Primary Documents - Maitre G. de Leval on the Execution of Edith Cavell, 12 October 1915

Edith Cavell's Brussels cell Reproduced below is the report sent to the Chairman of the U.S. Legation in Belgium, Brand Whitlock, by Belgian councillor Maitre G. de Leval.

Leval's report addresses the sentence of execution handed down by German military authorities in occupied Belgium on English nurse Edith Cavell.  Cavell was convicted 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; Hugh Gibson; Reverend H. Stirling Gahan; and Arthur Zimmermann.

Maitre G. de Leval on the Execution of Edith Cavell

October 12, 1915


As soon as the Legation received an intimation that Miss Cavell was arrested, your letter of August 31st 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 defence.  No reply being received, the Legation, on September 10th, reminded the German authorities of your letter.

The German reply, sent on September 12th, 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 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 defence 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, October 7th.  The Legation at once sent him, on October 5th, a letter 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 these 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."

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 favour before the Court.

The Military Public Prosecutor, however, asked the Court to pass a death sentence on Miss Cavell and eight other prisoners amongst 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 that 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 already had 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 receive still 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 that 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 be 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.

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

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