Edith Cavell

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Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell.jpg
Edith Cavell
Born4 December 1865
Swardeston, Norfolk, United Kingdom
Died12 October 1915(1915-10-12) (aged 49)
Tir national, Schaarbeek, Brussels, Belgium
Honored inChurch of England
Feast12 October (Anglican memorial day)
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Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell.jpg
Edith Cavell
Born4 December 1865
Swardeston, Norfolk, United Kingdom
Died12 October 1915(1915-10-12) (aged 49)
Tir national, Schaarbeek, Brussels, Belgium
Honored inChurch of England
Feast12 October (Anglican memorial day)

Edith Louisa Cavell (/ˈkævəl/; 4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.

She is well known for her statement that "patriotism is not enough". Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved."[1] 12 October is appointed for her commemoration in the Anglican church, although this is not a "saint's feast day" in the traditional sense.

Edith Cavell, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.

Early life and career[edit]

Cavell in the garden with her two dogs before the outbreak of the First World War

Edith Cavell was born on 4 December 1865[2] in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell, was vicar for 45 years.[3] She was the eldest of four children and was taught to always share with the less fortunate, despite her family’s meagre earnings.[2] After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels 1900–1905, she trained as a nurse at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes. In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school by the name of L'École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées on the Rue de la Culture in Brussels.[1] By 1910, "Miss Cavell "felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal," and therefore launched the nursing journal, L'infirmière".[1] A year later, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.[4]

When World War I broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk in the East of England. She returned to Brussels where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.[5]

World War I and execution[edit]

In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Holland.[5] Wounded and derelict British and French soldiers and Belgians and French of military age were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers by Prince Reginald de Croy at his château of Bellignie near Mons. From there, they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell, Louis Séverin and others in Brussels, and furnished by them with money to reach the Dutch frontier and with guides obtained through Philippe Baucq.[6] This placed Cavell in violation of German military law.[7][8] German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse's actions, which were backed up by her outspokenness.[7]

She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She had been betrayed by Gaston Quien, who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator.[9][10] She was held in St Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two in solitary confinement.[7] She made three depositions to the German police, 8, 18 August, and 22, admitting that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French derelict soldiers and about 100 French and Belgians of military age to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house.[6]

In her court-martial she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial, thus reaffirming the crime in the presence of all other prisoners and lawyers present in the court at the beginning of the trial. Cavell gave the German prosecution a much stronger case against her when she declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when arriving safely in Britain. This admission proved hard to ignore because it not only confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany.[11]

As the case stood, the sentence according to German military law was death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code says: "Will be sentenced to death for treason any person who, with the intention of helping the hostile Power, or of causing harm to the German or allied troops, is guilty of one of the crimes of paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code."[11] The case referred to in the above-mentioned paragraph 90 consists of "Conducting soldiers to the enemy."[11] Additionally, the penalties according to paragraph 160 of the German Code, in case of war, apply to foreigners as well as Germans.

A propaganda stamp issued shortly after Cavell's death.

Furthermore, this application of the German law was supported by the First Geneva Convention. While the Convention ordinarily guarantees protection of medical personnel, that protection is forfeit if it is used as cover for any belligerent action. This forfeiture is expressed in article 7 of the 1906 version of the Convention, which was the version in force at the time.[2] Surprisingly from a modern perspective, little was made of the war crime status of her actions; as discussed below, the German authorities instead justified prosecution merely on the basis of the German law and the interests of the German state.

