Category: First World War

Edith Cavell: British Nurse Shot by the Germans for Treason, 1915

By , April 19, 2010 3:26 am


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


The words of Edith Cavell, spoken on 11th October 1915, the day before she was shot for treason by the Kaiser’s army.

Miss Cavell, the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman, had worked as a nurse, and matron of a hospital, in Belgium.

Once the First World War started,  she returned from holiday at her mother’s home to her hospital in Brussels, and stayed there.

She nursed soldiers from Belgium, Germany, and Allied countries, and assisted British soldiers to escape occupied Belgium.

Edith Cavell as a governess in Belgium in the 1890s

Edith Cavell as a governess in Belgium in the 1890s

In August 1915, Edith Cavell was arrested for treason (rather than espionage or spying) and shot 10 weeks later, despite protests from neutral governments, including the USA.

Her death and actions during the war lead to her being admired and praised in her native country. Memorials were erected, a state funeral conducted, and she was venerated by the Church of England.

Her death was also a valuable source of propaganda for the British government, and they made full use of it.

Edith Cavell’s childhood and family

Edith Louisa Cavell was born on 4th December 1865 in Swardeston, Norfolk.

Her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell, was a Church of England vicar, who held the living in Swardeston for 46 years in total, starting in 1863.

The vicar and his wife, Louisa Sophia Cavell, had 4 children in total. Edith was the oldest, followed by Florence, Lilian and John.

A watercolour painted by Edith Cavell

A watercolour painted by Edith Cavell

Edith appears to have had an upbringing that was in many ways typical for her age and class. She enjoyed tennis and dancing.

She was interested in nature, and painting and drawing. A number of examples of her work survive, such as the one to the right of this text.

Edith was educated at home  until she was about 14 or 15 years old. She then attended Norwich High School for Girls for a short time, followed by 3 years spent in a variety of boarding schools.

Edith Cavell’s early working life

Edith was good at French, and after working as a governess in several English families, went to work for a family in Brussels when she was 24 years old, in 1890.

In 1896, Edith Cavell started her nursing training.  It was hard work – the hours were 7am to 9pm, 6 days a week a half-hour break for lunch, and the pay was £10 a year plus room and food (about £900 in today’s money).

Edith Cavell and student nurses at 'L'École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées' (The Belgian School of Registered Nurses)

Edith Cavell and student nurses at 'L'École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées' (The Belgian School of Registered Nurses)

Edith Cavell finished her 3 years of training, and became a nurse. She worked, from 1899, in a series of Poor Law institutions and hospitals, in St. Pancras and Shoreditch, in London, and then in Manchester.

Return to Belgium

In 1907, Edith Cavell was invited by a Belgium doctor, Dr. Depage,  to set up a training programme for secular nurses in Belgium; before that date, most nurses in the country were nuns.

Edith set up and ran the L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées (Belgian School of Registered Nurses) in Brussels. She was also involved with Dr. Depage’s clinic, and lectured on modern nursing in other institutions.

The First World War

When war broke out in August 1914, Edith Cavell was enjoying her summer holiday with her mother, in Norfolk. She cut it short, saying that she was needed at her clinics in Brussels, and returned forthwith to Belgium.

Edith Cavell and Dr. Depage with their nurses at the Red Cross Clinic

Edith Cavell and Dr. Depage with their nurses at the Red Cross Clinic

Her nurses were told by Edith of their duty to treat all patients, whether Belgium, German, French or English, in exactly the same way.

When Brussels fell, 7 weeks later, the German Army took over the hospital for the treatment of their own wounded soldiers. Most English nurses were sent home, but Edith Cavell remained, as a Red Cross matron at the hospital.

Edith Cavell then became involved in an underground group, which protected Allied soldiers and smuggled them out via Holland. At least 200 soldiers escaped in this way.

She continued throughout her time at the hospital to nurse German wounded men to the best of her ability, and kept her other activities a secret from the nurses under her command, so as to protect them.

Edith Cavell: A British propaganda poster

Edith Cavell: A British propaganda poster

On 4th August 1915, a year and a day after her return to Brussels, Edith Cavell was arrested by the German Army. She was interrogated, and told that her fellow-conspirators had confessed to what she and the organisation had been doing.

That was not true, but an inherently truthful woman herself, she believed them, and admitted her part in the organisation.  She was tried, and admitted at the trial her part in assisting allied soldiers to escape German-occupied territory.

