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The Meaning of a Memory: The Case of Edith Cavell and the Lusitania in Post-World War I Belgium

by Peter van Alfen

In 1919, the Commission de l’Ecole belge d’infirmières diplômées commissioned the sculptor Armand Bonnetain to produce a medal (Fig. 1) commemorating its former director and treasurer, the Englishwoman Edith Cavell and Belgian Marie Depage, respectively. Bonnetain’s jugate busts of the two nurses remains one of his most accomplished works, balancing portrait realism with idealism and evoking through their taut faces an elevated sense of emotion that finds its expression in a simple imperative on the reverse: “1915 / Remember!” For us, the timeless reader, now nearly ninety years removed from the events, the voice of the imperative has weakened; it stirs only a sense that the memory is, in fact, lost, and that the medal has become unmemorable except for its artistic qualities.


Fig. 1. Belgium. AE medal by Armand Bonnetain of Edith Cavell and Marie Depage, 1919. (ANS 0000.999.52161) 60 mm.

To the viewer in 1919, however, living within the context of immediate post-World War I Belgium, the reaction there to the Versailles Treaty negotiations, and having the modes of Allied propaganda still fresh in one’s mind, this medal would stir a host of forceful memories and thoughts. What the medal commanded the viewer to remember went far beyond the two nurses and the acts of the Germans who caused their deaths; it included the contemporary claim to this memory and its use as a political tool.

Edith Cavell and Marie Depage

When the Germans invaded Belgium in the opening days of World War I, Cavell and Depage were heading the medical school that Depage’s husband, the famed Dr. Antoine Depage, had founded in Brussels in 1907. With the war came the growing medical crisis of attending to wounded soldiers, which pressed Dr. Depage to leave his wife to go south beyond the eventual front lines in order to establish a hospital in the Ocean Hotel at La Panne. Marie joined him there two months later, while Cavell willingly stayed on in occupied Brussels to run the Berkendael Medical Institute for the Red Cross. Once in La Panne, and aware of the critically short supply of money and provisions for their hospital, Marie volunteered to go to the United States on a fundraising tour. Throughout the winter and early spring of 1914-15, she traveled west to San Francisco and up and down the east coast, eventually netting over $100,000 and many donated supplies for Belgian Red Cross hospitals (cf. Fig. 25). Encouraged by this fundraising success, she had no immediate plans to return, until, in late April, she received word that her younger son was to be sent to the battlefields to join his brother. Anxious to see her son before he faced near-certain death, she booked a passage from New York to Liverpool on the swiftest liner afloat, Cunard’s famed Lusitania. On May 7, a week after leaving New York, the ship was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20, a dozen miles off the southern Irish coast. Marie Depage drowned along with nearly 1,200 other passengers.

The worldwide response to the sinking was so loud that there can be no question that Cavell, still in Brussels, heard of the Lusitania’s fate, but whether she ever learned that her colleague and friend Marie was a passenger is not known. Three months later, on August 5, the Germans arrested Cavell for treason and a subsequent court martial sentenced her to death for assisting in the escape of nearly two hundred Allied prisoners of war, a crime to which she confessed. Despite protests from the Spanish and American ambassadors in Brussels, the fifty-year-old nurse faced the firing squad the morning of October 12, 1915. What exactly transpired has been lost in legend: one soldier protested and refused to shoot the woman, and so was executed for insubordination; moments before the final shots were fired, Cavell fainted and lay unscathed on the ground until the officer present dispatched her with his pistol (Fig. 3). Whatever the actual events, by break of dawn Cavell was dead, and by evening her body was wrapped in newspaper and buried alongside other victims of the firing squad.

There is little debate today that the Germans were technically justified in executing Cavell for treason and in sinking the Lusitania as a belligerent blockade runner. In the case of the Lusitania, the Germans had countered the British blockade of their ports with a submarine blockade of British ports; the British in turn responded by arming several merchant ships (sometimes deceptively under neutral flags such as the United States’) and issuing orders to all merchant captains to ram submarines when possible, all in violation of the received law of the sea. Thus there was little incentive for German U-boat captains to be chivalrous or spare British liners. Moreover, the Lusitania, like many blockade runners, was ferrying military contraband: 4.2 million Remington .303 rifle cartridges, 1,250 cases of (empty) shrapnel shells, and eighteen cases of fuses. Although technically justified in their actions, the captain of U-20, Walther Schwieger, and the Brussels court martial blundered horribly by sinking the Lusitania and ordering Cavell’s execution, since the events became two of the most successful focal points for Allied anti-German propaganda, and as such were often linked with each other to further enhance the effect (see Figs. 2, 20-21, 23). There was little the Germans could do to counter this; in the propaganda wars, they remained decisively on the defensive.