The British government said they could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, "I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless."[12] Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, said, "Any representation by us", he advised, "will do her more harm than good."[12] The United States, however, had not yet joined the war and was in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the U.S. legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany's already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:

"We reminded [German civil governor Baron von der Lancken] of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilised countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the rather irrelevant remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier, and his only regret was that they had not "three or four old English women to shoot."[13]

Baron von der Lancken is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. However, General von Sauberzweig, the military governor of Brussels, ordered that "in the interests of the State" the implementation of the death penalty against Baucq and Cavell should be immediate,[6] denying higher authorities an opportunity to consider clemency.[14][15] Cavell was defended by lawyer Sadi Kirschen from Brussels. Of the 27 put on trial, five were condemned to death: Cavell, Baucq (an architect in his thirties), Louise Thuliez, Séverin and Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Of the five sentenced to death, only Cavell and Baucq were executed; the other three were reprieved.[6]

Cavell was not arrested for espionage, as many were led to believe, but for treason.[16] She may have been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and turned away from her espionage duties in order to help Allied soldiers escape, although this is not universally accepted.[17][18]

When in custody, Cavell was questioned in French, but the session was minuted in German. This gave the interrogator the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor. A previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins,[7] was ultimately rejected by the governor.[15]

The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."[19] These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as, "Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country."[citation needed]

From his sick bed Brand Whitlock, the U.S. minister to Belgium, wrote a personal note on Cavell's behalf to Moritz von Bissing, the governor general of Belgium. Hugh Gibson; Maitre G. de Leval, the legal adviser to the United States legation; and Rodrigo Saavedra y Vinent, 2nd Marques de Villalobar, the Spanish minister, formed a midnight deputation of appeal for mercy or at least postponement of sentence.[20] Despite these efforts, on 11 October, Baron von der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed.[8] Sixteen men, forming two firing squads, carried out the sentence pronounced on her and on four Belgian men[4] at the Tir national[7] shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 7:00 am on 12 October 1915. There are conflicting reports of the details of Cavell's execution. However, according to the eyewitness account of the Reverend Le Seur, who attended Cavell in her final hours, eight soldiers fired at Cavell while the other eight executed Philippe Baucq.[16]

There is also a dispute over the sentencing imposed under the German Military Code. Supposedly, the death penalty relevant to the offence committed by Cavell was not officially declared until a few hours after her death.[21]

On instructions from the Spanish minister, Belgian women immediately buried her body next to St. Gilles Prison.[8] After the War, her body was taken back to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and then transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest at Life's Green.[5]

Role in World War I propaganda[edit]

British Empire Union post-World War I poster, including Edith Cavell's grave
The Cavell Case (1919), an American film on Edith Cavell.

In the months and years following Cavell's death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicised her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain, and to help increase favourable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. She was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death.[21] Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.

News reports shortly following Cavell's execution were found to be only true in part.[7] Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell's execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad.[7] Allegedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver.[8] Numerous accounts like these stimulated international outrage and general anti-German sentiments.

Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Cavell's execution was widely publicised in both Britain and North America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau.[22]

Because of the British government's decision to use Cavell's story as propaganda, she became the most prominent British female casualty of World War I.[23] The combination of heroic appeal and a resonant atrocity-story narrative made Cavell's case one of the most effective in British propaganda of World War I,[22] as well as a factor in enduring post-war anti-German sentiment.

German response[edit]

Unlike the rest of the world, the German government thought that they had acted fairly towards Cavell. In a letter, German undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Dr. Alfred Zimmermann (not to be confused with Arthur Zimmerman, German Secretary for Foreign Affairs) made a statement to the press on behalf of the German government:

It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly...It is undoubtedly a terrible thing that the woman has been executed; but consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because committed by women.[24]

From the Germans' perspective, had they released Cavell, there would have been a surge in the number of women participating in acts against Germany because they knew they would not be severely punished. It was up to the responsible men to follow their legal duty to Germany and ignore the world’s condemnation. Their laws do not make distinctions between sexes, the only exception to this rule being that according to legal customs, women in a "delicate" (probably this means "pregnant") condition could not be executed.[24]

The German government also believed that all of the convicted people were thoroughly aware of the nature of their acts. The court paid particular attention to this point, releasing several accused persons because there was doubt as to whether the accused knew that their actions were punishable.[24] The condemned, on the other hand, knew full well what they were doing and the punishment for committing their crimes because "numerous public proclamations had pointed out the fact that aiding enemies’ armies was punishable with death."[24]

Two representations of Edith Cavell[edit]

Before the First World War, Cavell was not well known outside nursing circles.[7] This allowed the creation of two different depictions of her in British propaganda, which ignored anything that did not fit this image, including the suggestion that Cavell, during her interrogation, had given information that incriminated others. In November 1915, the British Foreign Office issued a denial that Cavell had implicated anyone else in her testimony.