The trial was held on 7th October 1915, less than 5 days before Edith Cavell was executed. The death sentence was actually passed by the court less than 12 hours before she was killed.

The charge of “treason” looks very odd to my eyes – she was not  a German national, and owed no loyalty to the Kaiser’s government, but was nevertheless convicted of the offence and sentenced to death.

It may be the case that Edith Cavell was actually a British spy, working for MI6. That was suggested by Nicholas Rankin in his book A genius for deception, how cunning helped the British win two world wars, published in 2008. But she wasn’t accused at the time of such spying, nor did she confess to it. Her trial and death sentence related only to the escape of the soldiers.

Attempts to save Edith Cavell from execution

Edith Cavell's temporary grave in Brussels, 1915 to 1919

Edith Cavell's temporary grave in Brussels, 1915 to 1919

Papers released in 2005 show that the British government was divided. Some thought that the Germans would not shoot a nurse who had looked after German soldiers.

Others feared for her life, but thought nothing could be done to help her. Sir Horace Rowland from the Foreign and Empire Office wrote,  “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell, I am afraid we are powerless.”

Lord Robert Cecil agreed, writing “Any representation by us will do her more harm than good.”  More details of the 2005 papers can be found in this article from The Guardian newspaper.

The German governor of occupied Belgium, Baron von der Lancken, opposed the death sentence.

The governments of neutral countries, including the USA, Spain and Holland, all made urgent representations via their local representatives. The American First Secretary later wrote:

We reminded him (Baron von der Lancken) of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach [local military commander] broke in at this with the remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to one of the humblest German soldiers, and his only regret was that they had not “three or four English old women to shoot”.

Letters sent by the Americans to the Germans in relation to Edith Cavell can be found here.


The execution and burial

An Italian postcard showing the trial of Edith Cavell (some artistic licence taken......)

An Italian postcard showing the trial of Edith Cavell (some artistic licence taken......)

The German Army was in a hurry, to make sure their verdict was not over-ruled. The execution, by firing squad, was fixed for 12th October 1915. Edith Cavell was executed early in the morning, together with four Belgian co-conspirators. Her last words were:

Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country

Edith Cavell's coffin arriving at Norwich Cathedral, May 1919

Edith Cavell's coffin arriving at Norwich Cathedral, May 1919

Here is a link to the English translation of the account written by Pasteur Le Suer, the clergyman who spent time with Edith Cavell the day before her execution, and who accompanied her to the firing squad and witnessed her death and burial.

At the end of the execution, he wrote:

A few minutes later the coffins were lowered into the graves, and I prayed over Edith Cavell’s grave, and invoked the Lord’s blessing over her poor corpse. Then I went home, almost sick in my soul.

Edith Cavell was buried next to the place where she was shot. After the end of the First World War, her coffin was exhumed and brought back to England.

A state funeral was held in Westminster Abbey on 15th May 1919, but according to her family’s wishes, her coffin was taken  to Norwich Cathedral, and she was buried for the last time there on 19th May 1919.

A service is held at her graveside every October, on the nearest Sunday to the date of her death.

Memorials and Propaganda

The Imperial War Museum in London holds documents relating to Edith Cavell, including her diary from 1914 and 1915, and letters she wrote to her mother and others. The relevant page on their website can be found here.

The shooting of a 49 year old nurse, who had looked after enemy soldiers to the best of her ability, shocked people around the world.

In England, the execution was a huge news story, and the government did not hesitate to use it as anti-German propaganda.

Outrage, and sentiment, were also widespread in Belgium, Italy and France, where series of postcards were issued, depicting (with a liberal use of imagination) the scenes of Edith Cavell’s arrest, trial and execution.

The public was also shocked in neutral countries, such as Spain and America, and Edith Cavell became a martyr.

Brand Whitlock, for example, who was an American diplomat based in Belgium in 1915, wrote of Edith Cavell’s arrest, trial and execution:

King George V and Queen Mary visiting Edith Cavell's grave

King George V and Queen Mary visiting Edith Cavell's grave

These so-called courts, of whose arbitrary and irresponsible and brutal nature I have tried to give some notion, were mere inquisitorial bodies, guided by no principle save that inherent in their own bloody nature; they did as they pleased, and would have scorned a Jeffrys as too lenient, a Lynch as too formal, a Spanish auto do fé as too technical, and a tribunal of the French Revolution as soft and sentimental.

