Edith Cavell: how the executed British First World War nurse became a symbol of peace
A pioneering nurse, Edith Cavell was shot by a German firing squad for helping Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium during the First World War, but that didn't end her influence on the conflict
Hours before she was taken from the cell where she had spent the last ten weeks and executed, Edith Cavell had a visitor. Her friend, Reverend H Stirling T Gahan was permitted to enter the prison in Belgium on the evening of 11 October 1915 and, though there was nothing he could do to change the sentence awaiting the nurse the next morning, he hoped to share with her some kind words and the Holy Communion.
To his surprise, he found Cavell “perfectly calm and resigned”. She spoke of the kind treatment towards her while imprisoned and thanked God for some quiet before the end, confessing, “This time of rest has been a great mercy.” This courageous stoicism was nothing new. She dedicated her entire 49 years to helping others, giving little thought to herself – it’s what drove her into nursing, and into a terrible war.
Edith Cavell: Fact about her lifeBorn: 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.
Edith Cavell's early life and family
Born 4 December 1865 to a poor vicar, a young Edith Louisa Cavell grew up with such principles as sacrifice and compassion. Along with three younger siblings, she was taught the Bible at the family home in the small Norfolk village of Swardeston. A lover of dancing, art and tennis, Cavell’s childhood was happy, and she showed signs of the unshakeable selflessness for which she would become famous. To pay for a new church room, she sold cards she painted with her sister, raising £300.
After school, Cavell had several jobs as a governess, including a five-year post in Brussels starting in 1890. When her father became ill in 1895, however, she returned to England to care for him and it was seeing his health improve that inspired Cavell to enter nursing. Her training at London Hospital didn’t go as smoothly as hoped – her matron described her as “unpunctual” and “unreliable” – but Cavell persevered.
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In 1897, she received a medal for treating the patients of a typhoid fever outbreak and, from 1898-1906, Cavell worked in hospitals across the country. In 1907, a burgeoning reputation led her to be appointed matron of Belgium’s first nursing school, the Berkendael Institute. She almost single-handedly made it a centre of excellent care and treatment (when the Queen of Belgium broke her arm, she requested a Cavell-trained nurse), all while managing a number of schools, hospitals, nursing homes and giving four lectures a week.
Why was Edith Cavell arrested?
But then came the First World War. When she heard the news, Cavell was actually safe in Norfolk visiting her mother, but insisted on going back to Brussels. “At a time like this,” she announced, “I am more needed than ever.” Under her tireless direction, the Berkendael Institute, now a Red Cross hospital, treated the horrific injuries coming from both sides of the frontline. Her first duty was healing the sick, so any wounded soldier, even German and Austrian, received the same attention without prejudice.
This meant Cavell was able to stay in Belgium after the German occupation – which gave her the irresistible chance to save even more lives by sheltering Allied soldiers. Cavell was a key figure in the underground network, providing British, French and Belgian troops with refuge, false papers, money, food and guides to get them to the neutral Netherlands. For almost a year, Cavell risked her life helping some 200 men escape German hands. It wasn’t patriotism or hatred of the enemy that motivated her dangerous deeds, but a commitment to protecting others and reducing, if only by a fraction, the war’s body count.
Yet German suspicions grew and on 5 August 1915, Cavell was arrested. Other collaborators were also found out – but Cavell had hoped to save the Berkendael staff from incrimination with her thorough safety measures, such as sewing her diary into a cushion.
Edith Cavell's execution
For ten weeks, Cavell was held in solitary confinement, although in relative comfort. Displaying maybe a bit too much honesty, bordering on naivety, she made no attempt to hide her role in the underground network and confessed. At her court-martial, Cavell was sentenced to death.
There was a last hope of rescue when newspapers called for diplomatic intervention, but the British Foreign Office claimed to be “powerless” and pleas for a reprieve from US and Spanish diplomats fell on deaf ears. So at 7am on 12 October 1915, Cavell was shot and quickly buried.
That, however, wasn’t the end of her war effort. With her execution sparking global outrage, Cavell – portrayed as saintly, even angelic – became an iconic figure in propaganda. She became the ultimate patriot, but in truth, she was just trying to do what she had done her whole life: help others.
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Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.