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Just a nurse ‘who did her duty’

02 October 2015

Edith Cavell was executed 100 years ago. A vicar’s daughter, her faith was at the heart of all she did, writes Diana Souhami

wiki/british library/copyright no 38186

Her name lives on: Nurse Cavell by C. H. Johnson

Her name lives on: Nurse Cavell by C. H. Johnson

MONDAY 12 October 2015 is the centenary of Edith Cavell’s execution. One hundred years ago, at dawn, she was taken from a cell in St Gilles prison, in Brussels, where she had been in solitary confinement for ten weeks, to a shooting range, the Tir National, and shot by soldiers the occupying German army.

The commanding officer told members of the firing squad that they need have no qualms about shooting this woman; for she was not a mother, and her crimes were heinous.

These crimes were to have housed Allied soldiers who had been wounded or separated from their regiments in the battlefields of the First World War; nursed them; then, with a network of other resistance workers, guided them across the Belgian border to freedom in neutral Holland. Her motivation was to alleviate their suffering, save their lives, and resist the hated enemy. If captured, these soldiers would have been shot, or sent as prisoners to Germany.

Cavell was deemed a criminal. Her contempt for Germany’s assault on Belgium, the undefended country where she worked, and its invasion in pursuit of an evil plan of world domination, turned her — a devout Christian, dedicated nurse, public servant, and law-abiding citizen — into a subversive.

“I am but a looker-on after all,” she wrote in 1914 to her mother in Norfolk. “It is not my country whose soul is desecrated, and whose sacred places are laid waste. I can only feel the pity of the stranger within the gates, and admire the courage of a people enduring a long and terrible agony.”


IT WAS not Cavell’s way to be a looker-on when people were suffering. A pioneering nurse, she was as ground-breaking in her contribution to health care as Florence Nightingale. For late-Victorian women, opportunities were scant, but Cavell had championed nursing as a noble profession, and did much to change the perception that it was a lowly job for unqualified carers.

She trained at the flagship London Hospital under its matron Eva Luckes, her mentor and role-model. She worked for a decade in Britain in all branches of nursing, then, seven years before the start of the First World War, went to Brussels at the invitation of the Belgian royal surgeon, Dr Antoine Depage. He wanted her to set up the country’s first ever secular training school for nurses.

She built up the new school from scratch: she oversaw building works, recruited and trained probationers, instructed all domestic staff, supervised the care of patients, gave lectures, and did all the accounting and administrative work. Her school became a model of good practice, with a reputation for high standards of training and provision.

Depage, in a lecture in 1913, described it as “the benchmark for nursing standards in Belgium”. Cavell’s nurses staffed provincial hospitals and private clinics, and worked for general practitioners and in schools. Work began on a new, state-of-the-art, hospital and training school, of which she was to be head matron.

Nursing, Cavell taught her probationers, was “a great and honourable profession”, through which could be found “the widest social reform, the purest philanthropy, the truest humanity”. In lectures, she spoke of her belief in the sanctity of life, and the vocation of doing good. The goals of nursing, she taught, were to safeguard life, attend the sick and wounded, and allay suffering.

Good nurses were, she said, “the handmaids of that science which not only assuages and heals the suffering of today, but reaches on through ever-widening circles to the dawn of perfect manhood, when disease shall be unknown because the laws which scientists discover, and which they help to teach, shall have banished it”.


CAVELL’s Christian belief was at the core of her striving for a brave new world. She was a vicar’s daughter, born in 1865 into rural life in the leafy Norfolk village of Swardeston. Her father, the Revd Frederick Cavell, imposed his authority on the household. Each morning, at eight, he held family prayers. Sundays were unrelenting.

In her teens, Cavell wrote to her cousin Eddy: “I’d love to have you visit, but not on a Sunday. It’s too dreadful. Sunday school, church services, family devotions morning and evening. And father’s sermons are so dull.”

She acquired the habits of self-discipline and service, but resolved to live the essence of Christianity, not study the theory. Her own inspiration came not from the Old Testament, but from Thomas à Kempis’s spiritual manual The Imitation of Christ. That was the book from which she took guidance. In her prison cell, she underscored the precepts that resonated for her and gave her courage. “Vanity it is to aspire to live long but not to live well” was one of them.

The 1914 war brought a tide of carnage. When German troops marched into Brussels, Cavell did not consider leaving the city. She, like many others, expected that the British Expeditionary Force would drive them back within six weeks. “We were full of enthusiasm for the war, and full of confidence in the Allies,” she wrote that August in a piece for the Nursing Mirror.