Before them the accused had literally no rights; he could not even, as a right, present a defence, and if he was permitted to speak in his own behalf it was only as a generous and liberal favour.

Which does not represent a ringing endorsement of the German legal system.

Enlistment went up sharply – more than double the number of men enlisted in the British Army in the months after she died, compared with the same period before her execution.

Stone memorials and statues were erected in her memory, in Norwich, London, Manchester, Peterborough, and many other places, both in the UK and in the Commonwealth.

Schools, hospitals, roads, pubs, scholarships, mountains and roses were all named Edith Cavell in her memory. The Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum has a page about her here, including a colour portrait.

Edith Cavell statue in London

Edith Cavell statue in London

A large statue to Edith Cavell is in London, near Trafalgar Square. It says:





OCTOBER 12th 1915




Edith Cavell is venerated by the Church of England, and her Holy Day is 12th October.


She did not see herself as a martyr or saint. She said instead that she was,  a nurse who tried to do her duty.




American and Empire Soldiers in England during the First World War – Picture Gallery

By , February 7, 2010 4:29 am

As well as British, French, German, Italian and Russian soldiers, men from all over the world fought in the First World War.

This collection of photographs (all in the public domain) show troops from America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and India, in the UK before leaving for the fighting front – mostly in France, but others went to the other fronts, too.

Rudyard Kipling: how the great writer’s son Jack died in the WWI trenches

By , June 22, 2009 5:29 am

Rudyard Kipling was one of the great Victorian and Edwardian writers. With a fluent voice, keen social eye and gift for story-telling, generations have enjoyed his Just So Stories, The Jungle Book, Kim, and poems such as If, Tommy, Mandalay and Gunga Din.

His career soared high, and he became the first English-speaker to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1907, and the youngest person yet to be awarded it.

He was offered both a Knighthood and the post of Poet Laureate, and turned both down.

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

Rudyard Kipling in 1914

And then came the horrors of the First World War, the trenches, the vast numbers of casualties, the slaughter of a generation of young men in the new era of machine guns, shells, poison gas and grenades.

And among the dead of the War was Kipling’s only son, Jack, killed in the Battle of Loos at the age of 18.

This article is about Rudyard Kipling’s life, and about “My Son Jack”, the teenager who wasn’t fit for military service, but nevertheless died young in the trenches of the First World War. At the end of the article, you will find links to free versions of Kipling’s work online and for Kindle.


Kipling’s early life

Rudyard Kipling was born in Bombay, India, in 1865, and lived there until he was 6 years old. As a young child, his Hindi was more fluent than his English, and the influence of India on his life and writings is very clear.

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

Malabar Point, Bombay. This photograph was taken in 1865, the year Rudyard Kipling was born

At the age of 6, Rudyard and his sister were sent to live in England, while their parents remained in India. He went to school in England.

At the age of 16, Kipling returned by ship to Bombay, and travelled by train to Lahore (now in Pakistan) where his parents had moved to. The importance of his return to the city of his birth is made clear by his later statement,

There were yet three or four days’ rail to Lahore, where my people lived. After these, my English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.

Kipling worked in Lahore, and then Allahabad, from 1882 until 1889, when he returned to London.


Kipling’s marriage and family

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

Josephine Kipling, in 1895

In 1892, Kipling, then 26, married Carrie Balestier, who was 3 years his elder.

They moved to Vermont, in the United States of America, and lived there for 4 years, before returning to England to live in Devon.

The couple had 3 children, Josephine, born in 1892, Elsie, born in 1896, and John (known as Jack) born in 1897.

Josephine died of pneumonia in 1899, aged 6.


Kipling’s Writing – a very brief summary

Kipling wrote for children and adults, and composed a huge variety of prose, poetry, and non-fiction history and literary analysis. Among his best-known works are:

For children:

  • The Just So Stories
  • The Jungle Book


  • Kim
  • Stalkey & Co


  • Tommy
  • My Boy Jack
  • The White Man’s Burden
  • If-
  • Mandalay
  • Gunga Din
  • The Female of the Species
  • The Last of the Light Brigade
  • For All We Have and Are


Rudyard Kipling’s son Jack

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Rudyard Kipling in his study, in about 1895

Jack Kipling seems to have been an amiable, sociable, like-able boy, but not to have taken after his father in intellectual or cultural terms. He had to have a lot of coaching in order to pass the entrance exams for secondary school.

At the age of 14, Jack hadn’t read any of his father’s work himself, although books such as the Just So Stories had been written for, and read to, Kipling’s children.

