One gray, dismally wet night in November 1914, two British soldiers in disguise were guided through the silent side streets of German-occupied Brussels by a patriotic Belgian civilian. Herman Capiau was an engineer by trade, but since the outbreak of World War I he had played a key role in an escape organization that was sheltering British and French soldiers trapped behind the German lines after the Allied defeat at Mons.
One of the soldiers, Lt. Col. Dudley Boger, who had a leg wound, had grown a beard in the three months he had been lying low, and was wearing the black hat and floppy tie of a typical Belgian factory worker. His colleague, Company Sgt. Maj. Frank Meachin, also dressed as a laborer, had packed rolls of cloth between his shoulders to turn himself into a hunchback. That, he hoped, would explain to any inquisitive German soldier why such a tall, strongly built man was not serving in the army.
Capiau cautiously led the pair across the greasy cobbles. German patrols were frequent, and he was forced to try three different routes before reaching the Berkendael Medical Institute, a training school for nurses on the outskirts of the Belgian capital.
The three men were admitted into the building, and Capiau handed a letter of introduction to the school’s matron, a British nurse named Edith Cavell. There was a brief, hushed conversation, then Capiau left the matron’s office and slipped away into the night. It was 8 p.m. Sister White, the assistant matron, was summoned.
‘These men are fugitive soldiers,’ Cavell told Sister White. ‘Give them beds in the empty surgical house.’ Both men, Sister White later recalled, looked dirty and tired, and she put them to bed immediately.
Boger and Meachin were the first of more than 200 British, French and Belgian troops who would be hidden and cared for by Cavell and her staff during the next 12 months.
When they were taken prisoner, Boger and Meachin, both of the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, had been taken to a temporary hospital in a convent at Wiheries, Belgium. But when their guards’ backs were turned, the two men had staggered out into the village under cover of darkness and hid in a disused building.
The fugitive soldiers were in a difficult position. Many other officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force had been cut off from their units and left behind in the retreat from Mons. Some, aided by civilians, had reached the Belgian coast. But when Antwerp fell, the Belgian army had retired to link up with British units on their right, and had opened sluice gates behind them to flood the low-lying country and hold up the German army’s advance. That also had cut off the escape route to the coast for stranded Allied soldiers.
Peasants, priests and nuns cared for some of the fugitive troops. Unwounded Allied soldiers who disguised themselves as laborers or miners risked being shot as spies–a danger Boger and Meachin were prepared to face.
They had been lucky to contact a helpful Roman Catholic priest who led them to the home of a woman named Libiez, the widowed mother of a local lawyer, and she had hidden them in the loft of an outbuilding at the bottom of her garden for several weeks.
All occupied countries have their share of traitors. On October 26, 1914, German intelligence received a tip that Libiez was concealing two British soldiers. Within hours, a company of cycle troops of the Landsturm swooped into town and searched both Libiez’s home and those of her neighbors. Twice they returned, but the fugitives had been alerted in time and had slipped out to mingle with a crowd of curious Belgian civilians in the street.
Boger and Meachin were clearly embarrassing their gallant host, and the following night two nuns, Sister Marie and Sister Madeleine, arrived with a hurricane lamp to guide them to a convent in Wasmes.
Libiez’s son–a member of the Belgian escape organization–then took over escort duties and accompanied the British soldiers into Mons, where they stayed three days at the home of Louis Dervaire in the Rue de la Gare. There, they had their photographs taken and were given fake civilian identity cards. Capiau then escorted them to Cavell’s institute on November 1.
Edith Cavell was one of the most fascinating characters of World War I. Forty-seven years old when Boger and Meachin met her, she had been born in a large Georgian-style farmhouse in the English village of Swardeston in the county of Norfolk. Her father, a vicar, was a strict Victorian.
Cavell first worked as a governess for a family in Brussels, then became a nurse. By 1911, she was training nurses for three hospitals, 24 schools and 13 kindergartens in Belgium. She was a brisk, businesslike, rather straight-laced woman with a high crown of graying hair and gray eyes.
Her sense of duty bordered on the fanatical, and she demanded the highest standards from her pupil nurses. She kept a watch before her at breakfast; any girl more than two minutes late would be ordered to work an extra two hours. She was often ‘cold, distant and aloof,’ according to one of her staff.
In August 1914, Cavell was spending a short holiday with her mother, who was then living in Norwich after her husband’s death. Edith was weeding her mother’s back garden when she heard the dramatic news that Germany had invaded Belgium. ‘I am needed more than ever,’ she said, and immediately left for the Continent. Her mother never saw her again.
Cavell and her staff were hard at work at the training school in the suburbs of Brussels when the German army occupied the city. All 60 British nurses were ordered home, but Edith somehow remained behind. German nurses arrived to replace the British nurses and, together with all the remaining Belgian girls, were sent out to hospitals in the city as required.
It was contrary to Cavell’s nature to refuse help to anyone in distress, and Boger and Meachin were hidden in the institute for two weeks. When Cavell heard that the Germans were going to search the building, she ordered Sister White to take the soldiers to an empty house in nearby Avenue Louise. Sister White then came under German suspicion and wisely decided to leave the country. Just before Christmas 1914, she crossed the Dutch frontier–carrying military information for the British, obtained by Colonel Boger, hidden in her underclothes.