Fig. 2. France. Gilt AE plaque by Victor Peter depicting the French cock defeating the German snake, which has pinned down the Lamb of Innocence. (David Simpson collection) 164 x 230 mm.


Fig. 3. British postcard, c. 1916, depicting the execution of Edith Cavell.

Atrocity Propaganda

Part of the reason why the Cavell-Lusitania propaganda was so effective was due to the emotional groundwork laid by reports of German atrocities filtering out of Belgium shortly after the August 1914 invasion began. The Germans invaded Belgium fully expecting to encounter a franc-tireur (literally, “free-shooter”) People’s Army, as they had in France over forty years earlier. The obsession with the idea of a civilian resistance meant that advancing and occupying troops believed that old men and young girls everywhere were taking potshots at them from rooftops and from behind walls. The German response to unexplained shots (which often as it turned out were fired by nearby Allied or even German troops) was swift and brutal: scores of villagers would be executed for the purported actions of a few and their houses looted and burned. In Louvain, on August 25, 1914, drunk German soldiers touched off a raging reprisal against such unexplained shots, which resulted in the near destruction of the city, including the killing of 248 citizens and the burning of the university’s library, with its esteemed collection of medieval manuscripts.

The actual deeds of the troops were bad enough, but as the stories circulated, reality merged with invention: The Germans became more and more dehumanized, their actions more and more revolting, with particular emphasis on acts committed against women and children. Stories of troops raping and mutilating women and girls in front of their families were sickening, but even those paled in comparison to ones describing the fates of young children: laughing Germans skewered babes with bayonets or maliciously let them live after chopping off their hands. There were documented cases of rape, but none has ever surfaced regarding the reported abuse of children.

Seizing on these stories, Allied propagandists soon began depicting the invasion of Belgium in a pointedly gendered fashion: the violation of women and Belgium were elided. This use of highly sexualized—at times almost pornographic (Fig. 4)—images and words was intended to create moral imperatives, to elicit from British, French, and, eventually, American men an unquestioning desire to join the fight in order to protect their own women, children, and by extension, country from the monstrous Hun. The atrocity stories also made it that much easier for propagandists to reduce the Germans to caricatures of German-ness. Propagandists not only resurrected images of Germanic barbarians from a long-dead age but also parodied the more recent concept of Kultur (culture), which, as a nation-building tool following the creation of the German state in 1870, emphasized the linguistic and cultural particularity of the German people. A personified “Kultur,” the embodiment of perceived Prussian ferocity, was a frequent character in Allied propaganda, as was Kaiser Wilhelm II remade as Attila (see Fig. 10). Paul Manship’s medal (Fig. 5) is a typical example of these efforts, combining a gendered perspective and marauding Kultur on the one side with a Hun-like Wilhelm on the other.


Fig. 4. France. AE medal by Raoul Lamourdedieu, 1917. The inscription on the obverse translates: “The barbarians have passed through here.” (ANS 1941.123.4, gift of S. H. P. Pell) 55 x 70 mm.


Fig. 5. USA. AE medal by Paul Manship, 1918. (ANS 1929.54.10) 66.5 mm.

Allied propagandists wasted no time in capitalizing on the sinking of the Lusitania, presenting that event in a highly gendered fashion, by focusing more on the women (and children) who lost their lives than on the men (Figs. 6 and 7). As these gendered images of the conflict began to sway to the Allied cause the war-leery citizens of the United States, the most powerful country remaining neutral, the worst thing the Germans could have done was execute a woman in such a highly publicized case. Not just any woman, moreover, but a spinster nurse who had selflessly stayed behind in occupied territory to tend to the wounded, both Allied and German. Edith Cavell became an instant martyr and the clearest, most personal example of Kultur’s violence against women and thus against all civilization (Figs. 8-11). Her image and name were soon appearing everywhere, even on medals (Figs. 23-24).


Fig. 6. Enlistment poster by Fred Spear, published in June 1915 by the Boston Committee of Public Safety, depicting victims of the Lusitania sinking.


Fig. 7. France. AE medal by René Baudichon, 1918. This medal suggests a direct link between the sinking of the Lusitania and the United States’ entry into the war on the Allied side in 1917. This was not the case. (ANS 0000.999.52098) 54 mm.

Figs. 8-11: Postcards from a series of six by Tito Corbella on the execution of Edith Cavell; the series was published in French, Italian, and English.


