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Edith Cavell - Nurse and Martyr

Moya Peterson, RN, PhD, APRN, FNP-C
Assistant Professor
University of Kansas School of Nursing

A discussion about nurses of World War I cannot start without the introduction of probably the most prominent nurse of the entire war - Edith Cavell.  Edith Cavell was a British nurse born in 1865.  She trained in a London hospital and in 1907 was appointed as matron of a newly established nursing school in Brussels, Belgium.  By 1910 she had gained so much professional respect and had so advanced the nursing profession in Belgium that she began a nursing professional journal, L'infirmiere.  In 1911 she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens.

When war was declared on Germany by England in August of 1914, Cavell's training school for nurses in Brussels was taken over by the Red Cross.  In November the Germans had occupied Brussels and it came under German military law. Cavell began harboring and protecting British soldiers and smuggling them out of occupied Belgium into adjacent Holland, a neutral country.  She sheltered wounded British and French soldiers as well as Belgian and French civilians of military age.  She provided them with false papers and they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell and others who sympathized with her.  They were then furnished with money and guides and led to the Dutch border.  This was a clear violation of the German military law which was now in effect in Belgium.  German authorities became increasingly suspicious of Cavell.  Adding to that suspicion was Cavell's outspoken opinions about the German occupation.

Nurse Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell and her beloved dogs

Cavell was arrested in August 5, 1915, just about one year after Britain had declared war on Germany, and was charged with harboring the enemy (Allied soldiers).  She had been betrayed by a Frenchman who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator.  She was held in a prison for about 10 weeks.  When she was deposed by the German authorities she told them that she was responsible for harboring, in her home and transporting out of the country, some 60 British soldiers, 15 French soldiers, and about 100 French and Belgian citizens of military age.  In her trial she stated that she had aided all of them to cross the border into Holland.  She went further to state that she had heard from the soldiers thanking her when they had arrived safely in Britain. She signed a written statement confirming her involvement the day before her trial.  She offered no defense.

According to German law an offense such as this was punishable by death.  It was also noted that this law also applied to foreigners.  Ordinarily, the Geneva Convention protected medical personnel unless that protection was forfeited by a belligerent action.  The Germans believed that Cavell's actions were belligerent and that she had forfeited her protection.  The British  government officials stated that they were powerless to assist Miss Cavell.  The United States had not entered the war as of this time but they did apply some diplomatic pressure on Germany, stating in clear terms that if Germany executed Cavell their already sullied reputation would be furthered damaged.  The German civil governor was told that along with the sinking of the Lusitania the execution of Cavell would cause horror and disgust in the civilized countries of the world. The civil governor did recommend that Cavell be pardoned because of the humanitarian work she did and the lives that she saved.  However, the military governor ordered her execution. The Germans were afraid that if they gave her lenience an upsurge of women participating in acts against them would occur because the women would not be fearful of retribution.

Death of Edith Cavell
A poster depicting the death of Edith Cavell (notice the German soldier in the background)

The night before her execution it is said that she told a minister who had been allowed to provide the last Holy Communion to her that "Patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone."  These words are inscribed on a statue of Cavell in Trafalgar Square in central London.  Her final words, spoken to a German priest, were "Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe and that I am glad to die for my country." 

On October 12, 1915, sixteen men formed two firing squads and executed Edith and another prisoner.  She was buried in Belgium next to the prison and after the War her body was taken back to England. On May 19, 1919, in the Westminster Abbey, a memorial service was held for her and then she was laid to rest in Norwich, near her birthplace.

Edith Cavell Memorial
An Edith Cavell memorial visited by nurses

Edith's death played an important role in forming American opinion about Germany.  The incident and disgust at her treatment eased America's entry into the conflict later, in 1917.

Edith Cavell Propaganda Poster
A poster depicting Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was a serious, brave and patriotic woman who devoted her life to nursing and to her country.  She was remembered as a brave woman and a faithful Christian.  She stated that as a nurse she did not shrink from death.  She said that "I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!"  She wrote to her fellow nurses on that last night "I have told you that devotion will give you real happiness, and the thought that you have done, before God and yourselves, your whole duty and with a good heart will be your greatest support in the hard moments of life and in the face of death."  The Church of England still recognizes October 12th as the day for commemoration of Edith Cavell, a patriot, a Christian, and a nurse of note.

For further information on Edith Cavell her biography is Fatal Decision, Edith Cavell, WW1 Nurse by Terri Arthur.  Other books about her include The Case of Edith Cavell- A Study of the Rights of Non-Combatants by James M. Beck and Silent in an Evil Time: The Brave War of Edith Cavell by Jack Batten.  There are numerous sites on the internet with valuable information as well. Images are supplied courtesy of The Wellcome Library in London.

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