‘A Sweet Tribute to Her Memory’: War-time Edith Cavell Plays and Films

  • Veronica Kelly


In the Senate House of Brussels late on the afternoon of 8 October 1915, the English nurse Edith Cavell and four Belgian and French civilians were sentenced to death by firing squad by a military tribunal of the German General Government of occupied Belgium. Their charge was ‘treason in time of war’ under Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code, which prohibited ‘conducting soldiers to the enemy’. Under a decree of June 1915 issued by General Moritz Freiherr von Bissing, Governor General of Belgium, civilians were tried under military law for activities seen as acting against the German state or the German army. On 10 October, Traugott von Sauberzweig, the Military Governor of Brussels, confirmed Cavell’s sentence with ‘immediate effect’. Diplomatic personnel then spent frantic nocturnal hours seeking to stay the sentence, led by Brand Whitlock, head of the American legation in Belgium, and the Spanish Marquis de Villalobar. Baron Oscar von der Lancken, the German civilian Governor-General, appealed in vain to von Sauberzweig. In the early morning of the 11 October, Cavell and the clandestine Belgian journalist Philippe Baucq were shot and buried at the Tir National firing range in northeast Brussels. The good offices of Whitlock, plus representations from the Pope, King Alfonso of Spain and other European royalty, secured the commutation of the other sentences to life imprisonment. Most of these were released at the war’s end.1


National Archive Australian Theatre Military Tribunal Sonic Boom Home Front 
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  1. 1.
    Brand Whitlock, Belgium: A Personal Narrative Vol. 1 (New York: Appleton, 1919), 433; 70.Google Scholar
  2. The most recent accounts of Cavell’s trial and execution are James Morton, Spies of the First World War: Under Cover for King and Kaiser (London: National Archives, 2010), 147–51;Google Scholar
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  5. 2.
    Pickles, ibid., 2. Cavell’s specifically British memorialization is treated in Marie-Anne Claire Hughes, ‘War, Gender and National Mourning: The Significance of the Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell in Britain’, European Review of History 12.3 (2005), 425–4.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Margaret Darrow, French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front (Oxford: Berg, 2000), 281–94.Google Scholar
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    See Pickles, Transnational Outrage; Catherine Speck, ‘Edith Cavell: Martyr or Patriot’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 2:1 (2001), 83–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Charles Sarclea, The Murder of Nurse Cavell (London: George, Allen and Unwin, 1915); ‘Anon’, Nurse Cavell: the Story of her Life and Martyrdom (London: Pearson, 1915). There were also memorial songs including ‘Remember Nurse Cavell’ (Gordon V. Thompson, 1915), ‘A Lament for Nurse Cavell’ (M. Maclean and M. Macfarlane, 1917); ‘All For Her Country’s Sake’ (L. Silberman and Mason Dixon, 1917).Google Scholar
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    These are a sketch Nurse Cavell by Hal Collier (Recreation Hall, Willesden, London, 1 July 1916) and the anonymous The Spirit of the Empire (Theatre Royal, Bolton, 21 February 1917). The first treats her arrest and execution by an officer’s pistol, and the second is a four-scene morality play showing the conversion of an unpatriotic Lancashire war profiteer by Britannia (the Spirit of Empire), who shows him cinematographic visions of trench warfare, the Lusitania, and the death of Cavell.Google Scholar
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    William Arthur Hill, ‘The Martyrdom of Nurse Edith Cavell’ (1916), MS, 14pp. plus correspondence. NAA A1336/4863, National Archives of Australia, Canberra.Google Scholar
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    Carmel Shute, ‘Heroine and Heroes: Sexual Mythology in Australia 1914–18’, in Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, eds. Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 23–42.Google Scholar
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    Agnes Adele Gavin, The Murder and Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell (1916). TS, 13 pp. plus correspondence. A1336/4689, National Archives of Australia, Canberra. The owners were Gavin, Post Mason and distributor John Corbett Jones and producer Stanley Crick.Google Scholar
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    See Nicholas Reeves, The Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (London: Cassell, 1999), 14–42;Google Scholar
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© Veronica Kelly 2015

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  • Veronica Kelly

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