“At a time like this, I am more needed than ever” ~ Edith Cavell, 1914
Thanks to today’s Google doodle, I’m revisiting a blog post I did back in 2014, about a nurse in the First World War.
Edith Louisa Cavell was born on December 4th 1865 in Swardeston, a small village near Norwich. She was the eldest child of Frederick Cavell, an Anglican priest, and Louisa Sophia. She had three younger siblings, Florence, Lilian and John.
In 1888, while in Austria and Bavaria, Edith visited a free hospital, which impressed her enough that she returned home with an interest in nursing. Despite this, she instead became a governess to a family in Brussels for five years.
She returned home when her father fell ill, and helped to nurse him. This reignited her interest in nursing. In 1896, she was accepted for nursing training at the Royal London Hospital.
When a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone, Kent, the following year, Edith and five other nurses were sent to help. 1,700 people contracted the disease; only 132 died. Edith was awarded the Maidstone Medal for her work.
Edith completed her training in 1898. A year later, she became a night supervisor at St Pancras Infirmary, a Poor Law institution for those who were destitute, and where, sadly, one person in four succumbed to a chronic condition.
In 1907, Dr Antoine Depage, the Belgian royal surgeon, asked Edith to come to Brussels to nurse one of his child patients. Dr Depage was also the founder and president of the Belgian Red Cross, and one of the founders of scouting in Belgium.
Dr Depage set up the first Belgian nursing school, based in his surgical institute, the Berkendael Institute, and he asked Edith to run it. Within five years, her training programme was producing well-qualified nurses for hospitals and schools.
In 1914, Edith returned to England on one of her frequent visits to see her widowed mother and was there when war broke out. Believing her place was in Brussels, she insisted on going back, saying, “At a time like this, I am more needed than ever.” Not long after she returned, Germany invaded and occupied Brussels.
Edith and her nurses were unbiased in their treatment of the wounded. Her clinic became a Red Cross Hospital.
August 23rd heralded the start of the Battle of Mons. Heavily outnumbered and overrun by the Germans, the British Expeditionary Force retreated. But in the confusion, many soldiers were cut off from their units and trapped behind enemy lines.
It didn’t take long for reports to start circulating of trapped Allied soldiers and the locals who sheltered them being shot by the Germans. When the disturbing news reached Edith, she made the decision to help, and hid two British soldiers for two weeks at the clinic.
Was the decision an easy one for her to make? She was, after all, a member of the Red Cross, seemingly protected from the war. And yet for her, protecting, hiding and helping hunted men was the same as tending to the sick and dying – it was a case of protecting and saving lives. She knew what the consequences would be if she was caught and she was prepared to face them.
“Had I not helped, they would have been shot.”
Soon after, Edith was asked to join an underground group who was 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.
In May 1915, tragedy struck Dr Depage and his family. On the 7th, the doctor’s wife, Marie Depage, drowned. A nurse in her own right and Edith’s friend, she’d been on board the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat. Of the 1,959 people on board, 1,198 were killed. She had been in the United States, 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.
As Edith grieved for the loss of her friend, danger was coming ever closer. On the last day of July 1915, Philippe Baucq and another member of his team were arrested. Accused of espionage, Baucq was imprisoned at Saint-Gilles.
Unfortunately, letters incriminating Edith were found. On August 5th, the German Secret Police arrested Edith at the Berkendael Institute. After being subjected to 72 hours of relentless interrogation, she was told they already had the information they needed, but this was a lie. Another lie followed – they told her a full confession from her would save her friends. Believing them, Edith 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, asking for confirmation that Edith Cavell had been arrested; he did not receive a reply. Ten days later, he asked to be allowed to take up her defence, but his request was refused.
Edith, along with 30 others, was put on trial on October 7th. She freely confessed to helping allied soldiers escape, making no attempt to hide what she’d done. Given her nature, she obviously trusted her captors and saw no reason to lie.
On the 11th, Edith, Philippe Baucq, and three others were found guilty of treason. The sentence, death.
Edith was not a soldier, she was a woman and a nurse. Efforts were made on her behalf. Neutral governments, like America and Spain, endeavoured to have her sentence reduced, to no avail.
Stirling Gahan, the English chaplain who visited Edith, found her calm. She told him 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.”
On October 12th, at 02:00, Edith Cavell, Philippe Baucq and the three Belgian men were taken to the Tir Nationale, the National Rifle Range, where they were executed by firing squad.
Edith was buried next to Saint-Gilles prison, in a grave marked by a wooden cross.
Condemnation swiftly followed, which must have surprised the Germans. Edith’s execution was used as propaganda against the Germans, and she was hailed a martyr, which was contrary to her last wishes. She only wanted to be remembered as “a nurse who tried to do her duty”, not as a martyr or a heroine.
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, a train conveyed her body to Victoria Station. From there, it was carried to Westminster Abbey for a memorial service. Among the many present was Queen Adelaide, the Queen Mother.
After the service, Edith’s body was taken by special train from Liverpool Street Station to Thorpe Station in Norwich where she was reburied outside the east end of the Cathedral.
On March 17th 1920, Queen Alexandra unveiled the Edith Cavell Memorial in St. Martin’s Place, just outside the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square.
When I wrote my original post about Edith Cavell, I mentioned then my surprise that she wasn’t more widely known. There is a good amount about her on the internet, but obviously you need to be aware of her in the first place. I’d never heard of her until I ‘discovered’ her while reading an article on some other First World War related stuff, and her name was mentioned in passing.