My stunning new evidence proves Edith Cavell was a spy

The German firing squad stood stony-faced, weapons at the ready as the lone woman was led blindfolded to face their guns. It was 2am, on October 12, 1915, pitch black and cold on the outskirts of Brussels, and there would be no second chances nor mercy.

Accused of spying and found guilty of espionage during a two-day trial, 49-year- old British nurse Edith Cavell faced her executioners with immense courage after being sentenced to death.

Just hours before her execution, a British chaplain administered the last rites. He would recall: “She was brave and bright to the last. She professed her Christian faith and was glad to die for her country.”

Suddenly, multiple shots rang out and Cavell’s lifeless body fell to the ground. Her killing sent shockwaves throughout the British Empire and within the corridors of Whitehall.

But what was the truth about Cavell’s activities? It’s well-documented that, at the outbreak of war in 1914, she was working as a nurse at 149 Rue de La Culture in the Belgian capital.

Following the fall of Brussels, she stayed behind, hiding British and French soldiers and arranging for them to be smuggled to the safety of neutral Holland. It was perilous work and involved many secret meetings in her home.

But did she cross the line into actively spying for her country? And was her controversial execution at the hands of a firing squad justified, given that there was no protection under the Geneva Convention for espionage, nor special status for women?

Portraying her as an innocent victim, the British said she was “murdered”, whipping up hatred towards Germany and driving recruitment in both the First and Second World Wars.

Historians have been divided ever since as to the true nature of her activities. But in my new book, Women In Intelligence, I can put this debate to rest once and for all.

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She recruited spies, couriers, forgers and agents for the network. They used traditional spycraft, including invisible ink to correspond and smuggle messages out to the British.

These files also list the names of every single one of her agents – Belgian men and women – who worked for her network, including summaries of their roles and signed eyewitness accounts from each.

Written in 1920, their testimonies form an official archive that remained classified by the Belgian government for decades.

Today they provide us with the first extensive and unequivocal evidence of espionage by the Cavell organisation.

In London, MI5 opened a personal file on Cavell in which it gathered evidence from aristocratic women who had worked for her; and it opened a separate file on her betrayer Georges Gaston Quien.

Intelligence officer Sigismund Payne Best detailed members of Cavell’s network. He confirmed that one Louise Thuliez travelled to Cambrai to obtain plans of German ammunition depots and took the diagrams to an agent in Brussels to pass on to his contact in British intelligence.

Louise and her sister Aubertine Houet wrote letters in invisible ink containing intelligence, and these were secretly forwarded to MI1(c) – the forerunner of MI6.

During my research, I discovered bombshell files in London and Brussels confirming conclusively that – yes – Edith Cavell was a spy for the British. Thanks to my enquiries, it is possible to go even further.

The files I uncovered sensationally reveal that she was, in fact, a “spymistress” – the founder and head of an intelligence network that operated behind enemy lines.

These were dangerous times and the risks were known. Cavell was suspicious of being watched and immediately notified London.

After her death, the British Secret Service mounted an investigation. Her betrayer, Quien, was a courier for the network but also a German agent. He was executed. Another man, Armand Jeannes, was given a life sentence for his part in the betrayal.

During my research, I discovered bombshell files in London and Brussels confirming conclusively that – yes – Edith Cavell was a spy for the British. Thanks to my enquiries, it is possible to go even further.

The files I uncovered sensationally reveal that she was, in fact, a “spymistress” – the founder and head of an intelligence network that operated behind enemy lines.

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As a result of their treachery, Cavell and 35 members of her organisation – 13 of them women, were rounded up. Twenty-six of them were subsequently found guilty and five, including Cavell, received the death penalty.

The death sentences were later commuted to life imprisonment, except for Cavell and her co-conspirator Philippe Baucq. We are all familiar with the courageous women of the Special Operations Executive who were dropped into France in the Second World War, and the extraordinary legacy of women on the Home Front at places like Bletchley Park and Latimer House, both in Buckinghamshire, where codebreaking and eavesdropping on the enemy took place.