Fig. 8. Cavell rendering aid to a wounded German soldier while Kultur hovers above


Fig. 9. The dead Cavell wrapped in the Belgian and British flags “inspiring” Kultur at the piano


Fig. 10. Kultur serving up Cavell’s head on a platter to Wilhelm II as Attila


Fig. 11. The resurrected Cavell over the vanquished Kultur


Fig. 12. France. AE medal by Pierre-Marie Poisson, c. 1916. (ANS 1985.81.238, gift of D. M. Friedenberg) 48 x 50 mm.


Fig. 13. France, AE uniface medal by André-Pierre Schwab, c. 1915. (ANS 1996.999.238, anonymous donor) 83 mm.


Fig. 14. France. AE medal by A. Schinar, 1916. The inscription translates, “The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut.” (ANS 1996.999.271, anonymous donor) 28 mm.

The Medal as Messenger

World War I was the last conflict in which the medal as a medium of propaganda and commemoration served a viable and far-ranging function. The total number of medals, both in individual types and volume, produced by the Allies and Central Powers during the war has never been calculated, nor are such figures likely attainable, since the output was enormous, both in private and state production. While many of these medals can be seen continuing the types and themes developed in medallic art in the decades before the war, such as portraits of noteworthy individuals (Fig. 22) and the role of women as mourners of men (Fig. 12-13), the war unquestionably introduced new subject matter to the medium, much of it lifted from general propaganda, like the dehumanization of the Germans (Fig. 14) and women as victims (Fig. 4, 16). The war also encouraged an intense discourse, as it were, between medals, not only at the level of artistic allusion, while the piece was still in control of the artist, but also over the proper interpretation of individual pieces once they had left the artist’s workshop and fallen into the hands of the public. As to be expected, this discourse often occurred between opposing forces wrangling for their propaganda’s supremacy. But medallic discourses also took place among friendly forces seeking to make sense of the war’s more unsavory episodes.


Fig. 15. Germany. Iron medal by Walther Eberbach depicting the sinking of the Lusitania, 1916. (ANS 1919.6.10, purchase) 70 mm.


Fig. 16. France. AE medal (obv. only) by Marcelle Croce-Lancelot, 1914, entitled “The Work of the Barbarians.” (ANS 1940.110.11, gift of Mrs. Hosmer) 60 mm.

Walther Eberbach’s 1916 Lusitania medal (Fig. 15), for example, broadcasts the Germans’ justifications for sinking the ship and offers a warning—to the U.S. president particularly—of the heavy price to be paid for running contraband against the blockade. Eberbach’s sarcasm was in line with a traditional Germanic mode of medallic expression that found its most effective or at least most prolific voice in the works of Karl Goetz. Goetz’s Lusitania medal (Fig. 17), issued within days of the sinking, likewise focused on the munitions contraband, but also took the Cunard company to task for risking the safety of innocent passengers for the sake of profit. This medal gained such widespread notoriety (see below) that there can be no question that Eberbach was aware of it and so perhaps sought to offer further support to the themes introduced by Goetz the previous year, particularly in the wake of the international criticism following the sinking. Eberbach’s medal, in fact, may allude to Goetz’s work, as it too wrongly shows the ship going down by the stern (the Lusitania, in fact, sunk by the bow; see Fig. 7, 21). In the same way, Ludwig Gies’s Lusitania medal (Fig. 19) also engages Goetz’s work, but here dispenses with the political commentary, offering instead a more sympathetic view of the tragedy by focusing on the (ungendered) plight of the victims.


Fig. 17. Great Britain. Iron copy of medal by Karl Goetz depicting the sinking of the Lusitania in box of issue, 1915. (ANS 1990.26.15, gift of George M. Golden)


Fig. 18. Germany. Iron satirical medal by Karl Goetz, 1916. (ANS 1978.38.226, gift of Ira, Lawrence, and Mark Goldberg) 59 mm.


Fig. 19. Germany. AE plaque by Ludwig Gies depicting the sinking of the Lusitania, 1915. (ANS 1934.145.55, gift of Wayte Raymond) 95 mm.


Figs. 20 and 21. Two poster stamps of a series of four produced by Winox Ltd, England, 1915, depicting the sinking of the Lusitania and victims of Kultur. The other two stamps in the series depicted the execution of Edith Cavell (using the same image as in Fig. 3) and victims of Zeppelin bombings.

