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Edith Cavell worked as a nurse in Belgium during the First World War. She famously helped more than 200 Allied soldiers escape from Belgium while under German occupation and aided wounded soldiers without regard for who they fought. A court martial found Cavell guilty of treason and executed her by firing squad in 1915. Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada is named for her.

Youth and Education

Edith Cavell’s childhood spent helping the poor in her community instilled a sense of generosity that influenced her choice to become a nurse.

Edith Louisa Cavell was born in Swardeston, a small village outside Norwich, England on December 4, 1865. She was the first born child of Reverend Frederick and Louisa Sophia Cavell. Her father served as a vicar in Swardeston while he helped raise his four children. The family always shared their evening meal with the poorest households in the village. She learned from her father at home during her early school years. Eventually, she attended a local school instructed by Miss Margaret Gibson. She learned French readily and Miss Gibson secured a position as a governess with the Belgian Francois family in 1890.[1]

Nursing Career

When Edith Cavell’s father fell ill in 1895, she returned to Norwich to care for him. She decided to apply to the London Hospital Nurses’ Training School, where she trained under Eva Luckes. She finished her studies and began working as a private nurse. She moved to St. Pancras Infirmary in 1901 when she accepted the job as night supervisor. Soon after, Edith Cavell chose to become Assistant Matron for the Shoreditch Infirmary where she taught nursing, performed administrative work, and assisted in surgery.[2]

Cavell then accepted Antoine Depage’s offer to head his proposed training school for nurses at the Berkendael Medical Institute. In 1907, she moved to Brussels, Belgium to help start its first nursing school.[3] It opened on October 1, 1907, and she implemented her curriculum focused on serving compassionately, strict ethics, and sanitary practices. The school grew quickly and, by 1909, it contained 23 students.[4] The following year, Cavell began the first nursing journals in Europe, L’infirmière.[5] Edith Cavell provided nursing staff for private homes, schools, and many a hospital throughout Belgium by 1914.

Role During World War I

Edith Cavell harbored her first Allied soldiers in September 1914. Henry Capiau arrived at her door and asked her to help shelter two wounded English soldiers.

Edith Cavell always chose other’s safety and needs above her own, which let her perform these risky tasks confidently.

Prince Reginald de Croy recruited her to join his group, that included Phillipe Baucq, aiding refugees in Mons and the surrounding areas.[6] The group hid wounded Belgium and French allied soldiers and not yet conscripted citizens and provided them papers for escape, forged by Prince de Croy. They would escape with the help of guides from Baucq.[7]

Edith Cavell took in the wounded soldiers, performed surgery if necessary, and cared for them until they recovered. She provided food, shelter, money, clothes, papers, and guides, mostly on her own to protect her nursing staff. She continued even after the Germans turned her nursing home into a Red Cross Hospital, where Edith Cavell diligently cared for German soldiers as well. She took in more than 100 English and another 100 Belgian and French soldier by 1915.

Suspect, Arrest, and Execution

The Germans supervising Edith Cavell in the Institute became suspicious of her actions and sent an undercover operative with a weak story to request her assistance. She accepted him and, soon after he left, a young French soldier named Gaston Quien appeared. He disturbed the nursing staff while strategically observing everything occurring in the Institute.[8] Quien turned in Cavell who was subsequently arrested on August 3, 1915. He later was tried and convicted as a collaborator in a French court.[9]

Cavell spent 10 weeks in Saint-Gilles prison, the last two in solitary confinement.[10] She confessed in a written statement to the crimes of helping British and French soldiers and Belgian men escape from Belgium to Britain.[11] Many authority figures within Europe called for her to be spared from execution, the punishment for treason as dictated by German law, considering her status as medical personnel and the fact she was not a German citizen.

On the morning of October 12, 1915, Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad in the Schaerbeek Tir national shooting range with four other Belgium men, including Baucq.[12] Gottfried Benn, the German poet, witnessed her execution, the issuing of her certificate of death, and her burial next to Saint-Gilles prison.[13] The British Government exhumed her body in May 1919 and returned her to Britain. They held a memorial service and reburied Cavell at the Norwich Cathedral near Swardeston.[14]

Legacy and Memorials

Many memorials exist to honor the legacy of Cavell. A memorial stands in the Peterborough Cathedral in England.[15] A bust and marble and stone memorial stand in Melbourne, Australia at the King’s Domain.[16] Mount Edith Cavell, the biggest peak within Albert, Canada, was named for her in 1916.[17]

References

Bibliography

Got, A., & Kirschen, S. (1920). The Case of Miss Cavell: From the unpublished documents of the trial. The property of the former commissary of the German Government. Hodder and Stoughton.

Hoehling, A. A. (1957). The Story of Edith Cavell. The American Journal of Nursing, 57(10), 1320. doi:10.2307/3461516

Judson, H. (1941). Edith Cavell. American Journal of Nursing, 41(7), 871. doi:10.1097/00000446-194107000-00049

Unger, A. (2006, June 12). Edith Cavell. British Heritage Magazine.

Footnotes

  1. Unger, 2006
  2. Hoehling, 1957
  3. Judson, 1941
  4. Unger, 2006
  5. Judson, 1941
  6. Unger, 2006
  7. Got & Kirschen, 1920
  8. Unger, 2006
  9. Bode, L. (1934, February 23). Spy Denies Guilt in Case of British Nurse. The Mount Washington News.
  10. Hoehling, 1957
  11. Duffy, M. (2009, August 22). Primary documents - Maitre G. de Leval on the Execution of Edith Cavell, 12 October 1915. FirstWorldWar.com.
  12. Hoehling, 1957
  13. Benn, G. (2013). Selected Poems and Prose. United Kingdom: Carcanet Press.
  14. Unger, 2006
  15. Harley, C. (2007). PETERBOROUGH, EDITH CAVELL WAR MEMORIAL. Roll of Honour.
  16. Monument Australia. (2011, September 15). Nurse Edith Cavell. Monument Australia.
  17. Birrell, D. Peaks of the Canadian Rockies. Peak Finder.

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