Edith Cavell

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Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell.jpg
Edith Cavell
Born4 December 1865
Swardeston, Norfolk, England
Died12 October 1915(1915-10-12) (aged 49)
Tir national (National Shooting Range), Schaerbeek, Brussels, Belgium
Venerated in Church of England
Feast 12 October (Anglican memorial day)

Edith Louisa Cavell ( /ˈkævəl/ ; 4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested. She was accused of treason, found guilty by a court-martial and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.


The night before her execution, she said, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." These words were later inscribed on a memorial to her near Trafalgar Square. Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved." [1] The Church of England commemorates her in its Calendar of Saints on 12 October.

Cavell, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.

Early life and career

Cavell in a garden in Brussels with her two dogs before the outbreak of war Nurse Edith Cavell 1865-1915 Q32930.jpg
Cavell in a garden in Brussels with her two dogs before the outbreak of war
Cavell (seated centre) with a group of multinational student nurses whom she trained in Brussels Nurse Edith Cavell 1865-1915; Brussels Q70204.jpg
Cavell (seated centre) with a group of multinational student nurses whom she trained in Brussels

Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 [2] in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father was vicar for 45 years. [3] She was the eldest of the four children of the Reverend Frederick Cavell (1824–1910) and his wife Louisa Sophia Warming (1835–1918). Edith's siblings were; Florence Mary (b. 1867), Mary Lilian (b. 1870) and John Frederick S. (1872–1923). [2]

She was educated at Norwich High School for Girls, then boarding schools in Clevedon, Somerset and Peterborough (Laurel Court). [4]

After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels from 1890 to 1895, she returned home to care for her father during a serious illness. The experience led her to become a nurse after her father's recovery. [5] In April 1896, at the age of 30, Cavell applied to become a nurse probationer at the London Hospital [4] under Matron Eva Luckes. She worked in various hospitals in England, including Shoreditch Infirmary [6] (since renamed St Leonard's Hospital). As a private travelling nurse, treating patients in their homes, Cavell travelled to tend patients with cancer, gout, pneumonia, pleurisy, eye issues and appendicitis. [5]

Cavell was sent to assist with the typhoid outbreak in Maidstone during 1897. Along with other staff she was awarded the Maidstone Medal. [7]

In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, L'École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées (or the Berkendael Medical Institute) on the Rue de la Culture (now Rue Franz Merjay), in Ixelles, Brussels. [1] By 1910, "Miss Cavell 'felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal' and, therefore, launched the nursing journal, L'infirmière". [1] Within a year, she was training nurses for three hospitals, twenty-four schools, and thirteen kindergartens in Belgium.

When the First World War broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She returned to Brussels, where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.

Return to Brussels

Cavell had been offered a position as matron in a Brussels clinic. She worked closely with Dr Depage who was part of a "growing body of people" in the medical profession in Belgium. He realised that the care that was being provided by the religious institutions had not been keeping up with medical advances. In 1910, Cavell was asked if she would be the matron for the new secular hospital at Saint-Gilles. [8]

First World War and execution

In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Wounded British and French soldiers as well as Belgian and French civilians of military age were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers by Prince Réginald de Croÿ at his château of Bellignies near Mons. From there, they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell, Louis Séverin, and others in Brussels, where their hosts would furnish them with money to reach the Dutch frontier, and provide them with guides obtained through Philippe Baucq. [9] This placed Cavell in violation of German military law. [3] [10] German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse's actions, which were further fuelled by her outspokenness. [3]

She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She had been betrayed by Georges Gaston Quien, who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator. [11] [12] She was held in Saint-Gilles prison for ten weeks, the last two of which were spent in solitary confinement. [3] She made three depositions to the German police (on 8, 18 and 22 August), admitting that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers, as well as about 100 French and Belgian civilians of military age, to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house. [9]

At her court-martial, she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the Dutch border and eventually enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial. Cavell declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when they arrived safely in Britain. This admission confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany. [13] Her fellow defendants included Prince Reginald's sister, Princess Marie of Croÿ.

