Hidden historical heroines (#18: Edith Cavell)


Edith CavellEdith Louisa Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse and a celebrated patriot, court-martialled and sentenced to death by the Germans during World War I.


Edith was born in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father was the local vicar. Upon reaching adulthood, she moved to Brussels, where she first worked as a governess before training as a nurse. Her nursing career was immediately a  distinguished one; she was recruited to be the matron of a pioneering new nursing school and founded Belguim’s first professional nursing journal, L’infirmière.


When war broke out across the continent, Edith was at home, visiting her newly widowed mother in Norwich. She immediately left the relative safety of England and returned to Belgium, where her clinic and nursing school was taken over by the Red Cross. “At a time like this”, she said, “I am more needed then ever.” She impressed upon all of the nurses that their duty was to healing, regardless of the wounded’s nationality; German soldiers – although symbolic of their hated invaders and oppressors – were to receive the same level of treatment as any Belgians.


Brussels fell under full German occupation in November 1914. Edith offered herself and her home as a waypoint for the train of smuggling Allied soldiers across the borders to the neutral Netherlands. The soldiers were furnished with money and false papers. Edith knew – as did all involved – that her actions could lead to death at the hands of the Germans, but she believed that the harbouring and shepherding of the Allies was a humanitarian act, and thus it fell under her obligations as a nurse.


She was incredibly careful and thorough, keeping her diary sewn up in a cushion, never holding on to any incriminating papers, utilising passwords and even managing to keep her activities a secret from all the other nurses in the clinic and school so as not to incriminate them. The Germans suspected her, searching her home and belongings but never finding anything. The operation was to last for over a year. Edith personally assisted in the repatriation of some 200 Allied soldiers, many of whom wrote to thank her after their safe return home.

Edith with some of her trainee nurses


Two of Edith’s comrades in the escape team were arrested on July 31st, 1915, betrayed by a double-agent reporting to the Germans. Still suspicious of the out-spoken, British nurse, the Germans arrested Edith five days later and managed to convince her that her associates had named her in their confessions. Believing that the jig was up, Edith confessed. She was court-martialled and sentenced to death for the crime of “conducting soldiers to the enemy.”


Edith was held for ten weeks in a cell, but the execution was a foregone conclusion. The magnitude of her ‘crimes’ and the fact that she had freely confessed to it meant the Germans would look weak if they commuted the sentence to a lesser one. The British government said they could do nothing to help her; a representative of the Foreign Office saying: “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.” The Americans, at this point still neutral, tried to exert pressure, threatening the German court that “this murder would stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust”. The German response was that they “would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to one of the humblest German soldiers, and [their] only regret was that they had not three or four English old women to shoot.”  

It is rumoured that Edith was actually involved – whether before or during her efforts to help soldiers escape – active espionage, and that she had been recruited to this purpose by Mi6. Maybe one day they will release the files and we will know for certain. Either way, Edith’s charge and associated death sentence was for ‘treason’, not ‘espionage’.


The date and manner of Edith’s execution was set; October 14th 1915, by firing squad. The night before, Edith sat up with her chaplain. “I am thankful to have had these ten weeks of quiet to get ready,” she told him. “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”. This quotation is inscribed on her commemorative statue near Trafalgar Square in London. She was shot to death at 6am. Legend has it that the whole firing squad was reticent, one even throwing down his rifle in protest, to be shot by his commanding officer and bundled into a hastily dug grave next to that made for Edith.


Edith's memorial statue in London

Edith’s heroism and tragedy was immediately seized upon and used for Allied propaganda; her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity. After the peace, Edith’s remains were repatriated to Britain. She was offered a place of rest in Westminster Abbey, but her family requested that she be returned to Norfolk where she was re-interred by the side of Norwich Cathedral in May 1919. A graveside service is still held every year on the Saturday closest to the anniversary of her death, and under the Church of England calendar, her formal commemoration day is 12th October.



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