Such medallic discourse was far less subtle in the case of German-Allied interaction. The reverse of a portrait medal of General Alexander von Kluck (Fig. 22), commander of the German First Army, for example, was appropriated, modified, and reinterpreted by the British for propaganda purposes (Fig. 23; note the burning city below the horse). The most notorious example, however, of this type of appropriation was the British reinterpretation of Goetz’s Lusitania medal, which was extensively copied in Britain, with slight modifications, and distributed with a special box and pamphlet (Fig. 17). In 1916, Goetz responded to this symbolic hijacking with another medal (Fig. 18), this one depicting Arthur Balfour, first lord of the British Admiralty, using the misconstrued Lusitania medal to make a case against Germany in the presence of neutral Sweden (the Latin inscription above Balfour is from the Roman satirist Juvenal [1.30] and is translated as “It is hard not to write satire”).


Fig. 22. Germany. AR medal depicting General Alexander von Kluck, 1915. (ANS 1916.187.19, purchase) 34 mm.


Fig. 23. Great Britain. Silvered AE satirical medal, 1916. (ANS 0000.999.42643) 36 mm.

Not only the overall volume of medals produced but also discourses such as these attest to the real importance of medals during the war as vehicles of private artistic expression and more importantly as instruments of state propaganda. At times, of course, the line between the two blurred.

Belgium Deserted

After the Germans’ surrender in November 1918, those Belgians who had lived in exile in Britain, France, and the Netherlands returned home to find their country utterly devastated. Besides the destruction that the fighting itself had wrought, the Germans had systematically picked the country clean, thoroughly dismantling factories, tearing up railroad tracks, and shipping it all, along with any livestock, back to Germany. The intent was to deny Belgium an economic future, and, at least for the immediate future, they succeeded. Unemployment in Belgium was at 80 percent in 1919, and food, clothing, and housing were scarce. As was the case throughout the war, mostly through the Commission for Relief in Belgium organized by the future U.S. President Herbert Hoover (Fig. 25), the United States provided substantial relief through donations and aid, but even this continued kindness was not nearly enough.

As the Versailles Treaty negotiations got underway in early 1919, it soon became clear that the British and French had no intentions of allowing the Belgians to sit at the table with the grown-ups. As Sally Marks observed (1981: 119), “It was taken for granted that small states would be treated like small children and that great issues should be settled by great powers.” At stake were the substantial claims of reparations that Belgium had made against Germany, which were desperately needed to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and economy. The fiercely nationalistic British premier, David Lloyd George, however, fought hard to keep the negotiations closed to small countries, particularly Belgium, and quite openly sought to gain more reparations for his own country at Belgium’s expense. Interventions by the Belgian king, the only royal to visit the negotiations, and by U.S. ambassadors eventually helped to win for the Belgians most of what they wanted, but not before the Belgian public had grown righteously indignant.

Lloyd George’s actions were particularly offensive to the Belgians because the British and French had used the rape of Belgium as a “central metaphor for the War” (Gullace 2002: 24), using it also to set the high moral tone for the Allied cause. It was frequently repeated that the invasion of neutral Belgium was not only an unprovoked act of aggression, so typical of Kultur, but also a gross violation of internationally sanctioned treaty law, and thus a barbarian affront to civilization. The atrocities that followed only generated further sympathies for the country, and the Allies assured Belgium that the avenging and restoration of that country was a primary objective of the fight. All of this, apparently, was now forgotten. A headline from the newspaper De Standaard summed up the resentment in Brussels: “Belgium Deserted and Humiliated by Its Allies” (quoted from Marks 1981: 198).


Fig. 24. France. Nickel galvano of Edith Cavell by Georges-Henri Prud’homme, 1915. (Jonathan Kagan collection) 200 mm.

The Meaning of a Memory

It was within this political, social, and economic context that Bonnetain produced his medal of Edith Cavell and Marie Depage. While on the surface a straightforward commemorative piece for two lost colleagues, the medal’s greater context meant that it carried an embedded symbolic load. The inscription “1915/ Remember!” sought to steer this symbolism toward narrow(er) interpretations.

Taken as a whole, the medal immediately recalled the martyrdom of Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania, but from a decidedly Belgian perspective (much as the Victor Peter plaque, Fig. 2, offered a French perspective on the two events). While Cavell was a universal symbol of martyrdom, albeit with deep Belgian ties, Depage was far from being a universal symbol for the Lusitania. As the wife of a high-profile doctor who turned politician after the war, Depage likely achieved notoriety as the most important Belgian to die on the ship. Thus using her to represent the Lusitania tragedy would obviously have greater significance for Belgians than it would for others.


Fig. 25. Belgium. AE medal commemorating the Commission for Relief in Belgium by George Petit, 1916. (ANS 0000.999.75868) 37 mm.

