Edith Cavell Biography (1865-1915)
Head of a specialized school in Brussels, Belgium, for training nurses, EdithCavell became part of a group that helped soldiers and other refugees escapefrom the German army during World War I. She was eventually arrested, triedby a German military court, and sentenced to death. Despite widespread protests, Cavell was executed by a firing squad and became a martyr to the public.
Born in Swardeston, England, Edith Cavell was taught at a young age by her minister father that it was her duty to help others. After working for severalyears as a governess in England and then Brussels, Cavell returned home in 1895 to care for her father during a brief illness. This experience led her tobecome a nurse. She trained at London Hospital, during which time she helpedcare for victims of an epidemic of typhoid fever and subsequently received the Maidstone Medal for her efforts.
After working several years as a nurse, Cavell returned to Brussels and became head of a pioneer training school for lay nurses at the Berkendael Institute beginning in 1907. Shy and retiring, Cavell was strict but fair with her staff and students. By 1914, when World War I began, the school was training top quality nursing personnel for hospitals, schools, and privatenursing homes.
Cavell often traveled back to England to visit her mother and was there whenshe heard of the German invasion of Belgium. Although she knew the dangers involved, she decided to return to her post in Belgium, stating, "At a time like this, I am needed more than ever." The clinic where she trained her nursesbecame a Red Cross Hospital, where Cavell cared for both German soldiers andtroops from the Allied forces. Although the Germans sent most English nurseshome, Cavell decided to remain in Brussels and continue with her duties.
Although it was contrary to the Red Cross code of non-involvement in militarymatters, Cavell helped hide two sick English soldiers in the hospital untilthey recuperated, eventually finding guides who helped them escape to England. Cavell then joined a small group who helped find and hide fugitive Allied soldiers and refugees from the Germans, who were putting many of those they captured to death. Cavell hid the soldiers until arrangements could be made fortheir escape. She also supplyed them with money and identification papers and found guides for their escape. She would even take them to secret meetings,choosing crowded streets and other routes so as not to attract attention. Cavell was also careful not to let her staff or students become involved, thusprotecting them from danger if she were ever caught.
The German secret police began to suspect Cavell and others at the instituteof harboring the fugitives of war. Still, they could find no evidence to support their conviction. Then on July 31, 1915, members of an escape route teamthat Cavell had worked with were captured. Cavell was arrested five days later. Believing that others had already confessed, Edith admitted to her participation in the escape group and said during her trial that she had "successfully conducted Allied soldiers to the enemy of the German people." Under Germanlaw, the penalty was death.
Despite appeals from the American and Spanish ambassadors for clemency, Edithand four others were sent before a firing squad on the morning of October 12, 1915. According to some accounts, the firing squad protested against shooting Cavell, with one soldier being executed for refusing to carry out this duty. Nevertheless, Cavell, still in her nurses uniform, was executed and buriednearby.
Cavell's execution turned out to be a serious blunder by the Germans, who were soon facing a widespread outcry as "murdering monsters." Cavell's death iscredited with helping to strengthen Allied morale and doubling recruitment inthe Allied army for nearly two months after her death. Cavell's death also may have contributed to the United States entering the war.
Following the war, Cavell's body was exhumed and returned to England in May 1919. With great ceremony, she was taken to Westminster Abbey for a memorial service attended by King George V and then was reburied in Norwich, England. Today a statue stands in her honor at St. Martin's Place near London's Trafalgar Square. The statue is engraved with a statement made by Cavell to her lastEnglish visitor before her execution. It reads: "Patriotism is not enough. Imust have no hatred or bitterness for anyone." A special service is held there annually near the anniversary of her death. Cavell's heroism was also honored by the naming of Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, and in a movie and a play about her life and death.