Saturday, October 12, 2013

Edith Cavell

On October 12, 1915, Edith Cavell was executed by the German military for having helped over 200 allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium. Her death was her last act of heroism and bravery in a long life of public service and personal sacrifice.
"Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

Edith Cavell in her Red Cross uniform. (source: Edith Cavell Home and Hospital)

Edith Louisa Cavell was born on December 4th, 1865, in a small English village near Norwich, the oldest daughter of Reverend Frederick Cavell and his wife. The family was never wealthy, but they placed a high value on charity. Her father's ministry to the village was the main focus of the family, and while they were never in a position of luxury, they made sure to share their fortunes with those in need in the community.
Even if the family were poor and the food not very appetising, they were concerned to share what they had with their poorer parishioners. Sunday lunch was a great family affair and whatever was cut from the Sunday joint, an equal amount was taken out to hungry cottagers nearby.
In addition to selflessness, she was also quite a brave child. When her father's following began to outgrow its space in the church, she took it upon herself to contact the Bishop asking for help in building a room to serve as a Sunday School.
She wrote to the Bishop of Norwich, John Thomas Pelham, a grand but kindly man whose impressive tomb can be seen in the North transept of the Cathedral. She told him of the problem and he agreed to help, provided the village would raise some of the cash. Within a short time, Edith and her sister were making good use of their artistic talents and had painted cards which they sold to help raise some £300 for the Church room. Edith wrote to the Bishop reminding him of his promise and so the Church room was built adjoining the Vicarage and to all accounts, very well used.
In her later teens, she attended boarding schools, with the intent of being trained to become a teacher. At Laurel Court, she was also given lessons in French, which she mastered quickly. Upon leaving the school, her French was good enough to earn her a position in Brussels as a governess for the François family, where she stayed for five years and become a beloved member of the family. Her time spent in Brussels helped her to become completely fluent in French.

A lovely white lilac named for her, Syringa "Edith Cavell" (source: Wiki Commons)

In 1895, she returned to England to nurse her father, who had taken ill. It was during his illness and recovery that she made up her mind to become a nurse. She began work at the Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting, and a few months later, at the age of 30, she began her training at the London Hospital under Eva Lückes. The work there was difficult and while she may not have impressed Miss Lückes, she attended her duties admirably. When typhoid fever broke out in 1897, she was among the six nursing students contracted to assist in the epidemic. Of the 1700 or so patients who had contracted this disease, only 132 died. In honor of her heroic and tireless efforts, Edith was given the Maidstone Typhoid Medal.

Edith at home with her two dogs, before the war. (source: Wikipedia)

Upon graduation from the program in 1898, she became a private nurse, dealing with a wide range of health issues, including pneumonia, pleurisy, and typhoid. But by 1899, she was back working with the poor and destitute.
Edith was recommended for private nursing in 1898 and dealt with cases of pleurisy, pneumonia, typhoid and a Bishop's appendicitis. She soon moved back into the front line of nursing and in 1899 was a Night Superintendent at St. Pancras, a Poor Law Institution for destitutes where about one person in four would die of a chronic condition. At Shoreditch Infirmary, where she became Assistant Matron in 1903, she pioneered follow up work by visiting patients after their discharge. Those early pastoral visits with her mother in Swardeston obviously had a lasting effect.
In 1906, Edith took a nursing position at the Manchester and Salford Poor and Private Nursing Institution, but within three months she had temporarily taken over the role of Matron when the previous matron became ill. In 1907, she made her way back to Brussels.
In 1907, after a short break, Edith returned to Brussels to nurse a child patient of Dr. Antoine Depage but he soon transferred her to more important work. Dr. Depage wanted to pioneer the training of nurses in Belgium along the lines of Florence Nightingale. Until now, nuns had been responsible for the care of the sick and, however kind and well intentioned, they had no training for the work. Edith Cavell, now in her early forties, was put in charge of a pioneer training school for lay nurses, 'L'Ecole Belge d'Infirmieres Diplomees', on the outskirts of Brussels. It was formed out of four adjoining houses and opened on October 10th, 1907.

Edith (center) and her nursing student in Brussels. (source: Wiki Commons)

She had finally found her calling.
Edith rose to the responsibility immediately; despite her own early record of unpunctuality, she kept a watch before her at breakfast and any unfortunate woman more than two minutes late would forfeit two hours of her spare time. The work was quickly established, despite some resistance from the middle classes. Edith writes home .... "The old idea that it is a disgrace for women to work is still held in Belgium and women of good birth and education still think they lose caste by earning their own living." However, when the Queen of the Belgians broke her arm and sent to the school for a trained nurse, suddenly the status of the school was assured.
By 1910, she "felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal," and so she started the nursing journal L'infirmière. Her responsibilities and service continued to grow. By 1912, she had trained nurses working in three hospitals, as well as dozens of schools and kindergartens. In 1914, she was lecturing doctors and nurses four times a week, as well as performing private nursing duties to friends and even a  runaway girl.

