Edith Louisa Cavell was born on 4 December, 1865 in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, England, where her father was vicar for 45 years. After a period as a governess, she trained as a nurse at the London Hospital and worked in various hospitals in England. In 1907, she was recruited to be the matron of a newly established nursing school in Belgium. By 1910, Miss Cavell launched a nursing journal and a year later was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk, England. She returned to Belgium, where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.
After the German occupation of Brussels in November 1914, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funneling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Wounded British and French soldiers and civilians of military age were given false papers and sent through various guides to the houses of Cavell and others in Brussels, where they were given money and guides to reach the Dutch frontier. This placed Cavell in violation of German law, which made German authorities increasingly suspicious of both her actions and outspokenness.
On August 3, 1915, Cavell was arrested and charged with harboring Allied soldiers. She had been betrayed by a man who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator. She was held in a prison for 10 weeks, the last two of which were in solitary confinement. She made three depositions to the German police admitting her role in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers and about 100 French and Belgians of military age to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house.
In her court-martial she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and eventually enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial, and stated that the soldiers she had helped escape had thanked her in writing after their safe arrival in Britain. The penalty, according to German military law, was death.
While the first Geneva Convention ordinarily guaranteed the protection of medical personnel, the protection was forfeit if used as a cover for any belligerent action. The British government could do nothing to help her, but since the U.S. was not yet in the war, they were in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the U.S. legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany's already damaged reputation. He later wrote:
We reminded [German civil governor Baron von der Lancken] of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania and told him that this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilised countries with horror and disgust.
Despite not being a German national, Cavell was arrested not for espionage but for treason. When in custody, she was questioned in French but minuted in German, which gave the interrogator the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Despite this, she made no attempt to defend herself.
The night before her execution, she told the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her that, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain were recorded as, "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."
At 7:00 AM on October 12, 1915, sixteen men forming two firing squads carried out the sentence pronounced on Edith Cavell and four other Belgian men at the Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek.
In the months and years following her death, she became an iconic propaganda figure due to her sex, nursing profession, and heroic approach to death. Her death was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.
|A poster showing Edith Cavell|
|A stamp commemorating her death|
|A postcard featuring Cavell's story|
|Her story was used extensively for recruitment|
As part of the ceremony for the centenary of her death, a bust in her honor was unveiled in the park of Mountjoie in Uccle, Belgium by the city's mayor, as well as Princess Anne of Britain and Princess Astrid of Belgium.
Among many other memorials around the world in her honor, the one in Paris was ordered to be destroyed by Adolf Hitler during his 1940 visit to the city.
100 years later, the story of Edith Cavell still incites a sentiment of grave injustice and a cold absence of humanity. However, her bold sense of duty and profound bravery in the face of death remain just as enduring. In this day and age, it seems hard to imagine such an act of absolute selflessness, but as long as her story is told, there are small pieces of Edith Cavell still alive in this world.
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