Life of the Week: Edith Cavell

Monday 12 October marks the centenary of the execution of British First World War nurse Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was shot by a German firing squad after she illegally helped smuggle around 200 British, Belgian and French soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium to safety. Her death prompted international outcry, and many political leaders and newspapers across the world condemned her execution.

Here, we explore Cavell’s life…

Born: 4 December 1865, in Swardeston, Norfolk

Died: 12 October 1915, in Schaarbeek, Brussels, Belgium

Remembered for: Being a British nurse who paid the ultimate price for helping Allied First World War soldiers escape German authorities. She saved around 200 lives.

Family: Edith was the eldest child of Frederick Cavell, a vicar, and Louisa Sophia Cavell.

Edith had one brother, named John, and two sisters, Lillian and Florence.

Her life: Edith Cavell grew up in the small village of Swardeston near Norfolk, where her father was the local vicar. Despite coming from a relatively poor family, Edith and her siblings were taught from a young age to share their money and food with others.

As a child, Edith showed an interest in art and loved to paint flowers from the local village. In order to raise funds for the local church’s Sunday school, Edith and one of sisters made £300 by selling their paintings and homemade cards to their neighbours.

Edith was first homeschooled alongside her two sisters. In 1881, it is possible that Edith, aged around 15, may have enrolled at Norwich High School for a few months. She then attended three boarding schools between 1881 and 1884 in Kensington, Clevedon, and Laurel Court in Peterborough. Edith showed a talent for speaking French, and this skill helped her to become a governess after she left school.

In 1890, Edith was offered a position as a governess in Brussels, where she worked for a family for five years. Edith spent her summer breaks back home in Swardeston. It has been suggested that Edith may have begun a relationship with her second cousin, Eddie, during these holidays. However, they never married.

In 1895 Edith moved back to Britain to care for her father, who had become ill. After he regained his health, Edith decided to train as a nurse. In April 1896, after her initial training at the Fountains Fever Hospital in London, Edith was accepted to train at the London Hospital.

In 1897, a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone, and Edith was ordered to help treat the rising number of patients in the town. Some 1,700 people contracted the disease, but ‘only’ 132 died. After the end of the outbreak, Edith was presented with the Maidstone Medal – an award that recognised the dedicated work of the medical staff who worked tirelessly to tackle the epidemic.

Edith went on to work at a number of different hospitals before becoming assistant matron at the Shoreditch Infirmary in 1903. In 1907 Edith returned to Brussels after she was appointed as matron at the Berkendael Medical Institute.

Edith continued to demonstrate outstanding nursing abilities, and by 1912 she was promoted to oversee the organisation of the nurses at three hospitals, 24 nursing schools and 13 nurseries, as well as a number of other medical centres. Edith also presented weekly lectures about her work to doctors and nurses.

Edith learned of the outbreak of the First World War in July 1914 when she was visiting her mother in Britain. Upon hearing the news, Edith announced: “At a time like this, I am more needed than ever”. She quickly returned to Belgium, where her hospital became a Red Cross Hospital. There, Edith encouraged her nurses to care for every solider that came through their doors, regardless of their political affinity or nationality. Edith herself treated both German and Belgian soldiers.

In August 1914, the German army advanced west and officially took control of Belgium a month later. At this time Edith began to help British and French soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium by sheltering them and smuggling them under the hospital via a secret passage. The soldiers were then given fake identity cards, and received instructions on how to make their way to safety in Holland.

Edith’s actions violated German laws as she was aiding the opposition. The authorities began to become suspicious of Edith, and in the summer of 1915 a Belgian spy discovered the secret tunnel running underneath the hospital and reported it to the authorities. Fearing that she would be found out, Edith stitched her diary into a cushion in order to protect those she had helped to flee Belgium.

On 3 August 1915, Edith was arrested by the German authorities on the grounds that she was illegally helping soldiers escape the country. Word quickly spread of Edith’s arrest, and there was an international outcry for her to be set free. However, on 7 October 1915 Edith was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to death by firing squad.

At 7am on 12 October 1915, Edith was led to the Tir National shooting range in Belgian and was shot dead. She was 49 years old. Immediately after her death, Edith’s body was buried in a grave at the shooting range.

Edith Cavell’s funeral procession in London, May 1919. (Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

For the remainder of the First World War, Edith’s courageous story was used as propaganda against Germany. A number of national newspapers set up public appeals in remembrance of Edith’s bravery, and the Cavell Nurses’ Trust was established in 1917 to raise money to build respite homes for retiring nurses.

On 13 May 1919, Edith’s body was finally returned to Britain. Edith’s remains were carried through the streets of London before arriving at Westminster Abbey, where a memorial service was held. Crowds lined the streets to pay their respects.

Edith’s body was moved to Norwich Cathedral later that day, where she was interred with the same tombstone used to commemorate soldiers who had died during the war.

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