Edith Louisa Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in the vicarage at Swardeston, a village located approximately 5 miles south of Norwich, Norfolk. She was the eldest of 4 children, their Father being the local vicar. All his children were taught the principles which their Father held dear: thought for others, self-sacrifice and prayer. Edith was taught by her Father at home, as he was unable to afford either a Governess or a private tutor.
During her teenage years, Edith went to a school called Laurel Court, operated by a Miss Margaret Gibson. During her time at the school, Edith became so proficient in French, that Miss Gibson recommended Edith to the Francois family in Brussels, as a governess to their family. Edith enjoyed her new position, but she felt that as the children were now grown up she required a greater challenge.
In 1895, Edith’s Father became seriously ill and she returned to Swardeston to nurse him. The experience of nursing her Father convinced Edith that a career in nursing would provide the sort of profession that she was endeavouring to locate. In 1896, after her Father died, Edith entered the London Hospital Nurses’ Training School. She completed the course, and in 1901 she transferred to the St. Pancras Infirmary as a Night Supervisor. Three years later she transferred to the Shoreditch Infirmary to take up the duties of Assistant Matron.
During 1906, a Belgian surgeon called Antoine Depage, was attempting to establish a non-denominational hospital structure with trained personnel. He had become frustrated with the religious orders which, at this time, controlled Belgian nursing. He wished this medical structure to be inspired by the earlier work of Florence Nightingale in the UK. The base for this new structure was to be Depage’s existing location: the Berkendael Institute. He required a matron with administrative experience and was fluent in French. Edith was recommend by one of the Francois children, who had since married.
Edith started the new facility on 1 October 1907. Through her disciplined and enthusiastic approach, Edith began attracting more recruits to the school. By 1909 she had attracted 23 new prospective nurses. By the outbreak of World War One in August 1914, the school became an ever increasing source of trained nurses for the local hospitals and other nursing homes.
In August 1914, Edith was spending a short holiday with her Mother, who had moved to Norwich following the death of Edith’s Father. Edith heard of the outbreak of World War One whilst weeding her Mother’s garden. She told her Mother that she would be “… needed more than ever …” and immediately returned to Brussels and the institute.
During September 1914, a young engineers called Herman Capaiu from Mons, arrived at the nursing school. He told Edith that following the Battle at Mons and the subsequent retreat to the Marne, several Allied soldiers had become separated from their units and trapped behind the advancing German front line. He also said that the Germans were shooting any Allied soldiers that they found, together with the sympathetic locals who had been sheltering them.
The first two soldiers that Edith took into refuge were Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Boger and Company Sergeant-Major Frank Meachin, both of the 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment. Colonel Bodger had been badly wounded in the leg, whilst Sergeant Meachin was in better condition. They had both disguised themselves as Belgian labourers, and risked being shot as spies if they had been captured.
After Herman Capaiu returned home, he reported Edith’s assistance to Prince Reginald de Croy. He was a Belgian aristocrat who headed a group of Belgians who visited the Flanders area around Mons collecting British soldiers who had become separated from their units. They also helped Belgian and French men of military age to escape the German occupied areas, and enlist in the Allied armies. Another member of this group was Phillipe Baucq, a Brussels-based architect.
Despite her normal duties as Matron, Edith did most of the work herself, as she wished to minimise the dangers to the other nurses in the school. At one time, Edith had 35 escapees in her establishment.
After entering Brussels on 20 August 1914, the German occupying forces allowed Edith, a national of an enemy nation, to remain as Matron. They also converted the teaching school into a Red Cross Hospital. However, the Germans began to supervise her work as she began to treat an increasing number of injured German soldiers. Whatever, their nationality Edith provided the best treatment she could offer.
Despite the shortage of food, Edith continued to feed the hospital’s growing official list of patients, the staff and the rising numbers of escapees. She also continued to do a lot of the jobs at night, to avoid unnecessary questions. By 1915, she had more than 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers lodged at the school.
By this time, the German occupation authorities had become suspicious that someone was helped escapees to avoid the German forces. They had also received rumours of Edith’s sympathies.
Sometime in early 1915, Gaston Quien arrived at the hospital. He claimed to be a French soldier, avoiding the German authorities. He made several attempts to have affairs with the nurses in the hospital, and generally made a nuisance of himself. Eventually, Edith insisted that he leave, and he escaped with a party into neutral Holland. However, later he returned claiming that the French authorities had ordered him to return so he could gather information about German activities in the Brussels area.
The German were becoming even more suspicious about the hospital, and the comings and goings. They placed the hospital under observation, and Edith’s associates warned her that she was under ever increasing danger. In addition, Edith’s friend Madame Lepage, the wife of the Belgian doctor who initiated the school, drowned when the Luisitania was sunk by a German submarine.
On 31 July 1915, the Germans arrested Phillipe Baucq, and six days later Edith herself was arrested by Otto Mayer of the German Secret Police. After 72 hours of getting nowhere with their questioning, the German interrogators tricked Edith. The German interrogators told Edith that they already had the necessary information and that she could only save her friends from execution, if she made a full confession. In her rather simple, innocent and naïve way Edith believed her interrogators and made a full confession.
Her in camera court-martial in Brussels lasted only two days. The only incriminating evidence, apart from her confession, was a tattered postcard sent from the UK by a soldiers thanking Edith for her help. The trial ended with Edith Cavell being sentenced to death by shooting. She seemed to accept her fate. The American and Spanish Ambassadors made frantic representations on Edith’s behalf, stressing the fair way in which she had treated all wounded soldiers. However, this was rejected by the German authorities. Edith’s last English visitor was Stirling Gahan, the English Chaplain in Brussels. Edith words to him were
I know now that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred towards anyone.
At dawn on 12 October 1915, Edith Cavell and Phippe Baucq were both executed by firing squad in the National Rifle Range located on the outskirts of Brussels. After the execution, they were separately buried nearby.
Although the actions of German authorities had been correct according to the accepted laws of war, it was a major propaganda disaster for the Germans. The British exploited the execution of the nurse, as an encouragement for men to enlist in the Army. It should be noted that conscription did not exist in the UK at this time, although there was a great social pressure agitated by the media of the day, and encouraged by the British Government of the day.
After World War One had ended, Edith’s body was exhumed and returned to the UK. On 19 May 1919, King George V lead a very well attended memorial service at Westminster Abbey before Edith’s body was taken by special train to Thorpe Station, Norwich, and she was reburied on Life’s Green, located at the east end of Norwich Cathedral.
Several statues have been erected to commemorate Edith Cavell. One is located between the National Portrait Gallery and St. Martin’s in the Field Church, around the corner from Trafalgar Square in London. The statue bears the words “Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion and Sacrifice”. There is also a plaque with the following inscription:
Edith Cavell, Brussels, Dawn, October 12th, 1915, Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.Inscription on statue of Edith Cavell.
Every year, on the nearest Saturday to the date in October when Edith was executed, a short service takes place at her grave by Norwich Cathedral.