Nurse Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad on the 12th October 1915 and so it was timely to have a presentation on the life of this remarkably courageous woman on the exact anniversary of her death. Laton Frewen’s talk was in two parts: the first dealing with her life, and work, the second with the impact of her execution. He prefaced his account with a brief introduction in which he stressed that her family name should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘travel’ and not, as many still persist in thinking, ‘hell’.
Edith Cavell, the eldest child of the Reverend Frederick Frederick and Louisa Cavell was born on the 4th December 1865 in the Norfolk village of Swardeston,. Her birthplace is still standing. From an early age she learnt the virtues of philanthropy (the family would routinely give part of its food to the needy in the parish) and showed a marked artistic gift which remained with her throughout her life. As a child, she raised £5 towards the cost of building of a new Sunday school by selling her drawings and the local bishop was so impressed that he donated the remaining £295 needed.
Between 1882 and 1884 she attended three different boarding schools (being expelled from one for smoking!) and in 1887 her father found her first position as a governess. Her fourth position involved her spending five years in Brussels looking after the four children of the Francois family. During this period she became fluent in French and spent her spare time developing her painting. In her twenties there was a romantic attachment to her cousin Eddy. Although the feeling was mutual, it never led to a proposal of marriage and Edith remained single for the rest of her life.
In the spring of 1895 Edith’s father fell seriously ill and she returned from Brussels to help care for him. This experience inspired her to take up nursing as a profession and at the age of 30 she embarked on four years of training at the London Hospital in Whitechapel under the Matron, Eva Luckes. In autumn 1897, during her second year as a probationer, Edith was assigned to work in Maidstone during a typhoid fever epidemic and for her dedication to duty she was awarded a medal – the only medal she ever received. After her training she worked in various hospitals in England and as a private travelling nurse treating patients in their homes until, in 1907, she 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) in Brussels. By 1910 she considered the profession of nursing sufficiently established in Belgium to warrant her launching a professional nursing journal, L’infirmière and by the following year she had become a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens.
Her father died in 1910 and, despite having become a virtual workaholic, she visited her widowed mother regularly every summer. Consequently she was in Norfolk when the First World War broke out in August 1914 but returned to Brussels immediately. Her clinic and nursing school became under the control of the Red Cross and converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers of all nationalities. When the Germans occupied Brussels she agreed to be subject to German military control and signed an undertaking not to engage in any anti-German activities. Her strong Anglican beliefs impelled her to try to save the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination. However, she became increasingly outspoken in her opposition to German actions and by November, in contravention of her undertaking, she had started to help allied soldiers escape across the border to the Netherlands, often sheltering them in her house and providing them with false identification papers. Over a six month period around 80 soldiers around 100 French and Belgian civilians of military age managed to escape with her aid and the Germans became increasingly suspicious. Edith was eventually betrayed by Gaston Quien, a Belgian collaborator and on 3rd August 1915 she was arrested and imprisoned in Saint–Gilles prison where she was held for ten weeks , two of them in solitary confinement.
Edith was accused of treason and tried by court martial under German military law. The night before her trial she signed a statement freely admitting her guilt and even stating that soldiers she had helped had written to her having arrived safely back in Britain. The penalty for this offence was death and Edith was sentenced to be executed by firing squad. Despite international appeals for mercy, the sentence was upheld and she was executed on 12th October, aged 49.
The description of Edith Cavell’s last days was the most moving part of Laton’s talk: how she took communion with the Revd. Stirling Gahan, the Anglican Chaplain events and said that “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”, the horrifying details of her execution and how one young German soldier who refused to take part in her shooting was shot through the head by an officer and left to lie next to Edith’s lifeless body.
Edith was initially buried next to Saint–Gilles prison and after the war this grave was visited by King George V and the Queen of Belgium. The body was then exhumed (apparently it had hardly decomposed) and was conveyed back to Britain for a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. One the fascinating details given in Laton’s talk was that the railway wagon used to convey the body to London ended up on the Kent and East Sussex Railway. It now resides, fully restored, at Bodiam station. We also learnt that one of the pall bearers at the memorial service was a Sergeant Tunmore , a native of Norfolk and one of the first soldiers to be helped by Edith. Apparently she said that “she would do anything to help a Norfolk man”. Edith’s body was eventually laid to rest in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.
The execution of Edith Cavell prompted widespread revulsion and condemnation even amongst some of Germany’s allies and supporters. Indeed the Kaiser was so appalled at the strength of the reaction and vilification that he decreed that that henceforward no woman should be subject to capital punishment without his explicit authorisation. To the allies Edith became an iconic figure and a potent propaganda tool – her death being cited as another example of German barbarity comparable to the sinking of the Lusitania and the burning of the library at Louvain. It prompted a stream of posters, commemorative cards and other items of propaganda that served to stir up anti-German feeling in potential allies and to stimulate recruitment into the forces (and to lead to Edith becoming the most popular name for female babies).
Laton concluded his talk with a brief survey of the monuments, plaques, memorabilia and other means used to commemorate the life and death of Edith Cavell. These have ranged from plates, stamps and coins, plaques, imposing memorial statues (such as the one at the intersection of St Martins Lane and Charing Cross Road in London) to mountains named in her honour (Mount Edith Cavell in the Canadian Rockies). However, one of the most intimate is the stained glass window in St Mary’s Church, Swardeston where her story began and where a flower festival in her memory is held every 12th October.