It wasn’t teenage rebellion, though. Father and son had a very close relationship, and the letters which survive between them show a real affection and closeness.

There are quite a lot of letters, as Jack (typically for boys from his type of family at the time) was at boarding school, and therefore away from his parents a lot of the time.

Kipling’s best known poem, If- was written for Jack when the boy was about 12 years old, to instruct him in what being a man was all about.

Jack suffered from very poor eye-sight, and had to wear very thick glasses to be able to see anything at all.

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, Jack (then only aged 17) was desperate to join up and “thrash the Hun”. But when he tried to volunteer, he was turned down because of his poor vision.

His eye-sight was terrible; he couldn’t even read the second line on a standard optician’s chart without glasses.

He turned to his father for help, and Rudyard Kipling pulled strings among his military friends. Jack was enlisted as a trainee officer, still under age. Officers were supposed to be at least 18 years old, in order legally to join up.

He trained as a Subaltern in the Irish Guards, and on completion of his preliminary training, was then posted to France. Just after his arrival, he wrote to his father:

Dear F -
Just a hurried line as we start off tonight. The front line trenches are nine miles off from here so it won’t be a very long march. This is THE great effort to break through & end the war.

The guns have been going deafeningly all day, without a single stop. We have to push through at all costs so we won’t have much time in the trenches, which is great luck.

Funny to think one will be in the thick of it tomorrow.

One’s first experience of shell fire not in the trenches but in the open.  This is one of the advantages of a Flying Division, you have to keep moving.  We marched 18 miles last night in the pouring wet.  It came down in sheets steadily.  They are staking a tremendous lot on this great advancing movement as if it succeeds the war won’t go on for long.  You have no idea what enormous issues depend on the next few days.

This will be my last letter most likely for some time as we won’t get any time for writing this next week, but I will try & send Field post cards.


The Battle of Loos

This was the eve of the Battle of Loos. The Battle was fought over 3 days in September 1915, and represented a victory for the Allied Forces – but one bought at a terrible cost, and paid for in blood. The British Army suffered 50,000 casualties. Jack’s regiment of the Irish Guards suffered particularly badly, with an 80% casualty rate from just this one short battle.

And the victory didn’t last, either, as a few weeks later the Germans counter-attacked and drove the British Army back to where they had started.

Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the future Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, died at Loos.

And so did John Kipling. The letter above was his last, as he was killed on the third day, 27th September 1915.

Accounts of how he died varied; Rudyard Kipling spend years investigating after the war, and interviewed hundreds of other soldiers. He was either shot by a machine gun, or had the side of his head blown away by a shell. Either way, he was dead, and his body was never definitely recovered. He had just turned 18 at the time of his death.


Rudyard Kipling’s guilt

Had it not been for his intervention, Kipling’s son Jack would not have been in the trenches in the first place. And Kipling knew it, writing in a poem after the end of the First World War, ”

If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied

He wrote a much-admired two-volume history of the Irish Guards, his son’s regiments; he also wrote the almost unbearably poignant poem, My Boy Jack. The final verse of this poem:

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!


Kipling’s work with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Duhallow Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. The series of crosses, with one Jewish Star of David, can be seen.

Kipling became an influential member of the Commission (then called the Imperial War Graves Commission, later renamed), which established the standard gravestone of Portland stone, seen all over northern France and Belgium.

He was particularly concerned that Hindu, Jewish and Muslim troops were remembered in ways suitable and compatible with their religion and culture.

It was Kipling who came up with the phrase “”Their Name Liveth For Evermore” for memorial stones, and “Known unto God”, for the graves of those soldiers who bodies couldn’t be identified.


Later Life

Kipling died in London in 1936, and has no descendants today.  The only one of his children who made it past the age of 18, Elsie, died childless in 1970.


Accessing Rudyard Kipling’s poetry and prose

Because Kipling’s work is now out of copyright, it is possible to find free versions of both his poetry and his stories online. There are also Kindle versions.


There are many versions of Kipling’s work available free online, as well. Here are a few examples:

The wonderful novel Kim, available from Bibliomania CLICK HERE

The charming, whimsical Just So Stories, with MP3 versions available for streaming CLICK HERE

The 1911 novel Puck of Pook’s Hill CLICK HERE

And a selection of poetry, Departmental Ditties and Other Verses CLICK HERE

There is a great selection of books, DVDs etc also on Amazon (this lot is sadly not free).



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