One image commonly represented was of Cavell as an innocent victim of a ruthless and dishonourable enemy.[15] This view depicted her as innocent of espionage, and was most commonly used in various forms of British propaganda, such as postcards and newspaper illustrations during the war.[15] Her story was presented in the British press as a means of fuelling a desire for revenge on the battlefield.[15] These images implied that men must enlist in the armed forces immediately in order to stop the murder of innocent British women.

The second representation of Cavell during World War I described her as a serious, reserved, brave, and patriotic woman who devoted her life to nursing and died to save others. This portrayal has been illustrated in numerous biographical sources, from personal first-hand experiences of the Red Cross nurse. Pastor Le Seur, the German army chaplain, recalled at the time of her execution, "I do not believe that Miss Cavell wanted to be a martyr…but she was ready to die for her country… Miss Cavell was a very brave woman and a faithful Christian".[7] Another account from British chaplain, the Reverend Mr Gahan, remembers Cavell's words, "I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!"[8] In this interpretation, her stoicism was seen as remarkable for a woman, and brought her even greater renown than a man in similar circumstances would have received.[15]

Burial and memorials[edit]

Memorial to Edith Cavell outside Norwich Cathedral
A marble statue of Edith Cavell in nurse's uniform backed by a large granite column, surmounted by a figure representing Humanity
Memorial to Edith Cavell at St. Martin's Place, London
War memorial in Schaerbeek where Edith Cavell was executed by the German army
Monument to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage, Brussels

Cavell's remains were returned to Britain after the war and a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. On 19 May 1919, her body was reburied at the east side of Norwich Cathedral; a graveside service is still held each October.[25] The railway van that conveyed her remains from Dover to London is kept as a memorial on the Kent and East Sussex Railway and is usually open to view at Bodiam railway station.

Following Cavell's death, many memorials were created around the world to remember her. One of the first was the one unveiled in October 1918 by Queen Alexandra on the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, near a home for nurses which also bore her name.[citation needed]

In the calendar of the Church of England the day appointed for the commemoration of Edith Cavell is 12 October.[26] This is a memorial in her honour rather than formal canonisation.

Other honours include:


Medical and Nursing facilities named in her honour::




In popular culture[edit]


