WWI Centennial: Germans Execute Edith Cavell

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 205th installment in the series.

October 12-13, 1915: Germans Execute Edith Cavell, Bomb London

The execution of Edith Louisa Cavell, a British nurse who helped Allied prisoners of war escape Belgium, provided yet more evidence (if any more were needed after Belgian atrocities, Louvain, Notre Dame de Reims, the Lusitania, and gas) that the men in charge of the German war effort had no grasp of the propaganda struggle being waged alongside the shooting conflict, pitting them against the Allies in a battle for the high ground of global public opinion.

A devout Anglican, Cavell had worked in Belgium teaching nursing beginning in 1907, and bravely returned from London after war broke out to continue ministering to wounded soldiers from both sides at her clinic in Brussels. In addition to her life-saving work, Cavell was apparently contacted by British intelligence agents who prevailed on her sense of patriotism to help smuggle around 200 Allied soldiers out of Belgium to the Netherlands, for eventual repatriation; she also passed information to the Allies, concealed on the bodies or in the clothes of the escapees. 

Apprehended on August 15, 1915, along with 34 others Cavell was charged with treason by authorities of the German military occupation force in Belgium (despite the fact that she had neither German nor Belgian citizenship, common conditions for a charge of treason). Because Cavell was already well known for her charitable work, her arrest spurred immediate appeals from clemency.

Pleas from the U.S. and Spanish ambassadors failed to move the German military authorities in Belgium, and Cavell was executed by firing squad at 2 a.m. on October 12, 1915, along with her co-conspirator Philippe Baucq. Her final words to an Anglican chaplain who was allowed to visit her reflected her unwavering idealism and Christian piety: “Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

There was no question of Cavell’s guilt (she confessed) and both sides of the conflict had already shown their determination to take extremely harsh measures against spies (or even suspected spies, probably leading to the deaths of scores of innocent people). Nonetheless executing Cavell was a self-inflicted propaganda defeat, as it played into popular narratives of passive female victimhood and uncomplaining Christian martyrdom dating back to the Victorian era.

The international outcry over Cavell’s death prompted the Germans to commute the death sentences of the 33 surviving conspirators, but the damage was done: the execution of Cavell soon became symbolic shorthand for German brutality and “frightfulness.”

Many ordinary Germans realized that killing Cavell was a mistake, at least according to the German novelist Arnold Zweig. In his novel Young Woman of 1914 one of the characters, Sergeant Brümmer, remarks mournfully to the heroine Lenore Wahl:

We shall have to pay for that girl’s blood, and it will take a great many lives to avenge it. They tell me that the English newspapers are wild about it. Why were these people allowed to shoot a brave young woman because she helped prisoners to escape over the frontier… She wasn’t just an ordinary girl she was a nurse, Fraulein Wahl. And she worked in a hospital where she looked after a great many of our men, both officers and rank and file. I needn’t tell you the story in detail, but it’s the talk of all Belgium, and indeed the whole world just now.

Significantly Zweig’s characters seem to share the same Victorian attitudes toward female virtue that made Cavell the perfect tragic victim in British and French eyes:

Lenore sat with wandering eyes, ready for flight. She remembered the Archduchess, the first victim of this war. Shot in Serajevo; and now another woman too—shot in Brussels. Had not all the thinkers in Germany, and indeed in all the world, conferred on women their charter of humanity? Couldn’t she have been pardoned, or even imprisoned? This was too much…

Conversely sentiment wasn’t necessarily unanimous on the Allied side, as some men objected to the special status accorded her as a female victim. A few weeks after her execution Frederic Keeling, a British soldier on the Western Front, noted that his comrades weren’t much impressed by the self-righteous rhetoric:

I see from the papers that the silly sentimental agitation about Nurse Cavell still goes on at home. A good many soldiers out here don’t think much of it. I have discussed it with many and found them all of my opinion—while admiring the woman immensely, I think the Germans were quite within their rights in shooting her. The agitation reveals the worst side of the English character. I hope some Suffragists who prefer to stand for the principle of women’s equal responsibility for their actions will protest against the rot that is being talked.