Working at the tail end of World War I medallic production, Bonnetain would certainly have been aware of propaganda medals portraying female victims of Kultur, and was likely aware of other works dealing directly with his subject. This awareness would have had influence on his own work and would therefore place his medal in discourse with others. While we cannot be entirely sure that Bonnetain was aware of Prud’homme’s 1915 portrait of Cavell (Fig. 24), it seems almost certain, given the close similarities in dress, general style, and lettering between the two works. Bonnetain’s response was to develop a portrait far less optimistic and more idealized than Prud’homme’s, but still following his use of the traditional format of profile portraiture, which offered a dignified, less sensationalist way of dealing with the subject, compared to what could be expected on more typical propaganda medals. This raised the level of discourse above the obvious and unsophisticated; the emotional content would be less evident and more controlled. But whereas one can picture Prud’homme’s confident, almost smiling Cavell voicing her famous pre-execution words of forgiveness (“I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”), this is not the case for Bonnetain’s stern lady, who looks far less forgiving. Moreover, while Prud’homme’s portrait appears quite faithful to photographs of the matronly Cavell, Bonnetain has softened her features, making her appear younger (cp. Fig. 26, the same would be the case for Depage too), thus aligning Cavell (and Depage) with the typically younger female victims in Allied propaganda (see, for example, the treatment of Cavell in Figs. 3, 8-11). In subtle ways, Bonnetain has responded to Prud’homme’s rather dispassionate work by introducing greater emotional tension, and, by leveraging general familiarity with Cavell and Depage’s fates, he has infused the neutral territory of medallic portraiture with the political bias and purpose of the propaganda medal. This politicized reading of the image finds support in the simple inscription on the reverse.


Fig. 26. Portrait of Edith Cavell c. 1890, around age 25.

During the course of the war, remembering became a collective, not private, act, and one that was not left to the whimsy of individual choice. It was an imperative to all. In France, state-endorsed societies were organized at both local and national levels to foster the memory of German atrocities and sustain the “sacred hatred” for the enemy. The catch phrase (not to mention name) of the national Ligue Souvenez-Vous!, for example, “ne l’oubliez jamais!” (“never forget!”), commanded the pamphlet reader or poster viewer to maintain the level of anger/hatred necessary to achieve total victory. Similar imperatives to remember and sustain hatred were found in England and the United States as well. The imperative on Bonnetain’s medal clearly derives from this public and politically oriented function of remembering, not from the solemn and private realm of remembering the dead. But with the war over and victory in hand, the imperative on the medal would serve a diminished political purpose if it was intended to sustain anti-German feelings among the Belgians; their daily lives served that purpose well enough. What was meant to be remembered, and the function of that memory, is therefore less than clear. A clue, however, is provided by the inscription itself: it is in English, rather than Flemish or French, which indicates that the intended audience was not necessarily the Belgians but the British (or less likely the Americans), suggesting a new realm of political function.

On one level, we can certainly interpret the medal as a simple plea to remember the dead; plenty of medals were produced during and after the war to mourn the death of soldiers as a group (see Fig. 12-13). Rarely, however, were individuals singled out, and even then only those considered in some fashion heroes. Cavell and Depage were not heroes, but carefully defined feminine victims of Kultur, and their remembrance served less to inspire by example than to instill moral outrage, the outward expression of which seems frozen on the faces of Bonnetain’s nurses. But where, in 1919, was this outrage directed? A suggestion offered here is that in their commemoration, the Commission de l’Ecole belge d’infirmières diplômées commissioned a medal that also admonished the British for their disloyalty toward a one-time ally. By re-presenting the martyrdom of Cavell and the Lusitania tragedy from the Belgian perspective, the Commission (and Bonnetain) claimed these highly symbolic memories for Belgium, which the British and others had freely used for their own purposes during the war. In the mode of Allied medallic propaganda, they retooled and redirected the appropriated memories back toward the British, demanding both recognition and recollection of Belgium’s current and previous suffering. Their claim to the memories meant that the Belgians could now determine their meaning: the imperative to remember commanded the viewer not only to remember the nurses but to remember the rape of Belgium, and, perhaps most importantly, to remember the many broken promises.

I thank François de Callataÿ, Jonathan Kagan, and David Simpson for their assistance with this article.

Primary Sources

Bailey, T. A., and P. B. Ryan. 1975. The Lusitania disaster: an episode in modern warfare and diplomacy. New York: Free Press.

Gullace, N. F. 2002. “The blood of our sons”: men, women, and the renegotiation of British citizenship during the Great War. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Horne, J., and A. Kramer. 2001. German atrocities, 1914. A history of denial. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Marks, S. 1981. Innocent abroad. Belgium at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

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