Nurse Edith Cavell, Heroine of Belgium
Edith Louisa Cavell was the eldest of four children born in the tiny village of Swardeston, Norfolk,England to the Reverend Frederick Cavell and his wife Louisa. Her childhood in the Anglican vicarage appears to have been a happy one, and the family close-knit. So when her father became seriously ill Edith left her job as governess to a Belgian family in Brussels to tend him.
Edith was in love with her cousin Ed, and it is thought probable he was with her. Unfortunately, he had a genetic nervous ailment which he felt prevented their marriage. Nevertheless, their deep love was lifelong.
Once the vicar had recovered, Edith decided to make nursing her profession. While she was working temporarily as matron at a hospital in Manchester, Dr. Antoine Depage persuaded her to return to Brussels. He opened a nurses’ training school and asked Edith to run it; the school and its clinic very quickly gained a sterling reputation both for the nurses and the patient care.
With her clinic and training school well established in the fateful summer of 1914, Edith was visiting her widowed mother and family in Norfolk when the Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated on 28th June. War in Europe appeared inevitable.
Much to the distress of her family and friends, Edith insisted on returning to Belgium, saying she was needed there more than ever. It was the last time they saw each other. Edith was back in Belgium on August 3rd, 1914; on the following day Germany invaded Belgium and Britain declared war on Germany. By August 21st, Brussels was occupied by the Germans. The staff was informed the clinic was now a Red Cross hospital and as such the nurses were to treat the wounded of all nationalities but to remain impartial themselves. Red Cross nurses were not to take sides or to participate in any way in the war; the German authorities promised dire punishment would be meted out to anyone found assisting British or French personnel apart from the wounded. At the battle of Mons the British were heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat; many allied soldiers found themselves cut off and left behind. Two found their way to the clinic and when Edith heard their story of how the Germans were shooting any allied soldier they found, she determined to do all she could to help. She sheltered the two soldiers, first at the clinic and then at her own home, while she found someone trustworthy who could guide them to the Dutch frontier. Holland was a neutral country, therefore once safely there the men could return to Britain. Afterwards, Edith set about helping everyone she could,
She set up a small network of trusted people, some to forge papers and others to make passports. She organised safe homes where allied soldiers would be provided with shelter and money for their journey into Holland. This was desperately dangerous work, and strict secrecy had to be observed. However, the village grapevine is strong and despite every precaution taken news of her caring spread. Soon Nurse Cavell found desperate civilians, rendered either homeless by or in danger from the Germans, seeking her aid. True to her deep-rooted Anglican faith and her nurse’s training, she gave it unstintingly.
|Edith with her dogs Don and Jack|
In recent years it has been revealed that Edith not only assisted her fellow countrymen, other allies, and desperate civilians, she also a simple but effective spy network. The Germans became increasingly suspicious of activities at the clinic, and finally Edith was betrayed. Tricked by the Germans into thinking if she confessed her own guilt, her co-conspirators in the rescue network would go free, Edith freely confessed what she had done. On 3rd August, 1915, exactly one year after her return to Belgium, Edith Cavell was arrested and accused of harbouring Allied soldiers. She was taken to Saint-Gilles prison, where she languished for ten long weeks.
Her brother in law wrote anguished letters imploring for information on Edith, but the British government seems to have trailed its heels in coming to her defence, saying there was little that could be done. Since the U.S. was not then in the war, it was left to the ailing Brandt Whitlock, the American minister to Belgium, to instruct Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary, to intervene on Edith’s behalf. Despite Mr. Gibson’s strongly worded letter, the Germans remained implacable. Though not a German national, Edith was accused of treason. . She was not given anything close to a fair trial but, strong in her Christian faith, she would not lie to save herself. She admitted to having helped young French and Belgian civilians of military age as well as British and French soldiers to escape to neutral Holland, and was given the death penalty.
On the night of 11th October, 1915, Edith met for the last time with the Anglican chaplain, Rev. Sterling Gahan. At 6a.m. on October 12th, she and Pascal Baucq, another of her network, were taken to the firing range Tir nationale and executed by a firing squad.
After the war, her body was taken to Britain and now rests in Life’s Green in the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, Norfolk.
To Rev. Stirling Gahan, when facing death, she said, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.” A monument has been erected at Tir nationale. Another monument to Edith Cavell's heroism is the mountain in Alberta, Canada, named after her, Mount Edith Cavell. My young granddaughters climbed it last summer; unfortunately owing to the indisposition of the family photographer I don't have the pictures to enclose here. I must make do with the public domain one: