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The execution of Miss Edith Cavell, the English nurse, on a charge of harbouring in Brussels, greatly shocked the Belgian community in that unhappy land, and they call it the bloodiest act of the whole war.

The Saintly Nurse Executed for Being a Spy

?Nothing but physical impossibility, lack of space and money would make me close my doors to Allied refugees.??

? Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell was a nurse, humanitarian and spy. During the First World War, she helped allied servicemen escape German occupied Belgium; she was eventually captured and executed for treason. Her death by firing squad made her internationally known and she became an iconic symbol for the Allied cause.

In particular, she is remembered for her courage in facing execution with equanimity. This included her famous last words that ?Patriotism is not enough.?

The incident and disgust at her treatment by Germany, played an important role in shaping American public opinion and easing America?s entry into the war, later in 1917.

Edith Louisa Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in the vicarage at Swardeston, a village located approximately 5 miles south of Norwich, Norfolk. She was the eldest of 4 children, their Father being the local vicar. All his children were taught the principles which their Father held dear: thought for others, self-sacrifice and prayer. Edith was taught by her Father at home, as he was unable to afford either a Governess or a private tutor.

During her teenage years, Edith went to a school called Laurel Court, operated by a Miss Margaret Gibson. During her time at the school, Edith became so proficient in French, that Miss Gibson recommended Edith to the Francois family in Brussels, as a governess to their family. Edith enjoyed her new position, but she felt that as the children were now grown up she required a greater challenge.

In 1895, Edith’s Father became seriously ill and she returned to Swardeston to nurse him. The experience of nursing her Father convinced Edith that a career in nursing would provide the sort of profession that she was endeavouring to locate. In 1896, after her Father died, Edith entered the London Hospital Nurses’ Training School. She completed the course, and in 1901 she transferred to the St. Pancras Infirmary as a Night Supervisor. Three years later she transferred to the Shoreditch Infirmary to take up the duties of Assistant Matron.

During 1906, a Belgian surgeon called Antoine Depage, was attempting to establish a non-denominational hospital structure with trained personnel. He had become frustrated with the religious orders which, at this time, controlled Belgian nursing. He wished this medical structure to be inspired by the earlier work of Florence Nightingale in the UK.

The base for this new structure was to be Depage’s existing location: the Berkendael Institute. He required a matron with administrative experience and was fluent in French. Edith was recommend by one of the Francois children, who had since married.

In 1907, she was recruited to be the matron of a new nursing school in Brussels, and started the new facility. Through her disciplined and enthusiastic approach, Edith began attracting more recruits to the school. This was a period of growth in the prestige and importance of nursing; a period which began with?Florence Nightingale?during the Crimean War.

By 1909 she had attracted plenty of new prospective nurses. By the outbreak of World War One in August 1914, the school became an ever increasing source of trained nurses for the local hospitals and other nursing homes.

Edith Louisa Cavell (1865-1915) Photo: Corbis

Nurse and hospital reformer Florence Nightingale (1820 – 1910) with a group of nurses from London hospitals at Claydon. Standing behind her are her brother-in-law Sir Harry Verney (owner of Claydon) and the matron Miss Crossland.

In 1910, Miss Cavell began one of the first nursing journals,?L?infirmiere, this documented good nursing practices and basic standards. She became a teacher of nurses in different hospitals throughout Belgium and sought to improve standards of nursing. In the Nursing Mirror, Edith Cavell, writes:

?The probationers wear blue dresses with white aprons and white collars. The contrast which they present to the nuns, in their heavy stiff robes, and to the lay nurses, in their grimy apparel, is the contrast of the unhygienic past with the enlightened present.?

The prestige of the school grew slowly but when Queen Elisabeth of Belgium broke her arm, she sent Edith’s school a message, asking for one of her nurses. The importance of the school grew quickly, helping to raise standards throughout Belgium. By 1912, they were providing nurses for three hospitals and many schools and kindergartens. Edith found herself lecturing nearly every day to other nurses and doctors but she still made time for people who needed her – including destitute young girls.

In the summer of 1914, Edith Cavell, head matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute, was on a brief holiday visiting her mother, following her fathers death.

Edith was spending time with her Mother, who had moved to Norwich.

Edith heard of the outbreak of World War One whilst weeding her Mother’s garden when news came of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in far Sarajevo. She told her Mother that she would be “… needed more than ever …” and immediately returned to Brussels and the institute.

