Primary Documents - Brand Whitlock on the Execution of Edith Cavell, 11 October 1915

Cavell's grave in the Tir Nationale Reproduced below is the letter sent by the U.S. Minister to Belgium, Brand Whitlock, to German military authorities dealing with the execution of the English nurse Edith Cavell.

Cavell was convicted by the German authorities in occupied Belgium of assisting up to 200 Allied prisoners to escape to Holland and Britain from the hospital where she worked in contravention of German wartime law.

In spite of widespread international protest over the sentence Cavell was duly executed by firing squad on the night of 12 October 1915.

Click the links below to read contemporary letters and reports on Cavell's sentence and death by Maitre G. de Leval; Hugh Gibson; Reverend H. Stirling Gahan; and Arthur Zimmermann.

Brand Whitlock's Letter to Baron von der Lancken and German Military Governor Baron von Bissing

October 11, 1915

Your Excellency,

I have just heard that Miss Cavell, a British subject, and consequently under the protection of my Legation, was this morning condemned to death by court-martial.

If my information is correct, the sentence in the present case is more severe than all the others that have been passed in similar cases which have been tried by the same court, and, without going into the reasons for such a drastic sentence, I feel that I have the right to appeal to his Excellency the Governor-General's feelings of humanity and generosity in Miss Cavell's favour, and to ask that the death penalty passed on Miss Cavell may be commuted, and that this unfortunate woman shall not be executed.

Miss Cavell is the head of the Brussels Surgical Institute.  She has spent her life in alleviating the sufferings of others, and her school has turned out many nurses who have watched at the bedside of the sick all the world over, in Germany as in Belgium.

At the beginning of the war Miss Cavell bestowed her care as freely on the German soldiers as on others.  Even in default of all other reasons, her career as a servant of humanity is such as to inspire the greatest sympathy and to call for pardon.

If the information in my possession is correct, Miss Cavell, far from shielding herself, has, with commendable straightforwardness, admitted the truth of all the charges against her, and it is the very information which she herself has furnished, and which she alone was in a position to furnish, that has aggravated the severity of the sentence passed on her.

It is then with confidence, and in the hope of its favourable reception, that I beg your Excellency to submit to the Governor-General my request for pardon on Miss Cavell's behalf.

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

The financial cost of the war is said to have amounted to almost $38 billion for Germany alone; Britain spent $35 billion, France $24 billion, Russia $22 billion, USA $22 billion and Austria-Hungary $20 billion.  In total the war cost the Allies around $125 billion; the Central Powers $60 billion.

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Primary Docs