Execution Of Edith Cavell

Official American Reports and a German Official Defense

[The New York Times/Current History, December 1915]

Walter Hines Page, the American Ambassador in London, on Oct. 18, 1915, transmitted to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs papers from the American Legation at Brussels, Belgium, containing a "report upon the case of Miss Edith Cavell, a British subject, who was recently executed at that capital." The telegram of Minister Brand Whitlock, and the reports prepared by Hugh Gibson, Secretary of the American Legation in Brussels, and Maitre de Leval, Legal Counselor of the Legation, appear below…defending this German execution of a woman.


Brussels, Oct. 12, 1915.


American Ambassador,         LONDON.

Your letter Sept. 23 and my replies Oct. 9 and 11. Miss Cavell sentenced yesterday and executed at 2 o'clock this morning despite our best efforts continued until the last moment. Full report follows by mail.

American Minister.


Brussels, Oct. 12, 1915.

Sir: Upon learning early yesterday morning through unofficial sources that the trial of Miss Edith Cavell had been finished on Saturday afternoon, and that the prosecuting attorney (Kriegsgerichtsrat) had asked for a sentence of death against her, telephonic inquiry was immediately made at the Politische Abteilung as to the facts. It was stated that no sentence had as yet been pronounced and that there would probably be delay of a day or two before a decision was reached. Mr. Conrad gave positive assurances that the legation would be fully informed as to developments in this case. Despite these assurances, we made repeated inquiries in the course of the day, the last one being at 6:20 P. M., Belgian time. Mr. Conrad then stated that sentence had not yet been pronounced and specifically renewed his previous assurances that he would not fail to inform us as soon as there was any news.

At 8:30 it was learned from an outside source that sentence had been passed in the course of the afternoon, (before the last conversation with Mr. Conrad,) and that the execution would take place during the night. In conformity with your instructions I went (accompanied by Mr. de Leval) to look for the Spanish Minister and found him dining at the home of Baron Lambert. I explained the circumstances to his Excellency and asked that (as you were ill and unable to go yourself) he go with us to see Baron von der Lancken and support as strongly as possible the plea which I was to make in your name that execution of the death penalty should be deferred until the Governor could consider your appeal for clemency.

We took with us a note addressed to Baron von der Lancken and a plea for clemency (réquête en grâce) addressed to the Governor General, (Inclosures 1 and 2 attached to this report,) the Spanish Minister willingly agreed to accompany us, and we went together to the Politische Abteilung.

Baron von der Lancken and all the members of his staff were absent for the evening. We sent a messenger to ask that he return at once to see us in regard to a matter of utmost urgency. A little after 10 o'clock he arrived, followed shortly after by Count Harrach and Herr von Falkenhausen, members of his staff. The circumstances of the case were explained to him and your note presented, and he read it aloud in our presence. He expressed disbelief in the report that sentence had actually been passed, and manifested some surprise that we should give credence to any report not emanating from official sources.

He was quite insistent on knowing the exact source of our information, but this I did not feel at liberty to communicate to him. Baron von der Lancken stated that it was quite improbable that sentence had been pronounced, that, even if so, it would not be executed within so short a time, and that in any event it would be quite impossible to take any action before morning. It was, of course, pointed out to him that if the facts were as we believed them to be action would be useless unless taken at once. We urged him to ascertain the facts immediately, and this, after some hesitancy, he agreed to do. He telephoned to the presiding Judge of the court-martial, and returned in a short time to say that the facts were as we had represented them and that it was intended to carry out the sentence before morning. We then presented as earnestly as possible your plea for delay. So far as I am able to judge, we neglected to present no phase of the matter which might have had any effect, emphasizing the horror of executing a woman, no matter what her offense, pointing out that the death sentence had heretofore been imposed only for actual cases of espionage and that Miss Cavell was not even accused by the German authorities of anything so serious. I further called attention to the failure to comply with Mr. Conrad's promise to inform the legation of the sentence. I urged that, inasmuch as the offenses charged against Miss Cavell were long since accomplished and that as she had been for some weeks in prison, a delay in carrying out the sentence could entail no danger to the German cause. I even went so far as to point out the fearful effect of a summary execution of this sort upon public opinion, both here and abroad, and, although I had no authority for doing so, called attention to the possibility that it might bring about reprisals.

The Spanish Minister forcibly supported all our representations and made an earnest plea for clemency.

Baron von der Lancken stated that the Military Governor was the supreme authority (Gerichtsherr) in matters of this sort; that appeal from his decision could be carried only to the Emperor, the Governor General having no authority to intervene in such cases. He added that under the provisions of German martial law the Military Governor had discretionary powers to accept or to refuse acceptance of an appeal for clemency. After some discussion he agreed to call the Military Governor on the telephone and learn whether he had already ratified the sentence and whether there was any chance for clemency. He returned in about a half hour and stated that he had been to confer personally with the Military Governor, who said that he had acted in the case of Miss Cavell only after mature deliberation; that the circumstances in her case were of such a character that he considered the infliction of the death penalty imperative, and that in view of the circumstances of this case he must decline to accept your plea for clemency or any representation in regard to the matter.