The penalty, according to German military law, was death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code determined that "at time of war, anyone who with the intention of aiding a hostile power, or of causing harm to the German or allied troops" commits any of the crimes defined in paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code "shall be punished with death for war treason". Specifically, Cavell was charged under paragraph 90 (1) no. 3 Reichsstrafgesetzbuch, for "conveying troops to the enemy", a crime normally punishable by life imprisonment in peacetime. [13] It was possible to charge Cavell with war treason as paragraph 160 of the German Military Code extended application of paragraph 58 to foreigners "present in the zone of war".

A propaganda stamp issued shortly after Cavell's death C. 1916 Edith Cavell propaganda stamp.JPG
A propaganda stamp issued shortly after Cavell's death

While the First Geneva Convention ordinarily guaranteed protection of medical personnel, that protection was forfeit if used as cover for any belligerent action. This forfeiture is expressed in article 7 of the 1906 version of the Convention, which was the version in force at the time, [14] and justified prosecution on the basis of German law.

The British government could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, "I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless." [15] Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, advised that, "Any representation by us will do her more harm than good." [15] The United States, however, had not yet joined the war and was 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. Later, he wrote: [16]

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. Count Harrach broke in at this with the rather irrelevant remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier, and his only regret was that they had not "three or four old English women to shoot."

Baron von der Lancken is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. However, General von Sauberzweig, the military governor of Brussels, ordered that "in the interests of the State" the implementation of the death penalty against Baucq and Cavell should be immediate, [9] denying higher authorities an opportunity to consider clemency. [10] [17] Cavell was defended by lawyer Sadi Kirschen from Brussels. Of the twenty-seven defendants, five were condemned to death: Cavell, Baucq (an architect in his thirties), Louise Thuliez, Séverin and Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Of the five sentenced to death, only Cavell and Baucq were executed; the other three were granted reprieve. [9]

Cavell was arrested not for espionage, as many were led to believe, but for "war treason", despite not being a German national. [3] She may have been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), and turned away from her espionage duties in order to help Allied soldiers escape, although this is not widely accepted. [18] Rankin cites the published statement of M. R. D. Foot, historian and Second World War British intelligence officer, as to Cavell having been part of SIS or MI6. [19] The former director-general of MI5, Stella Rimington, announced in 2015 that she had unearthed documents in Belgian military archives that confirmed an intelligence gathering aspect to Cavell's network. The BBC Radio 4 programme that presented Rimington's quote, noted Cavell's use of secret codes and, though amateurish, other network members' successful transmission of intelligence. [20]

When in custody, Cavell was questioned in French, but her trial was minuted in German; which some assert gave the prosecutor the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself, but responded to have channelled "environ deux cents" soldiers to the Dutch border. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor; a previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins, [3] was ultimately rejected by the governor. [17]

George Bellows, The Murder of Edith Cavell, 1918, Princeton University Art Museum Bellows, George Wesley, The Murder of Edith Cavell, 1918.jpg
George Bellows, The Murder of Edith Cavell, 1918, Princeton University Art Museum

The night before her execution, she told the Reverend H Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain of Christ Church Brussels and former member of staff at Monkton Combe School who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." [21] [22] These words are inscribed on her statue on St Martin's Place (A400),[ citation needed ] northeast of Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, 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." [23]

From his sick bed Brand Whitlock, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium, wrote a personal note on Cavell's behalf to Moritz von Bissing, the Governor-General of Belgium. Hugh Gibson; Maitre G. de Leval, the legal adviser to the United States legation; and Rodrigo Saavedra y Vinent  [ es ], 2nd Marques de Villalobar, the Spanish minister, formed a midnight deputation of appeal for mercy or at least postponement of execution. [24] Despite these efforts, on 11 October, Baron von der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed. [10] Sixteen men, forming two firing squads, carried out the sentence pronounced on her and on four Belgian men at the Tir national [3] shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 7:00 am on 12 October 1915. There are conflicting reports of the details of Cavell's execution. However, according to the eyewitness account of the Reverend Le Seur, who attended Cavell in her final hours, eight soldiers fired at Cavell while the other eight executed Baucq. [3] Her execution, certification of death, and burial were all witnessed by the German poet Gottfried Benn in his capacity as a 'Senior Doctor in the Brussels Government since the first days of the (German) occupation'. Benn wrote a detailed account titled "Wie Miss Cavell erschossen wurde" (How Miss Cavell was shot, 1928). [25]

