Edith Cavell: A Forgotten Heroine of the Great War

Nurse_Edith_Cavell_1865-1915_Q15064Edith Cavell was born on 4th December 1865 in the village of Swadeston, Norfolk. She absorbed all the virtues of a Christian household in late Victorian England; patriotism, personal honesty and moral integrity. Her portrait, taken when she was 41 years old, shows a handsome woman, with an equally determined, clever and dependable aspect.

Edith first worked as governess in a household in Brussels. She then trained as a nurse at the London Hospital, before returning to Belgium and taking a job as matron of a nursing school. At the outbreak of war in August 1914 she was visiting her mother in England, but decided to return to Belgium, and began work in a hospital run by the Red Cross. From the outset she made no distinction between the nationality of any soldier: all were afforded equal medical care and none were turned away.

By that November, German troops had occupied Brussels and Edith began a “rat-run”, sheltering Allied soldiers and gradually moving them through neutral Holland to Britain, also passing on false travel papers and money given to her by Belgian sympathisers. This took skill, courage and considerable organisational talent. But she paid astonishingly little regard to her security and was far too outspoken to avoid attention. As a result, she and her helpers were arrested on 3rd August 1915, having been betrayed by a French man, Gaston Quien, who was himself later shot by the French.

Edith was charged with treason, for which the penalty was death, under the articles of the German Penal Code, and which was supported in part by the First Geneva Convention. This was not due to providing medical assistance to the enemy but because it could be interpreted as “a belligerent act in time of war”.

The conduct of Edith’s trial was less than perfect. She was not allowed an English defence lawyer, questions and responses were only permitted in French or German, and her case was dealt with by the German occupying powers rather than being referred to German High Command or Berlin. On the other hand, Edith largely sealed her own fate by making three statements of admission, including a written statement of guilt just a day before the trial in which she freely admitted she fully understood the nature and consequences of her actions. Of the five persons sentenced to death by the court, three were reprieved on the grounds they did not comprehend what they had done. Edith, aged 49, was shot by a military firing squad along with the Countess Jeanne de Belleville, a fellow collaborator.

Throughout the trial the British Foreign Office played the role of Pontius Pilate, arguing that her case was hopeless and nothing could save her. Only the Spanish and Americans, who were not at war with Germany at the time, attempted any diplomatic rescue, warning Germany of likely consequences if the sentence was carried out.

The execution was a propaganda coup for the Allies of immense significance. It was a God-send to the recruiting sergeants of Great Britain and helped propel America into the conflict, whilst also recruiting women from both nations into war industry. After the war, Von Ludendorff considered that this propaganda effect had been one reason for Germany’s defeat.

Edith Cavell is commemorated outside the Anglican Cathedral and at Saint Martin’s Place, London. She is also remembered at Schaabeek, Belgium, where she died.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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