Baron von der Lancken then asked me to take back the note which I had presented to him. To this I demurred, pointing out that it was not a "réquête en grâce" but merely a note to him transmitting a communication to the Governor, which was itself to be considered as the "réquête en grâce." I pointed out that this was expressly stated in your note to him, and tried to prevail upon him to keep it; he was very insistent, however, and I finally reached the conclusion that inasmuch as he had read it aloud to us and we knew that he was aware of its contents, there was nothing to be gained by refusing to accept the note, and accordingly took it back.

Even after Baron von der Lancken's very positive and definite statement that there was no hope, and that, under the circumstances, "even the Emperor himself could not intervene," we continued to appeal to every sentiment to secure delay, and the Spanish Minister even led Baron von der Lancken aside in order to say very forcibly a number of things which he would have felt hesitancy in saying in the presence of the younger officers and of Mr. de Leval, a Belgian subject.

His Excellency talked very earnestly with Baron von der Lancken for about a quarter of an hour. During this time Mr. de Leval and I presented to the younger officers every argument we could think of. I reminded them of our untiring efforts on behalf of German subjects at the outbreak of the war and during the siege of Antwerp. I pointed out that while our services had been rendered gladly and without any thought of future favors, they should certainly entitle you to some consideration for the only request of this sort you had made since the beginning of the war. Unfortunately our efforts were unavailing. We persevered until it was only too clear that there was no hope of securing any consideration for the case.

We left the Politische Abteilung shortly after midnight, and I immediately returned to the legation to report to you.

(Signed.) HUGH GIBSON.


October 12, 1915.

Sir: As soon as the legation received an intimation that Miss Cavell was arrested, your letter of Aug. 31, of which copy is herewith annexed, numbered 1, was sent to Baron von der Lancken. The German authorities were by that letter requested, inter alia, to allow me to see Miss Cavell, so as to have all necessary steps taken for her defense. No reply being received, the legation, on Sept. 10, reminded the German authorities of your letter.

The German reply, sent on Sept. 12, was that I would not be allowed to see Miss Cavell, but that Mr. Braun, lawyer at the Brussels court, was defending her and was already seeing the German authorities about the case. I immediately asked Mr. Braun to come to see me at the legation, which he did a few days later. He informed me that personal friends of Miss Cavell had asked him to defend her before the German court, that he agreed to do so, but that, owing to some unforeseen circumstances, he was prevented from pleading before that court, adding that he had asked Mr. Kirschen, a member of the Brussels bar and his friend, to take up the case and plead for Miss Cavell, and t that Mr. Kirschen had agreed to do so.

I therefore at once put myself in communication with Mr. Kirschen, who told me that Miss Cavell was prosecuted for having helped soldiers to cross the frontier. I asked him whether he had seen Miss Cavell, and whether she had made any statement to him, and to my surprise found that the lawyers defending prisoners before the German military court were not allowed to see their clients before the trial, and were not shown any document of the prosecution. This, Mr. Kirschen said, was in accordance with the German military rules. He added that the hearing of the trial of such cases was carried out very carefully, and that, in his opinion, although it was not possible to see the client before the trial, in fact the trial itself developed so carefully and so slowly that it was generally possible to have a fair knowledge of all the facts and to present a good defense for the prisoner. This would specially be the case for Miss Cavell, because the trial would be rather long, as she was prosecuted with thirty-four other prisoners.

I informed Mr. Kirschen of my intention to be present at the trial so as to watch the case. He immediately dissuaded me from taking such attitude, which he said would cause a great prejudice to the prisoner, because the German Judges would resent it and feel it almost as an affront if I was appearing to exercise a kind of supervision on the trial. He thought that if the Germans would admit my presence, which was very doubtful, it would in any case cause prejudice to Miss Cavell.

Mr. Kirschen assured me over and over again that the military court of Brussels was always perfectly fair and that there was not the slightest danger of any miscarriage of justice. He promised that he would keep me posted on all the developments which the case would take and would report to me the exact charges that were brought against Miss Cavell and the facts concerning her that would be disclosed at the trial, so as to allow me to judge by myself about the merits of the case. He insisted that of course he would do all that was humanly possible to defend Miss Cavell to the best of his ability.

Three days before the trial took place Mr. Kirschen wrote me a few lines, saying that the trial would be on the next Thursday, the 7th of October. The legation at once sent him, on the 5th of October, a letter (copy No. 2) confirming in writing, in the name of the legation, the arrangement that had been made between him and me. This letter was delivered to Mr. Kirschen by a messenger of the legation.

The trial took two days, ending Friday, the 8th.

On Saturday I was informed by an outsider that the trial had taken place, but that no judgment would be reached till a few days later.

