Historically minded readers will doubtless be aware of the execution of Edith Cavell, a British nurse, by the German occupiers of Belgium in 1915, for the crime (under occupation law) of assisting British soldiers to get back to their own lines. Germany also accused her of being a spy (hotly denied by Britain, which used her death as a focal point for anti-German propaganda for the rest of the war).
Now we learn that she was, indeed, almost certainly a spy. The Telegraph reports:
The German claim that Cavell [pictured below] was a spy was vehemently denied by the British government and she became a national heroine whose death inspired tens of thousands to join up for the war effort.
But Dame Stella Rimington, the former director-general of MI5, has made a startling claim on the centenary of Cavell's death.
. . .
It is well documented that [Cavell] and her associates aided soldiers cut off behind enemy lines after the Battle of Mons, arranging for them to be smuggled back to Britain via Holland.
But Dame Stella said her evidence showed "that the Cavell organisation was a two-pronged affair" and that espionage was the other part of its clandestine mission.
The Belgian archives contain reports and first-hand testimonies collected at the end of the First World War.
They include an account by Herman Capiau, a young Belgian mining engineer who had brought the first British soldiers to Cavell in 1914 and was an important member of her network. He was arrested alongside her but escaped the firing squad, instead being sentenced to 15 years' hard labour in a German labour camp.
He wrote: "Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly."
Capiau referred to information about a German trench system, the location of munitions dumps and the whereabouts of aircraft.
Details were written in ink on strips of fabric and sewn into clothes, or hidden in shoes and boots.
There are also notes in the archive linking Cavell to a character called 'Dr Bull'. He was Dr Tollemache Bull, an Englishman who had lived in Brussels for many years and later admitted to working for the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to MI6.
In the Radio 4 programme to be broadcast on Wednesday, Secrets and Spies: The Untold Story of Edith Cavell, historian Dr Jim Beach said military espionage was in its infancy at the beginning of the First World War, and Cavell's associates were amateurs.
"They are learning as they go," he said of Cavell's network. "The boundaries between different kinds of clandestine activity were a little bit more blurred."
Dame Stella added: "We may never know how much Edith Cavell knew of the espionage carried out by her network. She was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies.
"Her main objective was to get hidden Allied soldiers back to Britain but, contrary to the common perception of her, we have uncovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies."
A year into the war, Cavell was arrested, interrogated and put through a show trial. She was shot at dawn by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915.
There's more at the link.
I suppose it was logical and entirely rational for Britain to insist on Nurse Cavell's innocence during World War I. After all, they derived great propaganda benefit from her execution. However, why was that denial carried on for a century after her death? Surely, if she'd been acknowledged as an agent after the war and accorded the recognition her bravery surely deserved, there would have been no harm in it? It seems to have been a grave disservice to Nurse Cavell to keep her gallant service a secret for so long.