands and weeps. Edith’s stomach turns, but she keeps a calm and composed expression. The death sentences are shocking, but they aren’t set in stone.
Quickly, the defense lawyers ask the court to see reason. Many of the accused write letters pleading for mercy. Foreign diplomats even try to intercede. And the appeals do have some effect.
Of the 8 death sentences, 6 will be dropped. But for Edith Cavell, the intercessions will make no difference. Her sentence will remain. And in less than a week, she will find herself staring down the guns of a German firing squad.
It’s the night of October 11th, 1915, just a few days after Edith Cavell was sentenced to death.
Edith sits on her bed in her prison cell. Beside her is Reverend Stirling Gahan, chaplain of the church that Edith attended in Brussels before her arrest.
The Reverend pulls out a silver communion set and places it on a chair in the cell. He pours wine into a chalice and takes a wafer from a box. After he blesses it, he and Edith have one last communion service together. They talk for a while about spiritual things. She tells him that she feels unworthy of heaven, and asks him to forgive her, her sins. With kindness in his eyes, he assures her that God’s love is everlasting. And if she has repented, she'll be forgiven.
As Reverend Gahan stands to leave, Edith gives him letters to pass on to her nurses and to her mother. He says she will be remembered as a heroine and a martyr. But she tells him to remember her simply as a nurse who tried to do her duty.
Early the following morning, Edith is led out to a shooting range where a white post in the ground marks her execution spot. In front of it are two rows of eight German soldiers standing with rifles at their sides. Next to them is Dr. Stoeber.
As another soldier guides Edith to her post, Dr. Stoeber reads out her death sentence. He tells the soldiers that they shouldn’t hesitate to shoot this woman, as she’s not a mother and her crimes against Germany are serious. Tears blur Edith’s vision, but she stands straight and composed while she's tied to the post and blindfolded.
Then there’s a pause as the rows of soldiers check and ready their weapons. Then, an officer gives the command to aim and then fire. Bullets tear into Edith's forehead and chest. And afterward, she’s buried in a hastily dug grave without ceremony.
Soon, word of Edith Cavell’s execution will reach Britain. Her story will strike a different nerve than the stories from the front lines. Newspapers will portray the Germans as murderers of public servants. Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau will print “Remember Edith Cavell” on posters and pamphlets. And the number of volunteers for British military service will even double in the eight weeks following her death. Even in the United States, the story of her heroism and bravery - and the cruelty of her sentence - will help garner public support for American involvement in the war.
For three years after Edith’s execution, World War I will continue and claim millions more lives. But nurses and doctors will also save millions, aspiring to the same standards of duty and service as Edith Cavell, who was tried for treason on October 7th, 1915.
Next on History Daily. October 10th, 1970. In their fight for Quebec’s independence from Canada, members of a radical separatist group kidnap a government official in Montreal.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.