But they were not alone; there were thousands of other remarkable women across both world wars whose pivotal roles shaped the course of nations, often hidden and quietly operating behind the scenes.

Indeed, the fact Edith Cavell was the female head of an espionage organisation was not unique. Women were extremely capable and effective in setting up and running intelligence networks for the British Secret Service.

One such example was Louise de Bettignies, who founded the Alice Service in 1915. Her spy network for the British covered the region of Lille in France, carrying information in and out of Belgium. She was a 35-year-old French woman who operated under different guises – as a teacher, a peasant and a lace seller.

Messages were hidden inside corsets, bread baskets, rosaries and the head dress of Catholic nuns. The group gathered intelligence on enemy positions, troop movements and camouflaged installations, proving to be of great value to the British. General Sir Walter Kirke, British director of Military Intelligence in France, described her as a “modern Joan of Arc”.

Ten days after the execution of Cavell, Bettignies was arrested near Tournai in Belgium and found to be carrying forged passes. Just moments before her arrest, she had managed to alert the Allies that the Germans planned an offensive at Verdun in early 1916.

She was taken to St Gilles Prison in Brussels, where she was held in solitary confinement with only a thin cotton blanket. There she contracted pneumonia and very nearly died.

After her recovery she developed a small tumour in her breast. She was operated on in the prison, but died there just six weeks before the end of the war, aged 38.

After the Armistice Bettignies received a full military funeral and was eventually laid to rest in Lille. When Belgian Marthe Cnockaert (later McKenna) was first approached by a friend to spy for the British, she was horrified.

But she and another Belgian agent undertook sabotage missions and, on one occasion, the dangerous task of dynamiting a German ammunition depot behind enemy lines.

She dropped weekly reports for the Allies through the window of a small shop in Westrozebeke. As a result of her intelligence work, the Allies were able to bomb German military targets, ordnance trains and ammunition depots.

Cnockaert once spotted new German single-seater biplanes at a Belgian aerodrome, and then used her contacts to smuggle information on them to the British.

As her report was too important to pass on as a single message at a dead letterbox, she instead cut it up into strips, sewing them into the hem of an old skirt, before passing it to a contact.

After receiving this intelligence, British bombers headed for the aerodrome to attack the biplanes. Cnockaert also learnt that the Germans were planning to lead 11 Zeppelins on a raid against London – information she passed on to the British.

She survived the war and did not discover the impact of her actions until afterwards. But largely because of her information, the defences of London had been bolstered and the Zeppelin L31 was shot down over Potters Bar, north of the capital. Cnockaert later became known as “the spy who saved London”.

Cavell, on the other hand, for reasons of secrecy, was never acknowledged by British military intelligence as one of their agents.

Still to this day, the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) – later known as MI6 – has not admitted she was one of theirs.

It is clear from the files, however, that she was working for the nascent MI6. After her execution, she was buried in a desolate patch of wasteland next to the Tir National, the Belgian national shooting centre used by the Germans for executions in both wars. A simple white wooden cross marked her resting place.

After the war, Cavell’s body was repatriated to England where she was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, before being reburied in Norwich Cathedral.

In London, she is commemorated in a striking memorial statue near Trafalgar Square. It is inscribed with her dying words: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Cavell’s legacy went beyond the valued intelligence that her network was able to smuggle out of Occupied Belgium.

Her defiance and heroism in 1915 inspired women to take up resistance and intelligence activities for the remainder of the First World War.

She could not have anticipated during her lifetime that her spirit of resistance would go on to inspire a new generation of women behind enemy lines two decades later in the Second World War.

Nor could she have known that, through her sacrifice, she became the inspiration for the recruitment of women as intelligencers and spies ever since.

  • Women In Intelligence: The Hidden History Of Two World Wars by Helen Fry (Yale, £25) is published on September 26. To pre-order with free UK P&P, visit or call 020 3176 3832

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