Edith Cavell: the heroine nurse of England
Every year, two chosen nurses lay a wreath on the statue of such as Edith Cavell near Trafalgar Square in central London. Meanwhile, some 320 km north-east of the capital, a memorial service is held in the church at the rural village of Swardestone, where she was born.
Edith was a nurse working in occupied Belgium during the First World War and was executed by a German firing squad on this day, October 12, 1915 , for helping about 200 British and French soldiers to escape the country. She was aged 49.
Her death caused shock and outrage across the world and, in addition, this event played a significant part in bringing a (disgusted) USA into the war.
The woman, born in 1865, became fluent in the French language which she learnt at school, enabling her to work as a governess for families across Europe, including Brussels.
However, after taking care of her sick father, she decided to become a nurse and thus enrolled at the Royal London Hospital. There, Royal Family surgeon Antoine Depage persuaded her to return to Brussels and run a training school for nurses at the Berkendael Medical Institute.
After Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 Edith’s clinic and nursing school was turned into a Red Cross hospital. Here she treated wounded soldiers wherever they came from and with her strong religious beliefs apparently she said: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”
Eventually she became involved in an underground group formed to help British, French, and Belgian soldiers reach neutral Holland: they were sheltered at the hospital then given money and guides.
However, the suspicious German secret police had been keeping an eye on the hospital and in August 1915, they arrested her and charged her with treason for helping at least 200 soldiers to escape. “Had I not helped,” she said later, “they would have been shot.”
So she was kept in solitary confinement for 10 weeks, and at her trial pleaded guilty to the charges against her. As a result, she was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Despite diplomats from the neutral governments of the United States and Spain protested, their efforts were in vain.
The night before her execution, Edith told a chaplain from the American Legation, Horace Graham: “They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, 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.”
After the war, Edith’s body was taken to London’s Westminster Abbey for a state funeral before being buried at Norwich Cathedral, near her home town.
Her execution led to a strong rise in anti-German feeling in the United States as well as in Britain, where she was idealised as a heroic martyr.
In any case, the Germans claimed that Edith was not just rescuing Allied soldiers, but was also a spy smuggling intelligence back to Britain and, ironically, in 2015, the British Secret Service admitted there was evidence that she was really a spy.
Historian Dr. Emma Cavell, her distant relative, has said: “Despite the posters of a helpless young girl lying on the ground while she is shot in cold blood by a callous German, the truth is that Edith was a tough 49-year-old woman who knew precisely the danger she was placing herself in. She admitted frankly what she’d done, and doesn’t appear to have been afraid of the consequences.”
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England has no mechanism for formal canonisation. However, it has a Calendar of Saints in which a day is listed for the commemoration of an individual.
There, on this day, 12 October, will be found Edith Cavell’s name….