Edith’s family had tried to insist on her to staying in England, but she believed duty demanded that she go again to the hospital in Brussels. When she said good-bye she did not know that she would never see her family again. On 4 August the Germans invaded Belgium.

Edith sent the Dutch and German trainees home and, calling her nurses together, told them that their duty lay in helping the sick and wounded, whatever nationality they were.

Soon the hospital where Edith worked became a Red Cross hospital and wounded soldiers from both sides Belgians, Germans, French, British were cared for.

As part of the German Schlieffen plan, the Germans invaded Belgium and from late 1914, Brussels was under a very strict German occupation of military rule.

Many British soldiers had been lost behind in the withdrawal of the allied forces and were stuck in Brussels. Miss Cavell decided to aid the British servicemen, hiding them in the hospital and safe houses around Belgium.

From these safe houses, hundreds of British servicemen were able to escape to neutral Holland. At the same time, she continued to act as nurse and treated wounded soldiers from both the German and allied side. The occupying German army threatened strict punishments for anyone who was found to be ?aiding and abetting the enemy?. Yet, despite the military rule, Miss Cavell continued to help.

?Nothing but physical impossibility, lack of space and money would make me close my doors to Allied refugees.??

? Edith Cavell

Nurse Cavell ministered to hundreds of young men suffering horrific injuries in this cruel war. Edith was British, and Germany and Austria were fighting against Britain. At the time, some British people thought that she was wrong to treat German and Austrian soldiers.

They did not understand why she wanted to help soldiers trying to kill people from her own country. They thought she was being unpatriotic but she said “patriotism is not enough”. This meant she did not think it was fair to only care about people from your own country.

Edith believed that German and Austrian soldiers were just human beings, fighting for their country in the same way British and French soldiers were fighting for theirs. She believed soldiers from both sides deserved help.

At the time, British people thought that the Germans and Austrians were bad. Nowadays, many believe Edith was actually very brave to help the Germans and Austrians at a time when so many of her own people hated them.

Edith Cavell and probationers at the Brussels Nursing School, Belgium Photo: Rex

There were posters all over Brussels warning that “Any male or female who hides an English or French soldier in his house shall be severely punished.” In spite of this warning, there were soon successful efforts to hide soldiers who were wounded or separated from their units, then given refuge and helped to escape to safety.

Meanwhile, she and her nurses looked after the wounded soldiers, mainly German, at the clinic to the very best of their ability.

In Edith Cavell’s hospital, wounded Allied soldiers were tended and then helped to escape. Soon Edith was persuaded to make room for some of the unfortunates who were not wounded but merely fleeing the Germans.

Philippe Baucq, an architect, organised guides to take the soldiers across the borders. Edith thus became involved and she started to shelter a stream of men, waiting to escape, at the Berkendael Institute.

They were helped to get to places where they could rejoin Allied forces. The Germans became more watchful of the comings and goings at the hospital and Edith Cavell was warned by friends that she was suspected of hiding soldiers and helping them escape. But her strong feelings of compassion and patriotism overruled the warnings and she continued to do what she thought was her duty.

During September 1914, a young engineers called Herman Capaiu from Mons, arrived at the nursing school. He told Edith that following the Battle at Mons and the subsequent retreat to the Marne, several Allied soldiers had become separated from their units and trapped behind the advancing German front line. He also said that the Germans were shooting any Allied soldiers that they found, together with the sympathetic locals who had been sheltering them.

The first two soldiers that Edith took into refuge were Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Boger and Company Sergeant-Major Frank Meachin, both of the 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment. Colonel Bodger had been badly wounded in the leg, whilst Sergeant Meachin was in better condition. They had both disguised themselves as Belgian labourers, and risked being shot as spies if they had been captured.

After Herman Capaiu returned home, he reported Edith’s assistance to Prince Reginald de Croy. He was a Belgian aristocrat who headed a group of Belgians who visited the Flanders area around Mons collecting British soldiers who had become separated from their units. They also helped Belgian and French men of military age to escape the German occupied areas, and enlist in the Allied armies. Another member of this group was Phillipe Baucq, a Brussels-based architect.

Despite her normal duties as Matron, Edith did most of the work herself, as she wished to minimise the dangers to the other nurses in the school. At one time, Edith had 35 escapees in her establishment.

British poster using Edith Cavell’s death to recruit soldiers.

After entering Brussels on 20 August 1914, the German occupying forces allowed Edith, a national of an enemy nation, to remain as Matron. They also converted the teaching school into a Red Cross Hospital. However, the Germans began to supervise her work as she began to treat an increasing number of injured German soldiers. Whatever their nationality, Edith provided the best treatment she could offer.