There is also a dispute over the sentencing imposed under the German Military Code. Supposedly, the death penalty relevant to the offence committed by Cavell was not officially declared until a few hours after her death. [1] The British post-war Committee of Enquiry into Breaches of the Laws of War however regarded the verdict as legally correct. [26]

On instructions from the Spanish minister, Belgian women immediately buried her body next to Saint-Gilles Prison. [10] After the war, her body was taken back to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and then transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest at Life's Green on the east side of the cathedral. The King had to grant an exception to an Order in Council of 1854, which prevented any burials in the grounds of the cathedral, to allow the reburial. [27]

First World War propaganda

An anti-German post-First World War poster from the British Empire Union, including Cavell's grave British Empire Union WWI poster.jpg
An anti-German post-First World War poster from the British Empire Union, including Cavell's grave
The Cavell Case (1919), an American film The Cavell Case.jpg
The Cavell Case (1919), an American film
Edith Cavell (Uccle 2015), by Nathalie Lambert Edith Cavell - Uccle.jpg
Edith Cavell (Uccle 2015), by Nathalie Lambert

In the months and years following Cavell's death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicised her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain, and to help increase favourable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. She was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death. [1] Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.

News reports shortly following Cavell's execution were found to be only true in part. [3] Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell's execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad. [3] Allegedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver. [10] Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania , Cavell's execution was widely publicised in both Britain and North America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau. [28]

Because of the British government's decision to publicise Cavell's story as part of its propaganda effort, she became the most prominent British female casualty of the First World War. [17] The combination of heroic appeal and a resonant atrocity-story narrative made Cavell's case one of the most effective in British propaganda of the First World War. [28]

Before the First World War, Cavell was not well known outside nursing circles. [3] This allowed two different depictions of the truth about her in British propaganda, which were a reply to enemy attempts to justify her shooting, including the suggestion that Cavell, during her interrogation, had given information that incriminated others. In November 1915, the British Foreign Office issued a denial that Cavell had implicated anyone else in her testimony.

One image commonly represented was of Cavell as an innocent victim of a ruthless and dishonourable enemy. [17] This view depicted her as having helped Allied soldiers to escape, but innocent of 'espionage', and was most commonly used in various forms of British propaganda, such as postcards and newspaper illustrations during the war. [17] Her story was presented in the British press as a means of fuelling a desire for revenge on the battlefield. [17] These images implied that men must enlist in the armed forces immediately in order to stop forces that could arrange the judicial murder of an innocent British woman.

Another representation of a side of Cavell during the First World War saw her described as a serious, reserved, brave, and patriotic woman who devoted her life to nursing and died to save others. This portrayal has been illustrated in numerous biographical sources, from personal first-hand experiences of the Red Cross nurse. Pastor Le Seur, the German army chaplain, recalled at the time of her execution, "I do not believe that Miss Cavell wanted to be a martyr  ... but she was ready to die for her country ... Miss Cavell was a very brave woman and a faithful Christian". [3] Another account from Anglican chaplain, the Reverend Gahan, remembers Cavell's words, "I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!" [10] In this interpretation, her stoicism was seen as remarkable for a non-combatant woman, and brought her even greater renown than a man in similar circumstances would have received. [17]

German response

The Imperial German Government thought that it had acted fairly towards Cavell. In a letter, German Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Dr Alfred Zimmermann (not to be confused with Arthur Zimmermann, German Secretary for Foreign Affairs) made a statement to the press on behalf of the German government:

It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly ... It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because they were committed by women. [29]

From the perspective of the German government, had it released Cavell there might have been a surge in the number of women participating in acts against Germany because they knew they would not be severely punished. It took the view that it was up to the responsible men to follow their legal duty to Germany and ignore the world's condemnation. Its laws did not make distinctions between sexes; the only exception to this being that, according to legal customs, women in a "delicate" (probably this means "pregnant") condition should not be executed. [29] However, in January 1916, the Kaiser decreed that, from then on, capital punishment should not be carried out on women without his explicit prior endorsement. [30]

The German government also believed that all of the convicted people were thoroughly aware of the nature of their acts. The court paid particular attention to this point, releasing several people because there was doubt as to whether the accused knew that their actions were punishable. [29] The condemned, in contrast, knew full well what they were doing and the punishment for committing their crimes because "numerous public proclamations had pointed out the fact that aiding enemies’ armies was punishable with death." [29] The Allied response to this was the same as to Bethmann-Hollweg's announcement of the invasion of Belgium, or the notice given in the papers of intent to sink such ships as the RMS Lusitania; to make a public proclamation of a thing does not make it right.

