Edith Louisa Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915)
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 of 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.’
Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, near Norwich. Her father was a priest in the Anglican church; the religious faith that she was brought up with, was to provide an important influence on her life. In 1900, she trained to be a nurse at the London hospital. In 1907, she was recruited to be the matron of a new nursing school in Brussels. This was a period of growth in the prestige and importance of nursing; a period which began with Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War.
In 1910, Miss Cavell began one of the first nursing journals, L’infirmiere, this documented good nursing practises 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.”
Edith Cavell – First World War
In 1914, the First World War broke out. At the time, Miss Cavell was in England, but she moved back to Belgium to her hospital which was later taken over by the Red Cross. As part of the German Schlieffen plan, the Germans invaded Belgium and in late 1914, Brussels was under a very strict German military occupation.
Many British soldiers had been left 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, some 200 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
In mid-1915, nurse Edith Cavell came under suspicion for helping allied servicemen to escape; this was not helped by her outspoken views on her perceived injustice of the occupation.
In August 1915, she was arrested and held in St Gilles prison. After her arrest, she did not try to defend herself but only said in her defence that she felt compelled to help the people in need.
After a short trial, the German military tribunal found her guilty of treason and sentenced her to execution. This surprised many observers as it seemed harsh given her honesty and fact she had saved many lives both Allied and German.
Brand Whitlock, the US minister to Belgium and the Spanish Minister, ‘The Marquis de Villalobar’, made representations to the German High Command asking her sentence of death be commuted. In particular, the US minister warned the Germans that this execution of a nurse would damage Germany’s already bad reputation and would be seen as an injustice in the eyes of the world.
However, the protestations from the Spanish and American embassies were in vain, the German officer in charge – Count Harrach, dismissed the pleas saying ‘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.‘
Execution of Nurse Edith Cavell
For two weeks prior to her execution, Miss Cavell, was kept in solitary confinement, except for a few brief visits. On the night before her execution, she was visited by the Reverend Stirling Gahan, an Anglican chaplain. 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.”
The following morning she was executed with other Belgians convicted on similar charges.
There are conflicting reports of her execution. But, in one report, a German soldier is said to have refused to execute Miss Cavell and was shot by his commanding officer. However, this account is refuted by Pasteur Le Seur who was at the execution.
In some misleading allied propaganda, Edith Cavell was reported to have fainted with fear and refused to wear a blindfold, after which she was shot in the head by a German officer. This was found to be untrue.
Edith Cavell and War Propaganda
After her execution, the fate of Edith Cavell was widely publicised in the British and American media. It was shown as more evidence of German brutality and injustice. Edith Cavell was portrayed as a heroic and innocent figure who remained steadfast in her Christian faith and willingness to die for her country. It was hoped her example would encourage more men to enlist.
The incident and the disgust at her treatment by the German military played an important role in shaping American public opinion and easing America’s entry into the war, later in 1917.
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.’
After the war, her body was returned to Westminster Abbey for a state burial. Her body was later buried in Norwich Cathedral.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Edith Cavell”, Oxford, UK. www.biographyonline.net. Published 30 November 2010. Last updated 13 April 2020.
- Edith Cavell WWI Nurse – Fatal Decision at Amazon by Terri Arthur.
People of the First World War (1914 to 1918) The principal figures involved in the First World War from Germany, Britain, US and the rest of the world. Includes David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, the Kaiser and George Clemenceau.
Great Briton list – Top 100 famous Britons as voted by a BBC poll. Including Winston Churchill, William Shakespeare, Thomas Cromwell and Queen Elizabeth I.
Famous female spies – Female spies who risked their lives to enter enemy territory. Including many spies who volunteered for SOE and work for the French resistance in the second world war.
Humanitarians – Famous people who have offered charitable service to others, including Mother Teresa, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale and Princess Diana.