October 12, 1915 — Every year, two chosen nurses lay a wreath on the statue of Edith Cavell near Trafalgar Square in central London. Meanwhile, some 200 miles north-east of the capital, a memorial service is held in the church at the rural village of Swardestone, where she was born.
Cavell was a nurse working in occupied Belgium during the First World War and was executed by a German firing squad on this day for gradually helping about 200 British and French soldiers to escape the country. She was aged 49.
Her death caused shock and outrage across the world and played a significant part in bringing a disgusted USA into the war.
Cavell, born in 1865, became fluent in the French language which she learnt at school, enabling her to work as a governess for families across Europe, including Brussels.
But after taking care of her sick father she decided to become a nurse and enrolled at the Royal London Hospital. There, Royal Family surgeon Antoine Depage persuaded her to return to Brussels and run a training school for nurses at the Berkendael Medical Institute.
After Germany invaded Belgium in 1914 Cavell’s clinic and nursing school was turned into a Red Cross hospital. She treated wounded soldiers wherever they came from and with her strong religious beliefs is said to have declared: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”
However, she became involved in an underground group formed to help British, French, and Belgian soldiers reach neutral Holland. They were sheltered at the hospital then given money and guides.
But the suspicious German secret police had been keeping an eye on the hospital and in August 1915, they arrested Cavell and charged her with treason for helping at least 200 soldiers to escape. “Had I not helped,” she said later, “they would have been shot.”
She was kept in solitary confinement for 10 weeks, then at her trial pleaded guilty to the charges against her. She was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Diplomats from the neutral governments of the United States and Spain protested but their efforts were in vain. The night before her execution, Cavell told the Rev. Horace Graham, a chaplain from the American Legation: “They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
After the war, her body was taken to London’s Westminster Abbey for a state funeral before being buried at Norwich Cathedral near her home town.
Cavell’s execution led to a strong rise in anti-German feeling in the United States as well as in Britain, where she was idealised as a heroic martyr.
The Germans claimed that Cavell was not just rescuing Allied soldiers, but was also a spy smuggling intelligence back to Britain. Ironically, in 2015, the British Secret Service admitted there was evidence that Cavell was indeed a spy.
Historian Dr. Emma Cavell, a distant relative, has said: “Despite the posters of a helpless young girl lying on the ground while she is shot in cold blood by a callous German, the truth is that Edith was a tough 49-year-old woman who knew precisely the danger she was placing herself in. She admitted frankly what she’d done, and doesn’t appear to have been afraid of the consequences.”
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England has no mechanism for formal canonisation. But it has a Calendar of Saints in which a day is listed for the commemoration of an individual. There, on 12 October, will be found the name of Edith Cavell.
Published: September 17, 2019