Cavell still considered Boger and Meachin to be in danger and, with the help of two English civilians living in Brussels (who so far had been left alone by the German authorities), arranged for them to be accompanied by a guide out of the city. Boger, still lame, was to travel down the canals to the border aboard a coal barge, while the sergeant major, who could walk but could not speak French, would be disguised as a peasant collecting fish in Holland.
The two soldiers stayed together as far as Ghent. Meachin made friends with a Belgian smuggling newspapers across the frontier into neutral Holland, reached the border and made a dash for it. Eventually, he got back to England, returned to the front and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
Colonel Boger was recaptured when German soldiers raided a cafe where he was having a drink; he was sent to a POW camp at Ruhleben for the rest of the war. He was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
At the Berkendael Institute, more fugitive soldiers arrived and all received help from Cavell. But the danger that the Germans would discover the secret of the institute grew daily. British soldiers staying there were warned not to go out. Nevertheless, one night several of them walked to a cafe down the road and got drunk. Before long, it became widely known that Cavell was harboring British and French troops under her roof.
Despite an order from the German authorities that anyone sheltering Allied troops would be shot, Cavell’s secret work continued. She wrote to her cousin, ‘I am helping in ways I may not describe to you till we are free.’
It became obvious, however, that the escape route could not be kept open indefinitely. The Germans were well aware that large numbers of fugitive soldiers were crossing the Belgian border into Holland. Then, in August 1915, the Germans raided the home of Philippe Baucq, a member of the escape organization, and arrested him. Unfortunately, Baucq failed to destroy several incriminating letters in which Edith Cavell’s name appeared.
The head of the escape organization, Prince de Croy, left his large country chateau near Mons to warn colleagues in Brussels. He called on Cavell in her office and told her he was going into hiding. ‘I expect to be arrested,’ she said firmly. ‘Escape for me is futile and unthinkable.’ The prince realized it was hopeless to try to dissuade her and departed, eventually managing to cross the border to safety.
On August 5, Otto Mayer of the German secret police arrived in the Rue de la Culture. Cavell was driven to police headquarters and questioned. But nothing of importance was found in the institute–Cavell had, in fact, sewn her diary inside a cushion.
There is some controversy over the confession Cavell made to Mayer. On being told that other members of the organization–35 had been arrested–had admitted their guilt, she spoke freely about the help she had given to Allied soldiers. ‘Had I not helped,’ she said later in a letter from her prison cell, ‘they would have been shot.’ Cavell was accused of conducting soldiers to the enemy and was tried by a military court in Brussels. Although more than 200 troops had passed through her hands, the only document incriminating the nurse was a tattered postcard sent, rather unwisely, by an English soldier thanking her for helping him to reach home. Cavell was sentenced to death, along with four Belgians.
Two firing squads, each of eight men, carried out the execution at dawn on October 12, 1915, at the national rifle range in Brussels. Cavell was still wearing her nurse’s uniform.
The words she spoke to her last English visitor, Stirling Gahan, the English chaplain in Brussels, became almost as famous as Admiral Horatio Nelson’s at Trafalgar. ‘I know now that patriotism is not enough,’ she said. ‘I must have no hatred and no bitterness towards anyone.’
Although the German action was justified according to the rules of war, the shooting of Edith Cavell was a serious blunder. Within days, the heroic nurse became a worldwide martyr, and the Germans were universally described as ‘murdering monsters.’ As a result of her execution, Allied morale was strengthened, and recruitment doubled for eight weeks after her death was announced.
The memory of Edith Cavell has been kept alive ever since that dark day in 1915. Numerous books have been written about her. Statues of Cavell were erected near the National Portrait Gallery in London and at a busy road junction in Tombland, in Norwich. Sybil Thorndike starred as the nurse in the film Dawn in 1930, and Anna Neagle played the same role in Nurse Edith Cavell in 1939. Joan Plowright played Cavell in a successful play on the London stage in the 1950s.
The grave of this stubborn, brave nurse lies beside the ancient walls of Norwich Cathedral. Each October, on the Saturday nearest the anniversary of her death, a short service takes place, and female members of the Royal British Legion lay wreaths at the side of a simple stone cross.
At her home village of Swardeston, in the heart of the unspoiled Norfolk countryside, there is a constant trickle of visitors to the medieval church. ‘There is such enduring interest in Edith Cavell that we simply had to do something about it,’ commented the vicar, the Rev. Phillip McFadyen.
Enlarged photographs, booklets, postcards and Edith Cavell souvenir mugs and combs are on sale in the church’s simple, whitewashed nave. The visitors’ book contains the names of people from America, Canada, South Africa–and Germany. There is little likelihood that the world will ever forget the little gray-eyed woman whose almost fanatical sense of duty led her to a firing squad 80 years ago.
This article was written by Peter Clowes and originally published in the August 1996 issue of Military History.
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