The First World War was a brutal conflict which claimed millions of lives, yet in the face of such brutality and loss, there are tails of outstanding bravery and kindness by soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict. This article will look at the life and legacy of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was executed by German firing squad on the 12th of October 1915. Her execution caused shockwaves around the world, and to this day her sacrifice is remembered and her life celebrated.
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Edith Cavell was born on the 4th of December 1865 in Swardeston, Norfolk, where her father Frederick Cavell was the parson. Frederick was known as the ‘poor parson’ after almost bankrupting the family when building his vicarage, which would become the family home. Edith had three younger siblings and despite lamenting complain that, “…fathers sermons are so long and dull” in a letter to her cousin Eddie, it seems she had a happy childhood. During the winter months it is said that she liked to ice skate, and had a love of nature always surrounding herself with animals and flowers which she liked to paint and draw. From a young age, Edith showed kindness and a desire to help others using her talents as an artist to raise money for a Sunday school room her father needed. Both Edith and her mother would teach the local children.
In 1890, Edith took a post in Brussels with the Francois family. She remained in the post for five years and became part of the family, despite her objections to their jokes about Queen Victoria being a prude. In her spare time, she continued to paint and became fluent in French. Edith returned to Swardeston in 1895, when her father fell ill. After nursing her father back to health, she resolved to take up nursing as a career.
In April 1896, at the age of thirty, Edith was accepted for training at the London Hospital under Eva Lückes. However, it seems she failed to make a favourable impression upon Miss Lückes, who said of her;
“(Edith)…had plenty of capacity for her work, when she chose to exert herself ” and that “…she was not at all punctual”.
The hours would have been demanding with the trainees working from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m. with only half an hour for lunch, all for £10 a year. In the summer of 1897, a typhoid fever epidemic broke out in Maidstone, and six of Miss Lückes nurses, including Edith were sent to help. Of 1700 who contracted the disease, only 132 died, and Edith received the Maidstone Medal for her work.
In 1898, Edith was recommended for private nursing and dealt with cases of pleurisy, pneumonia, and typhoid. Before moving back to the ‘front line’ of nursing in 1899, as a Night Superintendent at St. Pancras, a Poor Law Institution for destitutes. In 1903, Edith became the assistant matron at Shoreditch Infirmary, where she pioneered the idea of follow-up visits to patients after their discharge. In September 1906, Edith took on what was supposed to only be a three month temporary position at Manchester and Salford Sick Poor and Private Nursing Institution as a nurse at one of the Queen’s District Nursing Homes.
After a break, Edith returned to Brussels in 1907, to nurse a child patient of Dr. Antoine Depage. However, Depage soon had a new role in mind for Edith; he wanted her help in training nurses in Belgium along the lines of Florence Nightingale. Until that point, the responsibility to care for the sick was down to the nuns, who despite their kindness had no formal medical training. In 1907, Edith was put in charge of the training school for lay nurses, ‘L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees’, on the outskirts of Brussels. By 1912, Edith was providing nurses to three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens, and in 1914 she was giving up to four lectures a week to doctors and nurses.
Despite her busy schedule, Edith returned to Norfolk to visit her mother as often as she could, and the two would holiday together on the North Norfolk coast. It’s said that Edith was weeding her mother’s garden when she heard the news of the German invasion of Belgium, and despite the pleas of her mother and friends would not be persuaded to stay in England, saying, “At a time like this, I am more needed than ever” and by the 3rd of August 1914, she was back in Brussels. The clinic became a Red Cross Hospital, with German and Belgian soldiers receiving the same attention. When Brussels fell, the Germans commandeered the clinic for their own wounded, and English nurses were sent home, only Edith and her chief assistant, Miss Wilkins, remained.
