Edith Cavell was a pioneering British nurse who was court martialled and executed by the German forces occupying Belgium during the First World War in 1915. Her crime had been to work with the Belgian resistance to shelter about 200 Allied soldiers trapped behind German lines and get them to safety. Her execution by firing squad provoked worldwide condemnation. It prompted a surge in army recruitment in Britain and is thought to have been one of the factors which encouraged the United States to enter the war. But, in the face of such an injustice, Cavell maintained her strong Christian convictions: she told her chaplain on the night before she died that she would not have any hatred or bitterness towards anyone. Her body was exhumed after the war and reburied at Norwich cathedral.
Edith Cavell was born at Swardeston in Norfolk in December 1865, and was the eldest of four children. Her father, Frederick, was vicar of the parish church. Like Frederick, Cavell’s mother, Louisa, was from an evangelical Christian background but it was non-conformist rather than Anglican. It was a devout household which began and ended the day with prayers and Bible readings. At first, the Cavell children were educated at home by their parents. She later went to school in Norwich, Kensington and Clevedon near Bristol. It was there, aged 18, that she was confirmed, publically acknowledging her Christian faith and reaffirming all she had been taught as a child.
Nurses knelt to pray on the wards. Death, hope and eternity were regular themes in the prayers.
The Cavells employed three servants but were not wealthy. Edith Cavell learnt to share what she had. When the family had a hot meal, extra servings were made and she and her siblings took food to needy people in the village. Revd Cavell was chaplain at a nearby workhouse. It helped Edith Cavell to grow up understanding poverty and encouraged her to do something useful with her life to help people.
Cavell completed her education as a pupil-teacher at a girls’ school in the precincts of Peterborough Cathedral. Prayers and services were part of everyday life. The school taught music, drawing and languages – and Cavell became good at French and painting watercolours. She taught in the Sunday School at her home church after leaving school in Peterborough.
Governess and nurse
At 21 Edith Cavell became governess for the children of an Essex vicar. They recalled her as great fun but strict. The rhythm of the day was like Cavell’s childhood: regular prayers and Bible readings as well as lessons and sport. She was also governess for three other families in Norfolk and Essex before moving to teach the children of a lawyer in Brussels. She left in 1895, returning home to nurse her sick father.
At the end that year, aged 30, Edith Cavell began nursing in London at a hospital set up to treat scarlet fever patients. A year later she was training as a nurse at the London Hospital at Whitechapel. The hospital had a routine of regular prayers and Bible readings which echoed her upbringing. Nurses knelt to pray on the wards. Death, hope and eternity were regular themes in the prayers. In 1897, she was sent to Maidstone to help after an outbreak of typhoid. She then had periods working as a private nurse and at other hospitals in and around London before moving to Salford.
Nursing in Belgium
Nursing was developing fast in Britain but was very different in Belgium where hospitals were run by the Church and untrained nuns looked after patients. Keen for progress, a surgeon, Dr Antoine Depage, established a nurses’ training school in Brussels. Through her connections from her time as a governess there, Edith Cavell was approached to become its first matron in 1907. It was a perfect role, enabling her to use her skills as a teacher, linguist and senior nurse. She involved herself in every aspect of the school’s life, even designing the nurses’ uniforms. The school flourished. In 1912, Dr Depage told an international conference, ‘our school is the benchmark for nursing standards in Belgium’. By then Edith had opened three more hospitals for nurse training.
War, betrayal and sacrifice
Edith Cavell was in England in July 1914. Receiving a telegram that war with Germany was imminent, she returned to Brussels on 3 August. Britain declared war the following day. Preparations began to receive wounded soldiers. By 20 August German troops had occupied Brussels and soon wounded troops, including Germans, began arriving at the hospital.
‘…I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful for me…'
Underground resistance among the Belgians and French began to grow. Allied soldiers were hidden, given civilian clothes and false papers, then safe passage to the neutral Netherlands was organised. The resistance contacted Cavell and she soon began sheltering soldiers. One who stayed over Christmas 1914 was also from Norfolk. He would be a pall bearer at her funeral after the war.
Hiding a soldier was an offence punishable by execution but Cavell continued to take the risk. Between February and July 1915, she sheltered 170 allied soldiers at the training hospital, often arranging for guides to get them to the Dutch border. But the Germans became suspicious. They watched the hospital and sprang surprise searches. Brussels was full of spies; some tried to trick Cavell into revealing her role in the resistance. She sent a message that the hospital was no longer safe.
At the end of July, the German political police began arresting suspects. Edith Cavell was detained on 5 August. Under interrogation, she was tricked into signing distorted statements. Edith Cavell and 34 others went on trial on 7 October. She admitted helping 200 men to reach the Dutch frontier and, on 11 October, she was condemned to death. She had communion with the only remaining English-speaking minister in Brussels that evening. She told him, ‘…I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful for me…(but) standing as I do in view of God and eternity I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness wards anyone’. When he said she would be remembered as a heroine and a martyr, she said she wanted to be remembered ‘as a nurse who tried to do her duty’. At dawn on 12 October Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad.
There was an international outcry. Anger provoked a surge in British army recruitment. It’s thought that the execution was also a factor in the United States later joining the war. Queen Alexandra sent condolences to Cavell’s mother. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London. After the war, in March 1919, Cavell’s body was exhumed and returned to Britain. Crowds paid their respects at railway stations en route as the train carrying her coffin travelled from Dover to London. The first part of her funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. Her body was then taken on to Norwich for a service at the cathedral. Edith Cavell was finally laid to rest in the cathedral grounds.