Edith Cavell: England’s Nurse and Hero
Edith Cavell was born on December 4, 1865 in Swardeston, Norfolk, Great Britain, the eldest of four children. Her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell raised her to believe that sacrifice, sharing with those less fortunate, duty to others and loyalty to Britain were lifelong obligations—ideals that stayed with her until her death.
Edith was a very serious girl and was very rarely seen smiling. She grew into a straightforward and “humorless” woman, of frail build and self-disciplined to an extreme. As a young woman, Cavell served as a governess, though she did not find the job fulfilling. She felt a need to expand her humanitarian efforts, determined to provide services to a much larger and broader spectrum of humanity.
In 1895, her father became gravely ill and she returned to England to care for him. The experience made a profound impression on her and she resolved to begin training at The London Hospital Nurses Training School the following year. Edith was a quick study and upon completion of her training, she remained at the school as a private nurse. In 1901, Edith took a three-year position as supervisor at St. Pancras Infirmary in London and went on to become Assistant Matron at Shoreditch Infirmary, where she taught practical nursing.
At the same time Dr. Antoine Depage, Belgium’s royal surgeon and the founder and president of the Belgian Red Cross, was developing a plan to revolutionize nursing in Belgium. Depage found himself discouraged by the religious orders that controlled the nursing profession and wanted to develop a non-denominational system staffed with professionally trained personnel who had been taught in the “Florence Nightingale” style. The hope was to provide these specially trained assistants to surgeons across Belgium while simultaneously creating careers for “young ladies of good education.”
His program began with the establishment of a nurse’s training school at his Berkendael Institute, but he required a head matron. Edith’s name was submitted to Depage by her previous governess charge, Madame Graux. Edith’s teaching experience, administrative abilities, and fluency in French made her a perfect candidate for the position. With a personal mandate comprised of discipline, fairness, duty and service to others, ethical conduct, cleanliness and punctuality, the school was opened in Brussels on October 1, 1907. By 1914, her school had become a respected source of nursing professionals for hospitals, schools and private nursing homes.
In September of 1914, a young engineer named Herman Capiau told Edith of a battle that had occurred in southwest Belgium. A number of allied soldiers had been separated from their units and were being hidden by sympathetic nuns and villagers. Hunted by the German army, stragglers or any civilians thought to be harboring them were routinely shot and killed. Capiau asked Edith to take in two soldiers who were with him. Edith did not hesitate and secretly admitted them, providing the men with food and medical care. Once recovered, Edith sought out guides to lead the displaced soldiers out of Brussels and into Holland where they would find safety until they could return to their homes or rejoin their units.
These two men were the first in a line of soldiers who Cavell harbored and helped escape. Not wanting to incriminate her nursing staff or alert her activities to the Germans, Edith provided most of the direct care for these men herself. At one time she was harboring as many as thirty-five refugees. Edith would also lead her recovered charges through the streets of Brussels and into the hands of their trusted guides.
By the summer of 1914, the Germans occupied Belgium and had converted Edith’s nursing home into a Red Cross hospital where she remained as its matron. She continued to supervise the nurses, lecture, and to maintain her official administrative responsibilities. At the same time, Edith cared for wounded German soldiers with the same level of concern as she did all of her patients, while simultaneously harboring and caring for Allied soldiers secretly within the hospital walls.
By 1915, more than one hundred British, French, and Belgian soldiers had passed through her sanctuary. The Germans grew suspicious, having heard whispered reports of Edith’s Allied sympathies. Their intentions became evident to Edith’s friends and colleagues and they urged her to escape while she could. But Edith refused and continued with her activities.
Using a pair of infiltrators, the Germans uncovered Cavell’s operation, and on August 5, 1915 she was arrested and charged with treason. She was held for ten weeks in St. Gilles prison – her last two were spent in isolation. While in custody, Edith made no attempt to defend herself and in the end, her devotion to truth condemned her. She would not lie to save her life and admitted to helping as many as two hundred men escape.
Edith was tried along with 34 others accused of the same crime. Several of the accused were Edith’s friends who had worked with her in aiding Allied soldiers. The British government was powerless to help her, feeling that any representation by them would only serve to do her more harm than good. However, they warned the Germans that if sanctioned, Edith’s execution would only serve to “stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust.”
The Germans did not heed the warning and on October 11, 1915 Cavell was condemned to die before a firing squad. Reverend Gahan, the prison chaplain, found Edith resigned to her fate. “I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have [neither] fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful for me.”
She was executed in the early morning hours of October 12, 1915, within hours of her sentence. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain were, “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.” Permission to take her body outside the prison was refused, and she was buried next to St. Gilles prison until after the war when her body was returned to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey. Edith’s body was then transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest at Life’s Green. Edith had once said, “Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are inscribed on her statue in St. Martins Place, London.
A medallion commemorating Edith Cavell and Marie Depage with their profiles
on the front and “1915 Remember!” on the back, by A. Bonnetain 1919
In the months following her death, the story of Edith Cavell’s heroism was celebrated in countless images, postcards, books, articles, pamphlets, and posters. In the “Panthéon de la Guerre,” the massive panoramic painting of the Great War completed in 1918, Edith Cavell, stands between the British and Belgian sections surrounded by a halo, an allusion to her martyrdom.
Edith Cavell’s execution was represented an act of German barbarism and moral depravity in the British press. On the reverse of a French postcard proclaiming her a martyr, the translation reads, “Condemned to death by a military tribunal in Belgium, for having helped English and Belgian soldiers escape, Miss Cavell of Norwich, a voluntary nurse, is led to the place of execution at dawn on 12 October. She faints. The German officer gives his soldiers the order to fire; they refuse to fire on the panting body of a woman. The goldbraided monster draws his revolver and leans over the victim and coolly blows her brains out.” This of course was an embellishment on the truth to make for a more dramatic tale. In reality, she stood tall as she faced death. In the words of Reverend Gahan, “She was brave and bright to the last.”
HistoryNet, “Edith Cavell,” http://www.historynet.com/edith-cavell.htm
Jones, Barbara, and Bill Howell. Popular Arts of the Great War. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972.
“The Legends and Traditions of the Great War: Nurse Edith Cavell,” http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/e_cavell.htm
Levitch, Mark. Panthéon de la Guerre: Reconfiguring a Panorama of the Great War. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Thompson, John Gilbert and Inez Bigwood. World War Stories – Lest We Forget. New York: Silver, Burdett and Company, 1918, 64-65
Topping, T. “The Avenging of Edith Cavell.” The Red Cross Magazine (1918): 5.
Wikipedia the free encyclopedia, “Edith Cavell,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Cavell
Wilson, John S. Scouting Round the World. New York: Blandford Press, 1959.
IN THE COLLECTION
“Edith Cavell’s Last Letter,” an article from the June 23, 1917 issue of The Literary Digest, p.1932
“The Avenging of Edith Cavell,” an article from the July 1918 issue of The Red Cross Magazine, written by Minister Brand Whitlock’s former private secretary T. Topping, about young Louis Bril, who killed the man who turned in Edith Cavell
“How American Artists Picture the War,” an article from the December 28, 1918 issue of The Literary Digest, p. 28; features a painting by George Bellows titled “The Murder of Edith Cavell”
A medallion commemorating Edith Cavell and Marie Depage with their profiles one the front and “1915 Remember!” on the back, by A. Bonnetain 1919.
Two Official Souvenir Books of the Panthéon de la Guerre from the Chicago Century of Progress Exhibition