When the German’s successfully advanced, it caused the British to retreat from Mons and the French to be driven back, leading to soldiers in both armies being cut off. When two British soldiers found their way to Edith’s nursing school in the Autumn of 1914, they were given shelter for two weeks before being smuggled to neutral territory in Holland. They were the first of many. A system masterminded by the Prince and Princess de Croy, with guides organised by architect Phillips Baucq was put into place that would help allied soldiers get to safety. Despite knowing they could be shot if their activities were discovered, they helped around 200 allied soldiers escape. As a member of the Red Cross, Edith should have remained impartial, but she considered the act of protecting, hiding and aiding in the escape of hunted men as important as that of treating the wounded and was prepared to face consequences if her activities were discovered by the Germans.
By August 1915 a Belgian collaborator had passed through the school, leading to the clinic being searched by the authorities. Edith is said to have remained calm even as a soldier slipped out through the back garden, she knew she had taken precautions, her diary was sewed into a cushion and none of the other nurses knew of her activities. However, on July 31st 1915, two members of the escape team were arrested, and just five days later, Edith herself was arrested. During interrogation, Edith revealed everything, some believe this was because she was uncomfortable lying, whilst others believe she was tricked and confessed after being told that the other prisoners had all confessed.
Despite knowing she was condemning herself, Edith once more admitted her guilt during her trial, saying she had “…successfully conducted allied soldiers to the enemy of the German people”. Under German law, this was a capital offence and Edith, having admitted her guilt, was sentenced to death along with four others. Having passed the sentence, the German military authorities were determined to carry out the executions immediately, and despite the intervention of neutral American and Spanish embassies, Edith and Baucq were ordered to be shot the next day at the National Rifle Range.
A German Lutheran prison chaplain obtained permission for the English Chaplain, Stirling Gahan, to visit with Edith the night before her execution. In his account of that meeting he recalled that the two of them repeated the words of ‘Abide with me’, and that Edith received the Sacrament. In the early hours of the morning on October 12th, Edith was collected from her cell and transported to the rifle range. It is said that during the journey she told the prison Chaplain,
“I am thankful to have had these ten weeks of quiet to get ready. Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. 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”.
Whilst there are differing accounts of how Edith’s execution went, it is generally agreed upon that she was magnanimous in her death, forgiving her executioners, and accepted the justice of her sentence. However, here accounts diverge, whilst some including the German prison Chaplin record that the execution was carried out without incident, other accounts suggest that “…the men fired wide of Edith that she fainted and was finally despatched by a German officer with a pistol.” Whatever the true account, Edith was buried at the rifle range where she was shot and a plain wooden cross put over her grave, the shaft of which is preserved in Swardeston Church.
News of Edith’s execution was met with outrage, it was used as propaganda by the allies, who acclaimed her as a “…martyr and those responsible for her execution as murdering monsters.” The propaganda was so successful that in the eight weeks immediately after her death, recruitment numbers doubled, and it eventually helped bring the US into the war. This was not how Edith, herself, had wanted to be remembered, she considered herself not to be a heroine rather, as “a nurse who tried to do her duty”.
Although she never married, there is evidence that she had a romantic attachment with her second cousin Eddie, and had he proposed Edith would gladly have accepted. It appears that Edith never forgot him, and wrote on the flyleaf of her copy of The Imitation of Christ ‘With love to E.D. Cavell’ on the day of her execution.
When the war was over, arrangements were made for Edith’s body to be returned to England for reburial. Westminster Abbey was initially suggested, but the Cavell family preferred Edith to be buried in Norfolk. Her remains were escorted to Dover with great ceremony, and from there to Westminster Abbey for the first part of the burial service on the 15th of 1919. From London, a special train took the remains to Norwich Thorpe Station and from there, to Norwich Cathedral. Where Edith was in a spot called Life’s Green. Here services are held annually on the Saturday nearest the anniversary of her death.
Despite her insistence that she was just “doing her duty” Edith’s bravery saved countless lives and for that and all the care she gave her patients throughout her nursing career, Edith deserves to be remembered and celebrated.