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Edith Cavell - Nurse and WWI Martyr

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Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.
- Edith Cavell

Edith Louise Cavell, the daughter of a parson, was born in the village of Swardeston in Norfolk, England on 4 December, 1865, the oldest of four children. She went to school in Peterborough and learned how to speak French. Edith was an accomplished artist; she liked to collect flowers and draw them. After having been trained as a governess, Edith spent five years in Brussels before she took on the care of her father, who was gravely ill. This turned her towards a career in nursing. After completing her training, she gained employment at a private nursing home in Manchester, England.

The Start of the War

In 1907, Edith returned to Brussels where she set up a nurses' training college. By 1912, she was providing nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. She was also looking after a morphine addict and a runaway girl. Edith was on holiday in England when Germany invaded Belgium in 1914. Edith returned to Belgium immediately, insisting to her mother that she would be needed more than ever. Upon arrival, she instructed her nurses that they were to tend the wounded, irrespective of their nationality. Care was to be administered to all casualties of war.

Shortly after her return, Brussels was occupied by German forces. Edith's teaching school was converted into a Red Cross hospital, but after the Battle of Mons, she found out that the Germans were not only shooting the British soldiers who were trapped behind enemy lines1, but also the Belgian citizens who were aiding them. Edith found it impossible to remain neutral: the two British soldiers in her clinic at the time were provided with guides who helped them find their way to safety in Holland.

An Act of Heroism

From then on, there was no going back for Edith. She provided care and nursing for fugitives, whether they were British, French or Belgian, supplying them with identification papers and guides so that they could get to safety and re-enlist with their regiments if they were physically able. She managed to feed all the refugees herself, despite wartime rationing. Most of her 'underground' activities were conducted in secret so as not to incriminate her fellow nurses, as she was aware of the risk she was taking. The clinic was still tending wounded Germans as well as Allied soldiers, so the risk of discovery was high.

German intelligence operatives, disguised as patients who needed assistance in escaping, infiltrated the scheme in the hopes of finding out what the organisation was and who was involved. Edith's colleagues urged her to flee to England before she was implicated, but she refused. She knew that the penalty for aiding refugees was death, but it was a risk she was willing to take - saving as many lives as possible was her goal. Two members of the organisation were arrested and interrogated in July 1915. A few days later, Edith was arrested as well.

At her hastily-arranged trial, she admitted that she had helped almost 200 Allied soldiers to escape, in violation of military law, using the excuse that, had she not done so, they would have been shot. Another two members of the organisation were arrested and all five were condemned to death. On 12 October, 1915, Edith was escorted to the firing range by a German-appointed chaplain, Pasteur Le Seur. After he blessed her, she said to him:

Tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.

After she was executed, German medical officer and expressionist poet Gottfried Benn later said:

She was the bravest woman I had ever met, and was in every respect the heroine her nation had made of her. She went to her death with a poise and bearing which is quite impossible to forget.

The shooting of this brave and selfless nurse, while not in violation of the laws of war, was not forgiven or forgotten by the Allied forces. It was used to sway neutral opinion against Germany and eventually helped to bring the USA into the war.

In Memoriam

Edith Cavell was buried where she had been shot, with a plain wooden cross as a headstone. This was not the end of her story, however. In 1919, after the war was over, Edith's remains were exhumed; her body was given military escort to Dover and then on to Westminster Abbey, where a memorial ceremony was led by King George V. Then came a specially-arranged train journey to Norwich where a service was held in the Cathedral, followed by re-interment in the Cathedral grounds with a bugler sounding the 'Last Post' over her grave. Every year since then, a memorial service has been held at her graveside.

There is a statue commemorating the life of Nurse Edith Cavell in St Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square, London. There is an Edith Cavell Bridge in New Zealand and Mt Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies was named in her honour.

1These were enemy soldiers who had not surrendered and who could, under the standards of the time, be shot as suspected spies.

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