“Patriotism is not enough,” Edith Cavell famously said, on the night before her execution. “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words, as recorded by Reverend H. Stirling Gahan, are inscribed on a memorial to Cavell near Trafalgar Square in London.
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Throughout the war, Cavell’s name was used in propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic. Memorials to her life and sacrifice rest in London, Paris, Alberta, Melbourne, Inverness, Brussels, and beyond, and in 2018 she was the subject of a Google Doodle to commemorate what would have been her 153rd birthday.
She is represented in the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints and has been the subject of songs, plays, films, paintings, and even an opera. Yet today, many people don’t remember the name of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who was executed by firing squad for helping Allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium during the First World War.
Prior to the war, Cavell was already known as a pioneer in the field of nursing. After caring for her father during an illness, she worked as a traveling nurse, and in hospitals across England, including during a historical typhoid outbreak in Maidstone, for which she was awarded the Maidstone Medal.
By 1907, she was already seen as a leading light in the field, and was recruited as matron of a nursing school in Brussels. While serving in that capacity, she also launched a nursing journal, L’infirmiere, and trained nurses for three hospitals and more than three dozen schools and kindergartens.
When war broke out, Cavell was visiting her mother in Norfolk, where she could have safely stayed. However, she chose to return to Brussels, to her clinic and school, which were turned over to the Red Cross. While she had been largely unknown outside nursing circles prior to the conflict, Cavell quickly became a beloved figure on both sides of enemy lines, as she famously gave aid to both German and Allied troops.
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“I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved,” Cavell was quoted as saying. She was adored by many of her patients, who would write her letters after their stay in her care. During this time, however, Cavell was also helping British soldiers and others to escape German-occupied territory and make their way to neutral countries like the Netherlands and thence back to Britain.
In 1914, German troops marched into Brussels as part of a campaign that ultimately captured all of Belgium and held it as occupied territory during the war. At this time, Cavell began sheltering British and French soldiers—as well as Belgian and French civilians old enough to join the military—in her home as part of a pipeline that would funnel them into the Netherlands and away from German forces.
When she was arrested by German authorities in August of 1915, Cavell confessed to helping nearly 200 people flee the German occupation, many of them Allied soldiers. By German military law, this meant that she could be charged with “war treason” for “aiding a hostile power” during wartime—a charge that was punishable by death.
Those giving medical assistance were generally protected from such prosecution under the First Geneva Convention, though this protection was considered forfeit if their medical role was used as a “cover for any belligerent action.”
As such, Cavell was court-martialed and sentenced to die by firing squad. It is said that Baron von der Lancken, then German civil governor of Brussels, argued in favor of her pardon due to the many German—as well as Allied—lives she had saved. However, her execution was ordered to go on without delay “in the interests of the State”, despite numerous protests from foreign powers.
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“I am afraid we are powerless,” said Sir Horace Rowland of the British Foreign Office, while the Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, Lord Robert Cecil, lamented that, due to the fact that Britain and Germany were then at war, “Any representation by us will do her more harm than good.”
Having not yet entered the war, however, the United States was bound by no such concerns. Hugh S. Gibson, who was, at the time, the First Secretary of the U. S. legation in Brussels, later wrote that he reminded the Germans of “the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania,” warning them that “this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust.”
According to Gibson, Count Franz von Harrach—the bodyguard of Archduke Ferdinand when the latter had been assassinated in Sarajevo—said that he “would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier,” adding that his only regret was that they “had not three or four old English women to shoot.”
Naturally, the German government regarded the matter rather differently. In a letter to the press, the German Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs wrote that, “It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary.”
Necessary or not, the execution of Edith Cavell, which went ahead on 12 October, 1915, did, indeed, stir both England and America, at least, with “horror and disgust,” as Hugh S. Gibson had promised. Her last words were recorded as, “I am glad to die for my country,” and her death by firing squad was used in both British and American propaganda throughout the remainder of the war and into World War II.
Within just a few months of her death, the first depiction of her life and sacrifice had already made it onto the silver screen in the form of a 1916 Australian film called The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell. Others followed, including The Woman the Germans Shot and Dawn, which was later remade as a talkie starring Anna Neagle and George Sanders.
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These titles are indicative of how Cavell’s death was portrayed in the Allied nations—her stoic sacrifice was often compared to the martyrdom of saints, and her execution was depicted as cold-blooded murder committed by barbarians. Indeed, Cavell found her way into the Church of England’s Calendar of Saints on 12 October, the day of her death, though merely as a memorial in her honor rather than official canonization.
Her remains were first buried next to the prison where she had been interred then later moved back to England after the war and laid to rest at Norwich Cathedral, an act which required an exception from King George V to overrule an 1854 order preventing anyone from being buried on the grounds of the cathedral.
When Cavell’s body returned to England, bells rang out in a style typically reserved only for the deaths of kings and queens. The train car that carried her remains, known as the Carrell Van, has been kept as a memorial ever since, and can still be viewed at the Bodiam railway station in East Sussex.
After her death, dozens of monuments to Cavell were erected all over the world, including a statue in Paris that was one of two statues Adolf Hitler ordered destroyed when he visited that city, then occupied by Nazi Germany, during World War II.
While Edith Cavell dedicated—and ultimately gave—her life to helping and protecting others, her death served to propel soldiers onto the battlefield in not one war but two. And while many may not remember her, Cavell’s legacy hasn’t faded over the years. In 2015, on the centenary of her death, a special memorial service was held at Norwich Cathedral and broadcast live on BBC Radio. New songs, paintings, and even a commemorative coin were commissioned to mark the occasion.
Featured photo: Alchetron