This tiny, hidden cemetery in a Flemish suburb of Bruxelles was originally cleared for the Tir National, a rifle range for training Belgian sharpshooters. In both World Wars, I and II, the German occupation authorities took advantage of its hidden location to use it as an execution ground for judicially convicted foreigners. In this capacity, it became the site of one of the great blunders of modern military diplomacy, when on October 12, 1915, the German authorities under the wooden-headed Baron von der Lancken stood the woman Edith Cavell up against the earthen embankment here and shot her for treason.
Technically, Edith might have been guilty of the charges. She was a proper English nurse who ran clinics and teaching schools for the Red Cross in Belgium. She saved the lives of countless wounded soldiers–German, French, English, or Belgian–without worrying about their nationalities and afterwards helped send the healthy individuals back to their own countries. In a war where millions died and millions more served, she might have been responsible for passing less than two hundred Allied soldiers through the lines into neutral Holland.
The Germans could not have picked a worse–in other words, a nicer, more honest and brave–candidate to make their point. Edith remained composed and forthcoming throughout her interrogation and trial and admitted to everything. She justified her life as a wartime nurse by saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” And as if that weren’t bad enough, her last words, reported by the Reverend Stirling Gahan, were, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Coming five months after the Lusitania fiasco and fifteen months before the Zimmermann Telegram, this judicial murder proved a gold mine for the British propagandists. It crystalized war-weary public support in Britain and did as much as anything to bring the reluctant United States into the war. The Germans never got the point and defended the decision through the end of the war–even going so far as to execute another perfect propaganda candidate, Gabrielle Petit (who definitely was a spy, not that anyone cared by then), on the same spot on the evening of 1 April, 1916.
L’Enclos des Fusillés, as it is now known, houses the graves of several dozen judicially executed Belgian patriots from both wars, many of the crosses adorned with rosebushes and sad photo medallions of the dapper, young victims. The tiny plot and its thick, wavy walls of spruce trees are surprisingly hard to find, but maintained with meticulous care. In the morning, you can hear the traffic from the surrounding town waking up, but it only serves to underline the value lost in the lives that ended here.