Murders and Martyrs
( Originally Published 1918 )
MANY examples might be cited to show that the Central empires were dead to the humanities. There were apparently no limits to the brutality of the German war-makers. Among the outstanding deeds of the Teutons that sickened the world was the killing of Miss Edith Cavell, an English nurse working in Belgian hospitals.
A shudder of horror circled the world when announcement was formally made that this splendid woman was sentenced to death and murdered by a German firing squad at two o'clock on the morning of October 12, 1915.
The killing of this gentle-natured, brave woman typified to the world Germany's essentially brutal militarism. It placed the German military command in a niche of dishonor unique in all history.
The specific charge against Miss Cavell was that she had helped English and French soldiers and Belgian young male civilians to cross the border into Holland. The direct evidence against her was in the form of letters intercepted by the Germans in which some of these soldiers and civilians writing from England thanked her for the aid she had given to them.
Upon the farcical trial that resulted in the predetermined sentence of death, Miss Cavell courageously and freely admitted her assistance in the specified cases of escape. When she was asked why she did it, she declared her fear that if she had not done so the men would have been shot by the Germans. Her testimony was given in a clear conversational tone that betrayed no nervousness and her entire bearing was such as to win the sympathy of everyone except her stony-hearted judges.
The German officers in command at Brussels made it impossible for Miss Cavell to see counsel before the trial, and a number of able lawyers who were solicited to undertake her defense declined to do so because of their fear of the Germans.
Sentence was imposed upon her at five o'clock on the afternoon of October 11th. In accordance with its terms, she was taken from her cell and placed against a blank wall at two o'clock the following morning—the darkness of the hour vying with the blackness of the deed. Mr. Gahan, the English clergyman connected with the prison, was permitted to see her a short time before her murder. He gave her Holy Communion at ten o'clock on the night of October 11th. To him she declared she was happy in her contemplation of death; that she had no regret for what she had done; and that she was glad to die for her country.
Brand Whitlock, American Minister to Belgium, and Hugh Gibson, Secretary of the Legation, did all that was humanly possible to avert the crime, but without avail. They were told that, "the Emperor himself could not intervene."
Defending the murder, Dr. Alfred Zimmermann, German Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, callously disposed of the matter thus :
"I see from the English and American press that the shooting of an Englishwoman and the condemnation of several other women in Brussels for treason has caused a sensation, and capital against us is being made out of the fact. It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a state, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because committed by women. No criminal code in the world —least of all the laws of war—makes such a distinction; and the feminine sex has but one preference, according to legal usages, namely, that women in a delicate condition may not be executed. Otherwise man and woman are equal before the law, and only the degree of guilt makes a difference in the sentence for the crime and its consequences."
In reply to Dr. Zimmermann, statesmen throughout the civilized world declared that it was not merely a political mistake, not merely a national blunder, to kill Miss Cavell, but that it was a crime unjustified by the facts. These statements were entirely outside of the humanitarian aspect of the case; outside of the promptings of manhood to show clemency toward a woman whose actions had been inspired by the loftiest sympathies and emotions.
Monuments to Edith Cavell were reared in widely scattered communities. A mountain was named in her honor. Her murder multiplied enlistments and fed the fires of patriotism throughout the Allied countries. In the end, Germany lost heavily. The Teutons aimed to strike terror into the hearts of men and women. They only succeeded in arousing a righteous anger that ultimately destroyed the Imperial government.
Another instance equally flagrant of the utter callousness of the men who at that time ruled Germany, was the murder of Captain Fryatt, a gallant British seaman, who had dared to attack the pirates of the under-seas.
Captain Charles Fryatt was the master of the steamship Brussels, a merchant vessel owned by the Great Eastern Railway. It was captured by the Germans on June 23, 1916. Captain Fryatt was taken to Zeebrugge. A court-martial went through the motions of a trial at Bruges on July 27th. The charge against Captain Fryatt was that of attempting to ram the German submarine U-33.
Mute testimony against Captain Fryatt was a gold watch found upon his person. This carried an inscription testifying that the watch had been presented by the mayor and people of Harwich in recognition of the Captain's bravery in attempting to ram a submarine, and his successful escape when the U-boat called upon him to surrender.
The prisoners who were captured with Captain Fryatt were sent to the prison camp at Ruhlaben, but Captain Fryatt was condemned to death as a "franc-tireur." The news of the murder was sent to the world through a German communiqué dated July 28th. It stated:
The accused was condemned to death because, al-though he was not a member of a combatant force, he made an attempt on the afternoon of March 20, 1915, to ram the German submarine U-33 near the Maas lightship. The accused, as well as the first officer and the chief engineer of the steamer, received at the time from the British Admiralty a gold watch as a reward of his brave conduct on that occasion, and his action was mentioned with praise in the House of Commons.
On the occasion in question, disregarding the U-boat's signal to stop and show his national flag, he turned at a critical moment at high speed on the submarine, which escaped the steamer by a few meters only by immediately diving. He confessed that in so doing he had acted in accordance with the instructions of the Admiralty.
One of the many nefarious franc-tireur proceedings of the British merchant marine against our war vessels has thus found a belated but merited expiation.
This brutal action by Germany coming after the murder of Edith Cavell created intense indignation throughout the world. It ranked with the poison gas at Ypres, the Lusitania, the Belgian atrocities, the killing of Edith Cavell and the unrestricted submarine sinkings, as a factor in arousing the democratic peoples of the world to a fighting pitch.
The world will not soon forget these martyrs to a splendid cause; and it will be many a long year before the stain on the German peoples who tolerated these crimes can be wiped out.
Germany sowed its seeds of destruction in the wind that bore the fumes of poison gas, and in the ruthless brutality that decreed the sinking of the Lusitania and the murders of Edith Cavell and Captain Fryatt.
It reaped the whirlwind in the world-wide wrath that brought America into the war, and that visited disgrace and defeat upon the German Empire.