Burial and memorials

Memorial to Cavell outside Norwich Cathedral Edith Cavell monument.JPG
Memorial to Cavell outside Norwich Cathedral
XII - Execution of Edith Cavell, one of 14 paintings on Cavell by Brian Whelan in Norwich Cathedral XII Execution of Edith Cavell painting by Brian Whelan 2015.jpg
XII – Execution of Edith Cavell, one of 14 paintings on Cavell by Brian Whelan in Norwich Cathedral
Detail of the Edith Cavell Memorial, St Martin's Place, London Edith Cavel Memorial - statue.jpg
Detail of the Edith Cavell Memorial, St Martin's Place, London
War memorial in Rue Colonel Bourg, Schaerbeek including Cavell's name Schaerbeek Rue Colonel Bourg Enclos des fusilles 02.jpg
War memorial in Rue Colonel Bourg, Schaerbeek including Cavell's name
Monument to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage, Brussels Monument Cavell-Depage Bxl.JPG
Monument to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage, Brussels
Interior of the Cavell Van at Bodiam railway station CavellVanQEIIJ60.jpg
Interior of the Cavell Van at Bodiam railway station

Cavell's remains were returned to Britain after the war. As the ship bearing the coffin arrived in Dover, a full peal of Grandsire Triples (5040 Changes, Parker's Twelve-Part) was rung on the bells of the parish church. The peal was notable: "Rung with the bells deeply muffled with the exception of the Tenor which was open at back stroke, in token of respect to Nurse Cavell, whose body arrived at Dover during the ringing and rested in the town till the following morning. The ringers of 1-2-3-4-5-6 are ex-soldiers, F. Elliot having been eight months Prisoner of War in Germany." Deep (or full) muffling is normally only used for the deaths of sovereigns. [31] A peal using the same method, with the bells half muffled, was rung for the centenary of her repatriation. [32] After an overnight pause in the parish church the body was conveyed to London and a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. On 19 May 1919, her body was reburied at the east side of Norwich Cathedral; a graveside service is still held each October. [33] The railway van known as the Cavell Van that conveyed her remains from Dover to London is kept as a memorial on the Kent and East Sussex Railway and is usually open to view at Bodiam railway station.

In the Church of England's calendar of saints, the day appointed for the commemoration of Cavell is 12 October. This is a memorial in her honour rather than formal canonisation, and so not a "saint's feast day" in the traditional sense.

Following Cavell's death, many memorials were created around the world to remember her. A patriotic song, "Remember Nurse Cavell" (words by Gordon V. Thompson, music by Jules Brazil) appeared with 1915 British copyright. The name Mount Edith Cavell was given in 1916 to a massive peak in Canada's Jasper National Park. A memorial statue was unveiled on 12 October 1918 by Queen Alexandra in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, during the opening of a home for nurses, which also bore her name. [34]

To commemorate her centenary in 2015, work went ahead to restore Cavell's grave in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral after being awarded a £50,000 grant. [35] Fourteen paintings by Brian Whelan were commissioned by Norwich Cathedral to commemorate the life and death of Edith Cavell. [36]

During October 2015, a railway carriage (Cavell Van) used to transport Cavell's body back to the United Kingdom was on display outside the Forum, Norwich. [37] Norwich Cathedral held a memorial service, performed live on BBC Radio 4 on 11 October 2015. In addition to cathedral clergy, guests such as General Richard Dannatt, and actress Matilda Ziegler performed various spoken vignettes organised by Canon Peter Doll. Anto Morra sang unaccompanied his "Edith Louisa Cavell" lyrics to a tune written by Percy Paradise. [38]

The centenary was marked by two new musical compositions:

Cavell was featured on a UK commemorative £5 coin, part of a set issued in 2015 by the Royal Mint to mark the centenary of the war. [40]


Films, plays and television

Advertisement for The Woman the Germans Shot The Woman the Germans Shot.jpg
Advertisement for The Woman the Germans Shot


See also

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Further reading