Tuesday's Tales - Edith Cavell, a real-life tale of courage

Decided to go with another real life story today, about a courageous nurse in the First World War, Edith Cavell.  I only realised a couple of days ago, she was the age I am now when she died.  A British nurse in Brussels, she, along with her Belgian and French colleagues, saved the lives of over 200 Allied soldiers.

Edith was born on December 4th 1865, the eldest child of an Anglican priest, Frederick Cavell, and Louisa Sophia.  While at boarding school, she learned French and discovered she had a natural talent for it.

In 1888, while in Austria and Bavaria, Edith visited a free hospital, and was impressed enough with it that she returned with an interest in nursing.  But, instead, she became a governess to a family in Brussels for 5 years.  It was only while she was nursing her sick father that she finally decided to pursue a career in nursing.  In 1896, she was accepted for nursing training at the Royal London Hospital.

A year later, a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone, Kent.  Edith, along with 5 other nurses, were sent to help.  Of the 1,700 who contracted the disease, only 132 died.  Edith was awarded the Maidstone Medal for her work.

Edith completed her training in 1898, and a year later, she became a night supervisor at St. Pancras Infirmary, a Poor Law institution for those who were destitute, and where, sadly, 1 person in 4 succumbed to a chronic condition.

In 1907, Edith returned to Brussels when Dr Antoine Depage asked her to nurse a child patient of his.  Depage was the Belgian royal surgeon, and the founder and president of the Belgian Red Cross; he went on to found scouting in Belgium.  

Dr Antoine Depage

When he set up the first Belgian nursing school, based in his Berkendael Institute, he asked Edith to run it.  Within 5 years, her training programme was producing well-qualified nurses for hospitals and schools.

Edith Cavell (seated centre) with nurses she trained
[Imperial War Museum - © IWM (Q 70204)]

When war broke out in 1914, Edith was in England, having gone to visit her widowed mother in Norfolk.  Barely a month later, in August, she was back in Brussels.  As the month drew to a close, German soldiers had invaded and were occupying Brussels.  Edith’s clinic, already treating war wounded, regardless of nationality, became a Red Cross Hospital; the nurses remained unbiased in their treatment of the wounded.

The Battle of Mons began on August 23rd. Heavily outnumbered and overrun by the Germans, the British Expeditionary Force retreated.  In the ensuing confusion, many soldiers were cut off and trapped behind enemy lines.  Disturbing reports of Allied soldiers, and the locals sheltering them, being shot by German soldiers, soon reached Edith.  Deciding to act, she hid 2 British soldiers for 2 weeks at the clinic.

Following that, Edith was asked to join an underground group who were helping soldiers escape to neutral Netherlands.  Despite the obvious danger, she agreed.  She hid almost 200 men at the Berkendael Institute, while waiting for Philippe Baucq, an architect, to organise their escape across the border.

Philippe Baucq

Tragedy struck Dr Depage and his family, and also Edith, in May 1915; on the 7th, the doctor’s wife, Marie Depage, who was also Edith’s friend, drowned.  She’d been on board the Lusitania, sunk by a German U-boat; of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 were killed.  A nurse in her own right, she’d helped her husband with those wounded in the war.  She had been in the United States, where she had been fundraising for Belgian medical aid, and was returning home to see her son who had been called into military service.  As the Lusitania sank, she and another doctor helped as many children to safety as they were able.

Marie Depage

On the last day of July 1915, Philippe Baucq, and another member of his team were arrested.  Accused of espionage, Baucq was imprisoned at St. Gilles. 

Unfortunately, letters incriminating Edith were found.  On August 5th, the German Secret Police arrested Edith at the Berkendael Institute.  She was subjected to 72 hours of relentless interrogation, after which her interrogators told her that they already had the information they needed; this was a lie.  She was told that if she wished to save her friends, she had to make a full confession.  Believing them, Edith Cavell confessed.

Efforts were made to try and ensure Edith had a fair trial, if nothing else.  On August 31st, the American minister in Belgium wrote to the German Governor for confirmation that Edith Cavell had been arrested; there was no reply.  10 days later, he asked to be allowed to take up her defence; his request was refused.

Along with 30 others, Edith was put on trial on October 7th.  She made no attempt to hide what she’d done; she freely confessed to helping allied soldiers escape.  On the 11th, Edith, Philippe Baucq and 3 others were found guilty of treason; the sentence, death.  As she was a woman and a nurse, not a soldier, efforts were made on Edith’s behalf.  Neutral governments, like America and Spain, endeavoured to have her sentence reduced, to no avail.

The English chaplain who visited Edith, Stirling Gahan, found her calm.  She told him that she was not afraid … “ 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.

At 2am on October 12th, Edith Cavell, Philippe Baucq and 3 Belgian men were taken to the Tir National shooting range in Schaerbeek, where they were executed by firing squad.

Edith was buried next to St. Gilles Prison, in a grave marked by a wooden cross, on the instructions from the Spanish minister.

Edith Cavell's grave in Brussels [© IWM (E(AUS) 4088)]

A year after the war ended, in May 1919, Edith’s body was exhumed, and a service held for her, which was attended by the King and Queen of Belgium.  Her body was then returned to England.  At Dover, her body was taken by train to Victoria Station.  

Edith Cavell's body being taken from the mortuary in Brussels for transport back to England
[© IWM (Q 70081)]

 From there, it was carried to Westminster Abbey for a memorial service; among the many present was Queen Adelaide, the Queen Mother.

Outside Westminster Abbey [© IWM (Q 66252)]

After the service, Edith’s body was taken by special train from Liverpool Street Station to Thorpe Station in Norwich.  She was reburied outside the east end of the Cathedral.

Monument at Norwich (Paul Hayes)

Such a brave, selfless woman … I’m surprised she isn’t more widely known.  There is a goodly amount about her on the internet, but only if you’re aware of her in the first place.  I'd never heard of her until I 'discovered' her while reading an article on some other WW1 related stuff, and her name was mentioned in passing.  


Edith Cavell Memorial, St Martin’s Place (Wikipedia - ‘Prioryman’)

With the word 'hero/heroine' bandied about with such abandon nowadays, it is humbling to come across those to whom the term so fittingly applies - not only Edith Cavell, but also Philippe Baucq, Marie Depage and Dr Depage, and countless more ... all selflessly helping others, seemingly without a thought for their own safety.  Humbling, yes, but also inspirational.