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Edith Cavell - Cover Page: May '97 British Heritage Feature

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1997 
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Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell

By Abraham Unger, M.D.

A statue in St. Martin's Place, just off London's Trafalgar Square, prominently displays words spoken by Edith Cavell, a British nurse executed during the First World War: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone."

Cavell's humanity and loyalty to Britain led her protect Allied troops trying to avoid German capture early in the war. She considered it a part of her duty to others, a lifelong obligation encouraged by her father, the Vicar of Swardeston. A loving and understanding mother balanced her father's rigidity in the closely knit family. Edith, born on 4th December, 1865, was the oldest of four children. Despite his limited means, the vicar taught his children to share with those less fortunate. Before their evening meal, they made a habit of carrying a portion of meat to the poorer families of the village. Austerity, sacrifice, and prayer punctuated Edith's upbringing. Throughout her entire life, she rare found reason to smile.

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The vicar taught Edith at home in her early years, because he could not afford a governess or a private school. Nevertheless, she attended a special school at Laurel Court, run by Miss Margaret Gibson, during her middle teens. She became proficient in French and Miss Gibson subsequently recommended her as a governess to the Francois family in Brussels.

By then Edith had grown into a straightforward, humourless woman of medium height and seemingly frail build with an unswerving respect for truth. She wore her brownish hair brushed straight back. With thin lips and a determined mouth, she scorned fun and mischief, but the four Francois children liked her despite her rigid sense of discipline and self-reliance.

She enjoyed her job, but as the years passed and the children grew older, she yearned to serve larger and needier groups of people. In 1895 her father became seriously ill and she hurried back to England to care for him. The experience convinced her to become a nurse and the following year she entered the London Hospital Nurses' Training School. After completing the course she continued there as a private nurse and in 1901 became night supervisor at St. Pancras Infirmary. Three years later, the prospect higher pay, an end to night duty, and the opportunity to do administrative work and to teach practical nursing enticed her to take the position of Assistant Matron at Shoreditch Infirmary.

She made only one friend during all this time–Evaline Dickenson, with whom she had kept in touch since their training days at the London hospital. The two occasionally spent their holidays together. In 1906 they took several months abroad after Edith, wanting an extended vacation, resigned from her job. Soon after their return, Evaline married and settled in Ireland. Thereafter, she and Edith maintained their relationship only through occasional correspondence. The shy and retiring Nurse Cavell never married, nor was there ever any great love in her life.

At about this time, Antoine Depage, a gruff but brilliant Belgian surgeon, grew increasingly frustrated the religious orders that controlled Belgian nursing. He wanted to shift to a non-denominational system with professionally trained personnel as developed by Florence Nightingale in England. He hoped to thus provide physicians all over Belgium with trained nurses while simultaneously creating a new career for young ladies of good education.

He proposed to start with a nurses' training school at his Berkendael Institute. To implement it, he sought a matron who had administrative experience, teaching capabilities, an understanding of the Belgian people, and fluency in French. He also wanted someone who had been trained in the manner of Florence Nightingale. Edith qualified on all counts and one of the Francois children, Marguerite, who by this time had become Madame Graux, presented Edith's name for the job. Soon after, sheaccepted the position.

Edith opened the school on 1st October, 1907. Her discipline was strict but scrupulously fair. She streesed duty and service to others, as well as ethical conduct, cleanliness, dedication to work, and punctuality.

As a teacher, she was aloof, detached, and professionally correct at all times. She guarded her independence vehemently and thus had frequent clashes with the temperamental Doctor Depage. Neither of them yielded and it remained for the tactful and diplomatic doctor's wife, Marie, to smooth over the difficult moments between the sedate Matron and the emotional surgeon. In the process, Edith came to know and deeply respect Marie Depage.

Through her talents as both a teacher and a capable administrator, she soon improved the level of Belgian nursing and began attracting more recruits. By 1909 she had 23 probationers and by 1914, at the onset of First World War, her school had become a source of nursing personnel for hospitals, communal schools, and private nursing homes.

Then, on a fateful September day in 1914, Herman Capiau, a young engineer in a village near Mons, arrived at Miss Cavell's office, telling of a battle that had been fought at Mons in south-west Belgium. He explained that a number of Allied soldiers had been separated from their units in the confusion of the struggle, and sympathetic nuns and villagers had hidden them. As the Germans advanced, they were shooting not only any stragglers they found, but also the civilians who harboured them.

Capiau asked Cavell to take in two English soldiers who had accompanied him, disguised as Belgian labourers. One, Colonel Bodger, had been wounded in the leg and needed medical attention badly. The other, Sergeant Meachin, was still in relatively good health. Capiau said that it had become too dangerous to hide them in the countryside any longer and he had, therefore, brought them to Brussels, where had referred him to Miss Cavell.

Edith trusted Madame Depage implicitly, and the sight of the two English soldiers, distressed and facing execution if caught, put an end to any hesitation she felt. She admitted the two Englishmen and assigned them to empty beds, where the received food and immediate medical attention. When they had sufficiently recovered, Edith provided them with expert guides who escorted them to Holland. The entire venture was successful enough to be the forerunner of a much greater involvement for Edith.

When Capiau returned to his native Wasmes and reported Edith's accommodation of the two British soldiers to Prince Reginald de Croy, the aristocrat visited her and convinced her to join his group which included, among others, Phillipe Baucq, a Brussels architect. The group combed the fields around Mons, as well as northern France just across the border, for fugitive troops, whom they then hid, provided with food, money, and civilian clothes, and relocated to avoid the Germans and certain death.

As part of that apparatus, Edith provided a place of refuge in the nursing home and cared for the men until they could continue their escape. She saw to it that each man had 25 francs for his journey. If he lacked identification papers, she supplied them. If he needed guides, she found them, and she often led the soldiers through the streets of Brussels herself to the meeting place with those guides. On such occasions she chose a crowded street or a tramway terminus so as to attract the least possible attention.

Despite her administrative position at the nursing home, Edith did most of the chores herself. Only a few of the staff knew of her work, and she did not want to incriminate the nurses in her charge. Nor did she want them to know too much in case the Germans picked them up and questioned them.

The organization functioned smoothly, helping British, French, and Belgian soldiers to escape from behind the German lines and eventually rejoin their units. They also helped young Belgians and Frenchmen of military age to escape and enlist in the Allied fighting forces. At one time, Edith housed as many as 35 refugees in her nursing home. When space ran short, she would hide soldiers in a private home in Brussels.

After occupying Belgium, the Germans converted Cavell's nursing home into a Red Cross hospital, but they allowed Edith to continue as Matron. German authorities supervised her as she cared for wounded German soldiers. Regardless of their nationality, she gave all her patients the finest possible treatment.

She carried on with her regular duties of supervising her nurses, delivering her regular lectures to them while maintaining her official records of food costs and other expenses. Despite the reduced food allowances ordinarily found in an occupied nation, she managed to feed not only the patients and staff, but also the hidden soldiers. She secreted the escapees in whatever nursing home space she could, even placing them in unoccupied beds and listing them as patients, or putting them in the cellar away from prying eyes and suspicious minds. At times she cooked their food at night, served it to them herself, and then washed the dishes before morning to remove all traces of what she had done.

By 1915 she had lodged more than 100 British and an additional 100 French and Belgian soldiers. Comings and goings at the Institute had become so frequent that Germans grew suspicious, especially after they heard whispered reports of Edith's Allied sympathies and actions.

One day, a man who called himself Jacobs came to Edith one day claiming to have heard of her from peasants near Mons after escaping from a German labour camp. He knew neither her address nor the password but had found her by asking neighbours where she lived. Although his story was doubtful, she admitted him. He remained a week, evaded personal questions, and departed, leaving papers that were suspiciously torn into small pieces.

Shortly thereafter came Gaston Quien, a handsome French soldier who also gained admission to the Institute and absorbed as much information about it as he could. Affable and flirtatious, he took undue liberties with the ladies and resisted all attempts to have him discharged from the Institute until Edith herself insisted that he go. He escaped with a group to Holland but returned a week later, claiming that French officials had ordered him back to gather information for them.

The German secret police grew more interested in the activities at the Institute and made a number of visits but found nothing incriminating. They placed it under surveillance as well, but careful precautions by those inside helped avoid serious consequence.

Gradually, though, the evidence against Edith mounted. Collegues urged her to escape while she could, but she refused. In addition, a recent event had stunned her: Marie Depage, returning from a successful fund-raising tour of the United States, had gone down in the ocean waters on the ill-fated Luisitania.

On 31st July, 1915, the Germans seized Phillipe Baucq and on 5th August, they arrested Edith. After three days of fruitless questioning, they tricked her into talking by feigning they already had the necessary information and that the best way to save her friends would be to make a full confession. Edith, ever trusting, believed them and poured out names, dates, and places. The trial in October lasted only two days. When she heard the death sentence pronounced, she accepted it stoically, still unable to bend.

Despite appeals from both the American and Spanish ambassadors for clemency, Edith fell before a firing squad on the morning of 12th October, 1915, and was buried nearby. In May 1919 her body was exhumed and returned to Britain where a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, attended by His Majesty, King George V. She was then reburied at the Cathedral in Norwich, just a few miles from her native Swardeston. Her statue in St. Martin's Place bears the words, 'Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion, Sacrifice'–fitting tributes to the life she led.



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