Bloodiest Zeppelin Raid of the War

On the night of October 13, 1915 German zeppelins struck Britain yet again, in what turned out to be the bloodiest bombing raid of the war carried out by airships (though not airplanes). This time five zeppelins—L11, L13, L14, L15, and L16—bombed London and several surrounding towns, killing 71, including 15 Canadian soldiers, and wounding 128. Once again the raid rattled British civilians and made an especially big impression on children. One boy, J. McHenry, wrote about the bombing of London the following day for school, describing what were obviously ineffective air defenses: 

I had not been reading more than half an hour when I heard a terrible bang… I dropped the book, rushed to the window opened it and jumped out into the parapet… No sooner had I got out when bang – bang two more bombs followed in quick succession, and then all was silent for a few seconds. Boom—crash—boom, came the answer from our guns, and a hail of lead went sailing skywards, but I am sorry to say that they did not find their destination. I could see gun flashes coming from the British Museum and from the Kingsway, I only just caught a glimpse of the zeppelin in the city direction the search-lights were shining on it, and the shells were bursting underneath it. Whether it was hit I do not know but all of a sudden It disappeared and fled.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Timeless Facts About The Land Before Time

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Five years before Jurassic Park roared into theaters, a gentler, more meditative dinosaur film endeared itself to audiences of all ages. Initially met with mixed reviews, The Land Before Time is now regarded as an animated classic. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Steven Spielberg-produced film, which arrived in theaters 30 years ago.

1. IT WAS CONCEIVED AS A DIALOGUE-FREE MOVIE.

Gabriel Damon and Candace Hutson in The Land Before Time (1988)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

In the mid-1980s, executive producer Steven Spielberg began toying with the idea of a Bambi-esque dinosaur film. “Basically,” he later said, “I wanted to do a soft picture … about five little dinosaurs and how they grow up and work together as a group.” Inspiration came from the “Rite of Spring” sequence from Disney’s Fantasia (1940)—a scene in which prehistoric beasts wordlessly go about their business. At first, Spielberg wanted his own dinosaur characters to follow suit and remain mum. Ultimately, however, it was feared that a non-verbal approach might bore or confuse the film’s intended audience. As such, the animals were given lines.

2. DIRECTOR DON BLUTH WAS AN EX-DISNEY EMPLOYEE.

Don Bluth grew up idolizing Disney’s work, and began working for the studio in 1955. Over the next two decades, he did various odd jobs until he was brought on as a full-time animator in 1971. Once on the inside, Bluth got to peek behind the magician’s curtain—and disliked what he found there. “I think [Walt Disney] would’ve seen that the pictures were losing their luster,” Bluth said. Frustrated by the studio’s cost-cutting measures, he resigned in 1979. Joining him were fellow animators Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy. Together the trio launched their own company, Sullivan Bluth Studios, and began working on The Land Before Time in 1986.

3. OVER 600 BACKGROUND PAINTINGS WERE MADE FOR THE FILM.

Most of these depicted beautiful but barren wastelands, which presented a real challenge for the creative team. As one studio press release put it, “The artists had to create a believable environment in which there was almost no foliage.” Whenever possible, Bluth’s illustrators emphasized vibrant colors. This kept their backdrops from looking too drab or monotonous—despite the desolate setting.

4. LITTLEFOOT’S ORIGINAL NAME WAS “THUNDERFOOT.”

This was changed when the filmmakers learned that there was a triceratops in a popular children’s book called Thunderfoot. Speaking of three-horned dinosaurs: Cera evolved from a pugnacious male character called Bambo.

5. THE FILMMAKERS HAD TO CUT ABOUT 10 MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.

“We compromised a lot with The Land Before Time,” Goldman admitted. Nowhere was this fact more apparent than on the cutting room floor. Spielberg and his fellow executive producer George Lucas deemed 19 individual scenes “too scary.” “We’ll have kids crying in the lobby, and angry parents,” Spielberg warned. “You don’t want that.”