Despite the shortage of food, Edith continued to feed the hospital’s growing official list of patients, the staff and the rising numbers of escapees. She also continued to do a lot of the jobs at night, to avoid unnecessary questions. By 1915, she had more than 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers lodged at the school.

By this time, the German occupation authorities had become suspicious that someone was helped escapees to avoid the German forces. They had also received rumours of Edith’s sympathies.

Sometime in early 1915, Gaston Quien arrived at the hospital. He claimed to be a French soldier, avoiding the German authorities. He made several attempts to have affairs with the nurses in the hospital, and generally made a nuisance of himself. Eventually, Edith insisted that he leave, and he escaped with a party into neutral Holland. However, later he returned claiming that the French authorities had ordered him to return so he could gather information about German activities in the Brussels area.

The German were becoming even more suspicious about the hospital, and the comings and goings. They placed the hospital under observation, and Edith’s associates warned her that she was under ever increasing danger. In addition, Edith’s friend Madame Lepage, the wife of the Belgian doctor who initiated the school, drowned when the Luisitania was sunk by a German submarine.

Real photographic postcard of London & North Western Railway Company locomotive 2275 named “Edith Cavell” and dressed in patriotic splendour with a sign that reads “Lest We Forget”. Nurse Cavell is remembered the world over. Numerous memorials bear her name including this steam locomotive pictured above. Some of the memorials in New Zealand include;
Edith Cavell Hospital, Paparoa
Nurse Cavell Lane, opposite Edith Cavell Hospital in Paparoa
Edith Cavell Home & Hospital Ltd, Sumner, Christchurch
A plaque dedicated to Nurse Cavell unveiled in May 1917 at Maniopoto Hospital in Otago
Edith Cavell Bridge built at Arthur’s Point between Queenstown and Arrowtown, and which stands over the Shotover River. Constructed between 1917 and 1919.
Cavell Street, Dunedin
Cavell Street, Reefton
Nurse Cavell statue sculptured by Captain William Henry Feldon, NZEF for St Mary’s Hospital, Auckland
One of the trees planted in an avenue of trees on Hall Road (now Halver Road) in Manurewa honours the memory of Nurse Cavell. Sadly, the trees on this road no longer exist.

On 31 July 1915, the Germans arrested Phillipe Baucq, and six days later Edith herself was arrested by Otto Mayer of the German Secret Police. After 72 hours of getting nowhere with their questioning, the German interrogators tricked Edith. The German interrogators told Edith that they already had the necessary information and that she could only save her friends from execution, if she made a full confession. In her rather simple, innocent and naive way Edith believed her interrogators and made a full confession.

She was charged by the German police with assisting the enemy. The Germans suspected that not only were she and others helping Allied soldiers but also that the same communication lines were used to divulge German military plans — a serious charge indeed.

Edith was held incommunicado for ten weeks. Brand Whitlock, the American minister to Belgium, was refused permission to see her. Even her appointed defense lawyer, Sadi Kirchen (a Brussels attorney), was not allowed to see her until 7 October, the day her trial began. Thirty-four others were accused of the same crime and were tried as a group. Several of the accused were friends of Edith’s who had worked with her in helping the Allied soldiers.

The trial lasted only two days. Each person was accused of aiding the enemy and was told that, if found guilty, would be sentenced to death for treason. Edith’s lawyer was eloquent in her defense, saying that she had acted out of compassion for others. But Edith’s devotion to the truth condemned her she would not lie to save her life. She openly admitted that she had helped as many as 200 men to escape, who she knew they could then be able to fight the Germans again, and that some of them had written letters of thanks for her help. This was enough to cause her to be judged guilty and the sentence to be executed.

The final judgment was postponed for three days and during that time desperate attempts were made to save her. The American legation petitioned the German authorities in Brussels. A group composed of M. de Leval, the Belgian councillor to the American Legation; Hugh Gibson, secretary to the American Legation; and the Marquis de Villalobar, the Spanish minister to Belgium, made a hurried visit to the political governor of Brussels, Baron von der Lancken. He listened to their pleas but said that he could not reverse the court’s decision. Only the military governor, Von Sauberzweig, had such authority. But even he, after being reached by phone, said that the sentence had to be carried out. In despair, the three men left ? they could do no more.