This short war, she thought, would be a new challenge to her nursing capability. Her expectation was that her hospital, under the Red Cross flag and the rules of the Geneva Convention, would be the centre of care for both Allied and German soldiers. “Any wounded soldier”, she told her nurses, “must be treated, friend or foe. Each man is a father, husband, or son.” As nurses, they must take no part in the quarrel. Their work was for humanity.


THE war was neither swift nor contained. Within months, life in Brussels became brutal: there were the sudden disappearances and arrests of civilians, random killings, the censorship of post and journalism, surveillance, curfews, the requisition of property, shortages of coal and food, and house raids by the secret police. She described the atmosphere as medieval.

Nor could she work as a war nurse. The occupying army staffed their own hospitals, and either shot wounded Allied soldiers or sent them to Germany as prisoners.

Many people left Brussels, and there was scant hospital care for civilians. Cavell’s work changed. Each day, from the school, she gave food and clothes to children in need. She herself lived on a pittance. When two wounded British soldiers were brought to her door at night, she hid them, gave them shelter and nursing care, then arranged false papers, disguises, guides, and safe houses to get them to freedom.

This work escalated, and she became a central figure in a large resistance network that helped fugitive soldiers to escape. It was work that became increasingly dangerous as the numbers of men needing help escalated.

In June 1915, routinely and without warning, the school was searched. Cavell destroyed evidence. On 5 October, she was arrested and interrogated.

A mockery of a trial followed: in two days, without proper legal representation, 22 men and 13 women were variously charged with having conveyed soldiers to the enemy, circulated seditious pamphlets, illegally transmitted letters, or concealed arms.

Cavell, one of the main defendants, was the only English citizen, and, as such, the most reviled. In court, to her disadvantage, she chose to wear civilian clothes, not her matron’s uniform. She said that she was on trial as herself, not as a nurse. Only she and one Belgian citizen, Philippe Baucq, were given the death penalty.


THE night before she was executed, the Revd H. Stirling Gahan, the priest from the Anglican church where she worshipped, went to her cell to administer holy communion. She expressed more concern for the fate of her nurses and the new training school than for herself.

“I have no fear or shrinking,” she told him. “I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me . . . But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

She asked him to pass farewell letters of love and encouragement to the prison governor, to be given to her nurses and to her mother. “We shall remember you as a heroine and a martyr,” Gahan told her. “Don’t think of me like that,” she replied. “Think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”

Her execution provoked public outrage. Calumny was heaped on Germany. The British government exploited her death as propaganda: “Remember Edith Cavell” became an army recruitment slogan. Recruitment doubled for eight weeks, and American neutrality towards the war waned.

She became a national heroine. The Edith Cavell War Memorial Committee was formed. The Lord Mayor, the Bishop of London, the chairman of London County Council, and the owner of The Daily Telegraph were on its all-male board. The committee asked her family how they would best like her remembered. “No monuments,” her sister said, and suggested a home for retired nurses.

It was an irony that more commemorative monuments were then raised to her worldwide than to any other woman caught up in the First World War. In central London, Sir George Frampton was commissioned to sculpt a ten-foot-high marble statue of her, incorporated in a granite column, to stand close to Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. At its apex was chiselled: “For King and Country”. Draped in the English and Belgian flags, it was unveiled with pomp at the war’s end.

The National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, which campaigned for women’s rights, complained that the essence of Cavell was missing from this monument. In 1923, they asked for her dying words about patriotism and hatred to be added to it. Ramsay MacDonald, when Prime Minister, authorised this in 1924.


IN THIS centenary year of her execution, tributes to Cavell include a Cavell festival in Swardeston, the village where she was born, commemorative services in Norwich and Peterborough Cathedrals, and a “Cavell fortnight” of exhibitions and events in Norfolk.

In Brussels, there are the world première of an opera dedicated to her; an exhibition of paintings about her; and a commemoration in her honour at the Belgian Senate.

Her name lives on. Hospital wards, streets, and schools are named after her. There are an Edith Cavell car park in Peterborough; an Edith Cavell corona on the planet Jupiter; and a mountain at the Jasper National Park in Canada.

Beyond and above such tributes, however, 100 years after her death and in the light of 70 years of relative peace in Europe, there is closer attention to the true message of her life and work: the obligation to save life, not to take it; caution about patriotic fervour; and an awareness of the misery, not the glory, of war.

There is also a better remembrance of the part she played as a true public servant, a nurse who went beyond the call of duty, and a woman motivated by love.


Diana Souhami is the author of Edith Cavell: Nurse, martyr, heroine (Centenary Reissue) published by Quercus, £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10).

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