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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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:
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.
A large statue to Edith Cavell is in London, near Trafalgar Square. It says:
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
OCTOBER 12th 1915
PATRIOTISM IS NOT ENOUGH
I MUST HAVE NO HATRED OR
BITTERNESS FOR ANYONE
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.