The only incriminating evidence, apart from her confession, was a tattered postcard sent from the UK by a soldiers thanking Edith for her help. The trial ended with Edith Cavell being sentenced to death by shooting. She seemed to accept her fate. The American and Spanish Ambassadors made frantic representations on Edith’s behalf, stressing the fair way in which she had treated all wounded soldiers. However, this was rejected by the German authorities.

On 11 October the prison chaplain, the Rev. Gahan, visited Edith and found her resigned to her fate. He recorded her final conversation. He records that Miss Cavell said:

?Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.?

She is also recorded as having said:

?I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.?

On her last night, she wrote to her fellow nurses, saying:

?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.?

?”I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”

Even the German chaplain praised her for being “brave and bright to the last.”

At dawn on 12 October 1915, Edith Cavell and Phippe Baucq were both executed by firing squad in the National Rifle Range located on the outskirts of Brussels. At 7 a.m. both lay dead in the morning sun. After the execution, they were separately buried nearby.

Although the actions of German authorities had been correct according to the accepted laws of war, it was a major propaganda disaster for the Germans. The British exploited the execution of the nurse, as an encouragement for men to enlist in the Army. It should be noted that conscription did not exist in the UK at this time, although there was a great social pressure agitated by the media of the day, and encouraged by the British Government of the day.

After World War One had ended, Edith’s body was exhumed and returned to the UK. On 19 May 1919. King George V lead a very well attended memorial service at Westminster Abbey before Edith’s body was taken by special train to Thorpe Station, Norwich, and she was reburied on Life’s Green, located at the east end of Norwich Cathedral.

Base of Edith Cavell’s statue

Several statues have been erected to commemorate Edith Cavell. One is located between the National Portrait Gallery and St. Martin’s in the Field Church, around the corner from Trafalgar Square in London. The statue bears the words “Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion and Sacrifice”. There is also a plaque with the following inscription:?”Edith Cavell, Brussels, Dawn, October 12th, 1915, Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Even in death, Edith Cavell caused other lives to be saved. There was such a storm of protest all over the world that the Germans were moved to spare the lives of the other 33 accused prisoners. Another result of the tragic event was that thousands of volunteers in England, Canada, Australia and other parts of the British Empire lined up at recruiting stations. And in the United States, there was enormous popular pressure for America to declare war on Germany.

Even though she wanted to help soldiers on both sides, the British government used Edith’s death to make the Germans look bad.

They created?propaganda?to convince the public Germans were horrible because they had killed her. This made people angry and upset and led to them disliking Germany even more.

In the immediate aftermath of her death, the nurse was used heavily in the British propaganda drive – a campaign that sometimes obscured the real Edith Cavell.

World War One was the first time propaganda was used as a weapon of war. It starts off very early on with the German advance through Belgium and focuses on the perceived outrages by the Germans. It is in this atmosphere that the use of Edith Cavell’s death can be seen.

It was used to galvanise public opinion against the Germans.

Across the British empire, Cavell’s death was used to spur the recruitment of soldiers. In Canada one poster features a picture of Cavell bearing the slogan “Murdered by the Huns” and urges people to “Enlist in the 99th (Essex battalion, of the Canadian Expeditionary Force) and help stop such atrocities”.

In Britain, recruitment numbers rose from 5,000 to 10,000 a week following her death.

Recruits were needed by the British army to replace those lost on the Western Front – conscription was not introduced until 1916.

Cavell’s death was also used to encourage support for Britain among neutral countries.

Early news reports often distorted the truth of her death, apparently for propaganda purposes.

Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell’s execution in which she refused a blindfold for the execution and then fainted. The German commanding officer then shot her dead with a pistol, according to this account. The story featured on a number of postcards.

She is also often depicted wearing a nursing uniform when she was a shot by the firing squad, which she had made a point of not wearing as she was not being shot for her nursing.

“Nurse Edith Cavell. Patriot & Martyr. Funeral Procession, May 15th 1919.” After the war Edith Cavell’s body was removed from the Execution burial ground and returned to England. Her body was transported by rail from Dover to London and a State Funeral was held at Westminister Abbey where thousands lined the streets of Westminister to pay their respects. Following the service she was re-buried on home soil at Norwich Cathedral. Published by Beagles postcards.