6. “ROOTER” WAS INTRODUCED AT THE URGING OF CHILD PSYCHOLOGISTS.

In Bambi, the title character’s mom dies off-screen. The same cannot be said for Littlefoot’s mother, whose slow demise goes on for several agonizing minutes. Naturally, there was some concern about how children would react to this. “A lot of research went into the mother dying sequence,” Pomeroy said. “Psychologists were approached and shown the film. They gave their professional opinions of how the sequence could be depicted.” Thus, Rooter was born.

One scene after Littlefoot’s mom passes, the wise reptile consoles him, saying “You’ll always miss her, but she’ll always be with you as long as you remember the things she taught you.” Sharp-eared fans might recognize Rooter’s voice as that of Pat Hingle, who also narrates the movie.

7. JAMES HORNER DID THE SOUNDTRACK.

The late, Oscar-winning composer behind Braveheart (1995), Titanic (1997), and Avatar (2009) put together a soaring score. Along with lyricist Will Jennings, he also penned the original song “If We Hold On Together,” which Diana Ross sings as the end credits roll.

8. THE ACTRESS BEHIND DUCKY PASSED AWAY BEFORE THE MOVIE’S RELEASE.

Judith Barsi’s career was off to a great start. By age 10, this daughter of Hungarian immigrants had already appeared in 70 commercials and voiced the leading lady in Don Bluth’s All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989). For The Land Before Time, Barsi voiced the ever-optimistic Ducky, which was reportedly her favorite role. Then tragedy struck: In July of 1988, Barsi’s father József murdered both her and her mother before taking his own life.

9. IT HAD A RECORD-SETTING OPENING WEEKEND.

From the get-go, The Land Before Time had some stiff competition. Universal released it on November 18, 1988—the same day that Disney’s Oliver & Company hit theaters. Yet, for a solid month, Bluth gave Oliver a box office beating. The Land Before Time enjoyed the highest-grossing opening weekend that any animated film had ever seen, pulling in $7.5 million to Oliver & Company’s $4 million. Since then, of course, The Land Before Time has long been dethroned; today, Incredibles 2 (2018) holds this coveted distinction with a $182.7 million first-weekend showing.

10. THERE ONCE WAS TALK OF A LAND BEFORE TIME STAGE MUSICAL.

“The time has come for dinosaurs on Broadway,” the late theatrical producer Irving Welzer told The New York Times in 1997. Emboldened by the recent cinematic success of Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1996), Welzer expressed an interest helping Littlefoot, Cera, Ducky, and the rest of the gang make their Big Apple debut. Soon, however, the idea faded.

Billie Lourd Shares What (Very Little) She Can About Star Wars: Episode IX

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

​Nearly nothing is known about the final film in the latest Star Wars series, except that J.J. Abrams, who helmed The Force Awakens, will be returning as director, and many of the cast members from both Abrams's earlier effort and The Last Jedi will be reprising their roles. Even the late Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away on December 27, 2016, will be included in Episode IX, through unused footage from the previous two films.

Though all the stars of the upcoming film are sworn to secrecy about it, Fisher's daughter, Billie Lourd, is spilling what she can. Lourd, who played the minor role of Lieutenant Connix in the last two films, teased what it was like being back on set.

"I gotta watch myself because the Star Wars PD is going to come get me, but it is incredible. I’ve read the script and I’ve been on set," Lourd told ​Entertainment Tonight. "I was on set for, like, three weeks back in September, and it is going to be magical. I can’t say much more, but I’m so excited about it and so grateful to be a part of it. Star Wars is my heart. I love it."

A lot of things are riding on Episode IX, especially considering how divided fans were over The Last Jedi. Though with Abrams back in the director's chair, it seems likely that the new film will be a return to form. The as-yet-untitled film hits theaters on December 20, 2019.

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