Films and TV[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Judson, Helen (July 1941). "Edith Cavell". The American Journal of Nursing: 871. 
  2. ^ a b Unger, Abraham. Edith Cavell. HistoryNet.com, 12 June 2006. Web. 7 February 2011
  3. ^ Hoehling, A. A. (April 1955), "The Story of Edith Cavell"; The American Journal of Nursing, p. 1320
  4. ^ a b Clowes, P. (1996). A Fanatical Sense of Duty Drove Nurse Edith Cavell to Harbor Allied Soldiers Behind German Lines. Military History, 18-21
  5. ^ a b c Great Britain Heroes-#2: The execution of Edith Cavell. (2007). British Heritage, 63-64
  6. ^ a b c d Wikisource-logo.svg Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1922). "Cavell, Edith". Encyclopædia Britannica (12th ed.). London & New York. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Hoehling, A. (1957). "The Story of Edith Cavell"; The American Journal of Nursing, 1320-1322
  8. ^ a b c d e Scovil, E. R. (November 1915). "An Heroic Nurse"; The American Journal of Nursing: 118-120
  9. ^ The Mount Washington News 23 February 1934
  10. ^ Palm Beach Daily News 10 March 1936
  11. ^ a b c Leval, Maitre G. Maitre G. de Leval on the Execution of Edith Cavell 12 October 1915 www.firstworldwar.com. 8 February 2011.
  12. ^ a b Norton-Taylor, Richard (11 October 2005). "How British Diplomats Failed Edith Cavell". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 March 2013. 
  13. ^ Gibson, Hugh S. (1917). A Journal From Our Legation in Belgium. Grosset & Dunlap. The Project Gutenberg eBook of Journal From Our Legation In Belgium, by Hugh Gibson. Retrieved 3 May 2013
  14. ^ Scovil, Elisabeth (November 1915), "An Heroic Nurse"; The American Journal of Nursing, p. 120
  15. ^ a b c d e f Hughes, Anne-Marie Claire (2005). "War, Gender & National Mourning: The Significance of the Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell in Britain"; European Review of History, 425-444
  16. ^ a b Book Review (1958). The American Journal of Nursing, 940
  17. ^ Rankin, Nicholas "A genius for deception, how cunning helped the British win two world wars." Oxford University Press, 2008, pages 36-37. Rankin cites the published statement of M. R. D. Foot, historian and WW2 British intelligence officer, as to Cavell's having been part of SIS or MI6. ISBN 978-0-19--538704-9.
  18. ^ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-25244361
  19. ^ Account by the Reverend H. Stirling Gahan[dead link]
  20. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Henri F. Klein (1920). "Cavell, Edith". In Rines, George Edwin. Encyclopedia Americana. 
  21. ^ a b M.M.R. (1941). Book Review - Edith Cavell. The American Journal of Nursing, 871
  22. ^ a b Peterson 1939, p. 61
  23. ^ Hughes 2005, p. 425
  24. ^ a b c d Zimmermann, Alfred. “A Defense of the Execution.” The New York Times Current History, no. 3. p 481. New York: The New York Times Company, 1916. Accessed October 8, 2013. http://books.google.com/books?id=FjsDAAAAYAAJ.
  25. ^ "Nurse Edith Cavell". Norwich Cathedral. Retrieved 2010-02-21. 
  26. ^ "The Church of England "Daily Media Briefing"". Churchofengland.org. 2012-10-11. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  27. ^ "Roll-of-honour.com". Roll-of-honour.com. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  28. ^ Newsreel of monument: WPA Film Library, segment 55654-1
  29. ^ Goodwin, Doris Kearns (1994). No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780671642402. , relevant quotation from blog What Do I Know (8 March 2012).
  30. ^ Newsreel of monument: Nurse Cavell Memorial 1920 at British Pathé.
  31. ^ Reuter's, ed. (18 March 1920), "Statue of Edith Cavell: Unveiled on Tuesday by Queen Alexandra", The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW) 33 (9837), retrieved 4 March 2013 
  32. ^ Chantellegroup.com[dead link]
  33. ^ Comm.uea.ac.uk[dead link]
  34. ^ Country, Black (2005-01-06). "How 1920’s Dudley honoured Nurse Cavell". Black Country Bugle. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  35. ^ "BBC News - Peterborough car parks drop names of historic figures". Bbc.co.uk. 2011-11-01. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  36. ^ "Minneapolisparks.org". Minneapolisparks.org. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  37. ^ http://www.historic.org.nz/TheRegister/RegisterSearch/RegisterResults.aspx?RID=4371
  38. ^ The Edith Cavell Retrieved 2 March 2010
  39. ^ [1]
  40. ^ "Plant: Miss Edith Cavell (polyantha, De Ruiter, 1917)". Helpmefind.com. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  41. ^ "Find a Grave "Edith Cavell"". Findagrave.com. Retrieved 2013-12-08. 
  42. ^ Belinda O'Hooley says that "Que Sera" seeks to portray "the horrors of war from a woman's perspective" and "explores the feelings, sounds and senses that Edith Cavell may have felt as she stood before a firing squad"."O'Hooley & Tidow". Gayleeds.com. 2010. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 
  43. ^ "O'Hooley & Tidow: unconventional and experimental folk" (2). Musos magazine. February 2011. Retrieved 11 June 2011. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]