Receiving no report from Mr. Kirschen, I tried to find him but failed. I then sent him a note on Sunday, asking him to send his report to the legation or call there on Monday morning at 8:30. At the same time I obtained from some other person present at the trial some information about what had occurred, and the following facts were disclosed to me:

Miss Cavell was prosecuted for having helped English and French soldiers, as well as Belgian young men, to cross the frontier and to go over to England. She had admitted by signing a statement before the day of the trial, and by public acknowledgment in court, in the presence of all the other prisoners and the lawyers that she was guilty of the charges brought against her, and she had acknowledged not only that she had helped these soldiers to cross the frontier, but also that some of them had thanked her in writing when arriving in England. This last admission made her case so much the more serious, because if it only had been proved against her that she had helped the soldiers to traverse the Dutch frontier, and no proof was produced that those soldiers had reached a country at war with Germany, she could only have been sentenced for an attempt to commit the "crime" and not for the "crime" being duly accomplished. As the case stood, the sentence fixed by the German military law was a sentence of death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code says:

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 allied troops, is guilty of one of the crimes of Paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code.

The case referred to in above said Paragraph 90 consists in:

* * * conducting soldiers to the enemy
* * * (viz.: "Dem Fiend Mannschaften zuführt.")

The penalties above set forth apply, according to Paragraph 160 of the German Code, in case of war, to foreigners as well as to Germans.

In her oral statement before the court Miss Cavell disclosed almost all the facts of the whole prosecution. She was questioned in German, an interpreter translating all the questions in French, with which language Miss Cavell was well acquainted. She spoke without trembling and showed a clear mind. Often she added some greater precision to her previous depositions.

When she was asked why she helped these soldiers to go to England she replied that she thought that if she had not done so they would have been shot by the Germans, and that therefore she thought she only did her duty to her country in saving their lives.

The Military Public Prosecutor said that argument might be good for English soldiers, but did not apply to Belgian young men whom she induced to cross the frontier and who would have been perfectly free to remain in the country without danger to their lives.

Mr. Kirschen made a very good plea for Miss Cavell, using all arguments that could be brought in her favor before the court.

The Military Public Prosecutor, however, asked the court to pass a death sentence on Miss Cavell and eight other prisoners among the thirty-five. The court did not seem to agree, and the judgment was postponed. The person informing me said he thought that the court would not go to the extreme limit.

Anyhow, after I had found out these facts, (viz., Sunday evening,) I called at the Political Division of the German Government in Belgium, and asked whether, now that the trial had taken place, permission would be granted to me to see Miss Cavell in jail, as surely there was no longer any object in refusing this permission. The German official, Mr. Conrad, said he would make the necessary inquiry at the court and let me know later on.

I also asked him that permission be granted to Mr. Gahan, the English clergyman, to see Miss Cavell.

At the same time we prepared at the legation, to be ready for every eventuality, a petition for pardon, addressed to the Governor General in Belgium, and a transmitting note addressed to Baron von der Lancken.

Monday morning at 11 I called up Mr. Conrad on the telephone from the legation (as I had already done previously on several occasions when making inquiries about the case) asking what the military court had decided about Mr. Gahan and myself seeing Miss Cavell. He replied that Mr. Gahan could not see her, but that she could see any of the three Protestant clergymen attached to the prison; and that I could not see her till the judgment was pronounced and signed, but that this would probably only take place in a day or two. I asked the German official to inform the legation immediately after the passing of said judgment, so that I might see Miss Cavell at once, thinking, of course, that the legation might, according to your intentions, take immediate steps for Miss Cavell's pardon if the, judgment really was a sentence of death.

Very surprised to still receive no news from Mr. Kirschen, I then called, at his house at 12:30 and was informed that he would not be there till about the end of the afternoon. I then called at 12:40 at the house of another lawyer interested in the case of a fellow-prisoner, and found that he also was out. In the afternoon, however, the latter lawyer called at my house, saying that in the morning he had heard from the German Kommandantur that judgment would be passed only the next morning, viz., Tuesday morning. He said he feared that the court would be very severe for all the prisoners.

Shortly after this lawyer left me, and while I was preparing a note about the case, at 8 P. M. I was privately and reliably informed that the judgment had been delivered at 5 o'clock in the afternoon; that Miss Cavell had been sentenced to death, and that she would be shot at 2 o'clock the next morning. I told my informer that I was extremely surprised at this, because the legation had received no information yet, neither from the German authorities nor from Mr. Kirschen, but that the matter was too serious to run the smallest chance, and that therefore I would proceed immediately to the legation to confer with your Excellency and take all possible steps to save Miss Cavell's life.

According to your Excellency's decision, Mr. Gibson and myself went, with the Spanish Minister, to see Baron von der Lancken, and the report of our interview and of our efforts to save Miss Cavell is given to you by Mr. Gibson.

This morning Mr. Gahan, the English clergyman, called to see me and told me that he had seen Miss Cavell in her cell yesterday night at 10 o'clock, that he had given her the holy communion and had found her admirably strong and calm. I asked Mr. Gahan whether she had made any remarks about anything concerning the legal side of her case and whether the confession which she made before the trial and in court was, in his opinion, perfectly free and sincere. Mr. Gahan says that she told him she perfectly well knew what she had done, that according to the law of course she was guilty and had admitted her guilt, but that she was happy to die for her country.

(Signed) G. de LEVAL.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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