Edith Cavell, Heroic Nurse, a popular biography by Juliette Elkon, printed in 1956. (source: Tiny Pineapple)

Edith was visiting her mother in Norfolk when news about the German invasion of Belgium was broadcast. She immediately made plans to return, despite the danger. "At a time like this I am more needed than ever."Her hospital had been commandeered by the Red Cross, and her services were very much in need.
By August 3rd 1914, she was back in Brussels dispatching the Dutch and German nurses home and impressing on the others that their first duty was to care for the wounded irrespective of nationality. The clinic became a Red Cross Hospital, German soldiers receiving the same attention as Belgian. When Brussels fell, the Germans commandeered the Royal Palace for their own wounded and 60 English nurses were sent home. Edith Cavell and her chief assistant, Miss Wilkins remained.
As a Red Cross nurse in German territory, it was her duty to remain neutral. But Edith could not reconcile to her conscience the fact that many of the British soldiers she was treating would remain in German captivity and face further danger. What started off as simply sheltering escaped British soldiers quickly became an underground lifeline that eventually helped at least 200 allied soldiers to escape.
To her, the protection, the concealment and the smuggling away of hunted men was as humanitarian an act as the tending of the sick and wounded. Edith was prepared to face what she understood to be the just consequences. By August 1915 a Belgian 'collaborator' had passed through Edith's hands. The school was searched while a soldier slipped out through the back garden, Nurse Cavell remained calm - no incriminating papers were ever found (her Diary she sewed up in a cushion). Edith was too thorough and she had even managed to keep her 'underground' activities from her nurses so as not to incriminate them.
Unfortunately, two members of the escape team were arrested on July 31st, 1915, and Edith was brought in for questioning several days later. When she was informed that her colleagues had confessed, she faced a life-altering dilemma. She could deny everything and risk the larger operation and the lives of her compatriots, or she could confess to everything herself and take the full measure of risk on herself. Ever selfless, she chose the latter option. She faced trial and eventual punishment for her 'crimes' under the German penal code. On October 11, 1915, the German military authorities found her guilty of having "successfully conducted allied soldiers to the enemy of the German people," and condemned her to death by shooting.

A propaganda stamp issued shortly after her death. (source: Wikipedia)

Despite international outcry, they were determined to carry out the punishment as quickly as possibly. That night, Edith was visited by the English Chaplain, Stirling Gahan. In her final hours, she continued to show her true spirit of compassion and grace. While others may have held fear and hatred in their hearts, she found a way to forgive her executioners.
"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".

Mt. Edith Cavell, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada
(source: Wiki Commons)

Very early on the morning of October 12, 1915, a hastily assembled firing squad was convened in the National Rifle Range (The Tir Nationale) ,where two teams of eight men each shot their prisoners. While the exact facts about the shooting are somewhat in dispute, there is no confusion about the international response.
The outcry that followed must have astounded the Germans and made them realise they had committed a serious blunder. The execution was used as propaganda by the allies, who acclaimed Nurse Cavell as a martyr and those responsible for her execution as murdering monsters. Sad to think that this was contrary to her last wishes. She did not want to be remembered as a martyr or a heroine but simply as "a nurse who tried to do her duty". The shooting of this brave nurse was not forgotten or forgiven and was used to sway neutral opinion against Germany and eventually helped to bring the U.S.A. into the war. Propaganda about her death caused recruiting to double for eight weeks after her death was announced.
Following the war, numerous memorials were dedicated to Nurse Edith Cavell. And the Church of England has appointed October 12 the day of her commemoration.

The memorial outside Norwich Cathedral. (source: Wikipedia)

"I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me."

More reading:

Another Heroine
Lest We Forget
History's Women - Edith Cavell
History' Heroes - Edith Cavell's Timeline
An English Martyr
Edith Cavell


  1. Does anyone know the ancestry of Rev. Frederick Cavell ? The Cavells as a family originate in Cornwall.There one Lucy Cavell of St.Kew married Richard Pope of Egloshayle. One suspects that Edith Cavell was a slightly removed cousin , for an austere letter survives in the Pope family written by Edith, to one of Richard's family, which had by then moved to Hammersmith.

    It's good to hear that Edith is to be commemorated on a £5 coin, for her Canadian cousin if cousin she was , Cicly Jane Georgiana (Georgie) Fane Pope RRC. Founder and Commander of the Royal Canadian Army Nursing Service {1862-6th.June 1938} was similarly commemorated in a silver $5 coin a couple of years back.

    1. I would just like to say how interesting I found your comment. As a direct descendant of Richard and Lucy Pope (5th great grandfather) it is great to think I am connected, albeit loosely, to this lady. Sadly though I cannot answer our question. Yours, Tim Pope