The Case Of Miss Cavell

[The Outlook; November 3, 1915]

When the Lusitania and the Arabic were torpedoed and sunk, Americans were urged to suspend judgment until the German Government could have an opportunity of presenting its statement of the facts. This was right and proper. In the case of Edith Cavell, the English hospital nurse shot in Belgium by the German Government, there is no need of waiting to sift the facts. They have been stated on the authority of the German Foreign Office, and appear in the official statement of our own Minister to Belgium, Mr. Brand Whitlock.

Miss Cavell was charged with having aided English and French soldiers as well as Belgian citizens of military age to escape from that part of Belgium which is under German jurisdiction by right of conquest. This was a violation of German military law. Members of the court martial that tried Miss Cavell report that she confessed to the truth of the charges against her, and this confession is accepted by our Minister and by the English authorities. It is true that she did not have an opportunity to discuss the charges against her with the lawyer assigned to her defense, nor was her lawyer permitted to see any documents of the prosecution before the trial. This, however, was in accordance with German military practice, and her lawyer has stated to the counselor of the American Legation that her defense was as complete as possible, and the Court had all the facts presented to it. Her trial lasted two days and ended October 8. She was shot at two o'clock in the morning of October 12. The period between the time of her sentence and her death was occupied by the American Minister and the Spanish Minister in endeavors to secure the delay of the execution with the hope of obtaining clemency. The view of Minister Whitlock is expressed in the following letter which he addressed to Baron von der Lancken, German Governor of Brussels:

I have just learned that Miss Cavell, who is a British subject, and consequently under the protection of my Embassy, was this morning condemned to death by sentence of court martial. Without going into the causes which led to such a severe sentence, and one which, if all the reports which have reached me are correct, is more severe in this case than in all others which have been tried by the same tribunal, I hope to be able to appeal to the sentiments of humanity and generosity of his Excellency the Governor-General on behalf of Miss Cavell, in order that the sentence of death which has been passed against her may be commuted, and that this unhappy lady be not executed.

Miss Cavell is the head nurse of a surgical institute of Brussels. She has spent her life in alleviating the sufferings of others, and at her school have been trained numerous nurses who, throughout the world, in Germany as in Belgium, have kept watch at the bedsides of patients. At the beginning of the war Miss Cavell gave her services to German soldiers as well as to others.

Failing other reasons, her humanitarian career is of a nature to inspire pity for her, and, in advance, to secure her pardon.

If the information given me is correct. Miss Cavell, far from hiding herself, with laudable frankness admitted all the facts laid to her charge, and the information she supplied was the cause of aggravating the sentence passed upon her.

It is with confidence and hope of its being favorably received that I pray your Excellency to present to the Governor-General my request for grace in favor of Miss Cavell.

It is said that there was an apparent lack of good faith on the part of the German authorities in failing to keep their promises to inform the American Minister fully regarding the trial and sentence. But this is a matter of minor importance. Belgians, English, Germans, and Americans all agree that Miss Cavell was tried by court martial, in accordance with German practice, was sentenced to death, and was shot.

Our Government does right in not making any official protest to Germany because of the execution of Miss Cavell. All that we have a legal right to ask for our own citizens or for the citizens of another nation under our care is that, when accused of crime, they shall be tried in accordance with the laws of the country in which they are living. Unless we were prepared to affirm that the trial of Miss Cavell by court martial was in violation of German military law, we could not officially make any protest against her trial and execution.

But this is no reason why the American people and the American press should not voice the deep and passionate indignation which is with practical unanimity aroused in this country by this crime against humanity. In fact, the indignation of the American people is the hotter and their protest the more determined and outspoken because they believe that the trial and execution of Miss Cavell were in accordance with German military law. It is not of great importance to the world that Miss Cavell has passed out of it; her death will not put an end to hospitals, nursing, and the humane care of wounded and suffering soldiers. But it is of importance to the world to know whether the philosophy of law and government which prompted the execution of Miss Cavell is to prevail in the civilized world. The world-wide protest against the trial and execution of this hospital nurse is aroused, not by the fact that it is an exceptional act, but by the fact that it is a typical act. The German Foreign Office says that it was necessary in order to preserve the morale of the German army. How greatly the militaristic views of the German War Party of to-day differ from those of the noble-minded and high-spirited Germans of a previous generation is strikingly illustrated by a comparison of the rules of warfare prepared by a German patriot of splendid type, Francis Lieber, LL.D., and issued to the armies of the United States in the field in April, 1863, by the Secretary of War. Among those rules, which still prevail in the United States army, appears the following article:

Martial law is simply military authority exercised in accordance with the laws and usages of war. Military oppression is not martial law; it is the abuse of the power which that law confers. As martial law is executed by military force, it is incumbent upon those who administer it to be strictly guided by the principles of justice, honor, and humanity—virtues adorning a soldier even more than other men, for the very reason that he possesses the power of his arms against the unarmed.

The American Government, the American War Department, the American army, and the American people believe that, in spite of its horrors, it is possible in war to maintain some common principles of humanity. The German War Office frankly says that it is not. This goes far to explain why Germany is to-day cut off from the sympathies of a very large majority of the American people.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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