Primary Documents - Hugh Gibson on the Execution of Edith Cavell, 12 October 1915

Cavell with other nurses in Brussels Reproduced below is the report sent by the Secretary of the U.S. Legation to Belgium, Hugh Gibson, to the Legation's Chairman, Brand Whitlock, dealing with the execution of the English nurse Edith Cavell.

Cavell was convicted by German military 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 Brand Whitlock; Maitre G. de Leval; Reverend H. Stirling Gahan; and Arthur Zimmermann.

Report of Secretary of U.S. Legation to Belgium Hugh Gibson

American Legation, Brussels
October 12, 1915


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 ("requete en grace") addressed to the Governor-General.  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 offence, 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 offences 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 power to accept or to refuse acceptance of an appeal for clemency.  After some discussion he agreed to call the Military Governor on to the telephone and learn whether he had already ratified the sentence, and whether there was any chance for clemency.

He returned in about half an 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 lie must decline to accept your plea for clemency, or any representation in regard to the matter.

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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