The name of Edith Cavell’s lives on in many ways. In Brussels the nurses’ training school is called Ecole Edith Cavell. In London’s Trafalgar Square there is statue of her in her nurse’s cloak. In Paris’ Tuileries there is a beautiful sculpture of her. In Canada a western mountain is named Mt. Cavell. In the U.S. Rocky Mountains, there is Cavell Glacier. And in Swardeston, where she was born, the window over the altar of the church is dedicated to her. Edith is buried in Life’s Green, close to the World War I memorial chapel at Norwich Cathedral. Her body was returned to England after the war ended and visitors still stop to see her grave. .

Every year, on the nearest Saturday to the date in October when Edith was executed, a short service takes place at her grave by Norwich Cathedral.

On the 90th anniversary of Edith Cavell’s execution, completed cataloguing project of Prisoner of War files at The National Archives in Kew revealed the ineffectual efforts of government officials to prevent the death of the British World War One hero.
The documents reveal the frustration, anger and eventual horror of the Government’s failure to save Ms Cavell, despite being notified of the nurse’s arrest and subsequent trial – on charges of aiding more than 200 allied troops to escape occupied Belgium – almost two months before her execution on October 12 in Brussels.

24 August, 1915 (7 weeks before execution)?”I have news through Dutch sources that my wife’s sister a Miss Edith Cavell has been arrested in Brussels and I can get no news as to what has happened to her since August 5.” – Personal Letter from Edith Cavell’s brother-in-law, Dr Longworth Wainwright informing the Foreign Office of her possible arrest.

21 September, 1915 (3 weeks before execution)?”Ms Cavell has informed the Legation that she has indeed admitted having hidden in her house English and French soldiers. The legation will of course keep this case in view and endeavour to see that a fair trial is given Miss Cavell.” – Inter-governmental correspondence from American Minister to Brussels, Brand Whitlock, confirming Edith Cavell’s arrest. (Received on September 28).

1 October, 1915 (2 weeks before execution)?”I’m afraid it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell. I’m afraid we are powerless.” – In-house memo from Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Horace Rowland.

9 October, 1915 (3 days before execution)?”Dr Wainwright will be very grateful for any further information that may be obtained and also for instruction as to whether it is possible to communicate with or send comforts to Miss Cavell.” – Letter from Dr Wainwright. (Received October 11).

11 October, 1915 (1 day before execution)?”(Miss Cavell’s) trial has been completed and the German prosecutor has asked for sentence of death penalty against her. I have some hope that the court martial may decline to pass the rigorous sentence proposed.” – Inter-government correspondence from Brand Whitlock.
That night, at 2am on the morning of October 12, 1915, Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad, less than ten hours after sentence was passed.
Following Edith Cavell’s execution letters, reports and newspaper articles give an insight into the horror being felt at the events that took place. Included are the official report from the American Legation in Brussels on the circumstances leading up to Edith Cavell’s death; and the harrowing blow-by-blow account of their desperate efforts to save the nurse as the Germans rushed to execute her less than ten hours after sentencing.

13 October, 1915 (Execution day plus 1)

“Miss Cavell sentenced yesterday and executed at two o’clock this morning despite our best efforts continued until the last moment.” – Correspondence from US Ambassador to London, Walter Hines Page.

14 October, 1915 (Execution day plus 2)

“Dear sir, Forgive my worrying you again so soon, I had a wire dated from Holland yesterday morning, ‘Miss Edith Cavell died this morning’ from Gahan chaplain, Brussels. Have you any information on what this implies.” – Letter from Dr Wainwright.

“I had hoped that the Germans wouldn’t go beyond imprisoning her in Germany. Their action in this matter is part and parcel of their policy of frightfulness and also I venture to think a sign of weakness.” In-house memo from Sir Horace Rowland.

15 October, 1915 (Execution day plus 3)

“The Foreign Office desire to state that in this country no woman convicted of assisting the King’s enemies, even found guilty of espionage, has hitherto been subject to a greater penalty than a term of penal servitude.” – Foreign Office Press Release.

Interestingly, during the war the French shot two German nurses helping German forces escape. When asked why they didn?t publicise this for its similarities to Edith Cavell?s execution, the German High Command replied, ?Why complain? The French had a perfect right to shoot them.?

Photographic postcard of the graves of Nurse Edith Cavell (centre) and architect Philippe Baucq, Belgium.

Edith Cavell?s deification helped inspire the Allies to counter German aggression during World War I. But such exaggerations also fed the vengefulness that led to harsher surrender terms being imposed on the Germans?which some historians believe helped trigger World War II. And the subsequent backlash against Allied exaggerations during World War I undermined Allied credibility three decades later, when the ?Huns,? truly committed ?the greatest crime in history.?

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