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Nurse Edith Cavell

On the morning of October 12, 1915, the 49-year-old British nurse Edith Cavell was executed by a German firing squad in Brussels, Belgium.










Before World War I began, Edith Cavell served for a number of years as the head matron of Berkendael Medical Institute, a nurse’s training school in Brussels. In the summer of 1914, Cavell, was on a brief holiday visiting her family in England when news came of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in far Sarajevo. Edith's family urged her to stay in England, but she believed duty demanded that she return to the hospital in Brussels. After the city was captured and occupied by the Germans in the first month of war, the hospital where Edith worked became a Red Cross hospital.  Cavell chose to remain at her post, tending to German soldiers and Belgians alike. In August 1915, German authorities arrested her and accused her of helping British and French prisoners-of-war, as well as Belgians hoping to serve with the Allied armies, to escape Belgium for neutral Holland.


There were posters all over Brussels warning, "Any male or female who hides an English or French soldier in his house shall be severely punished." In spite of this warning, there were soon successful efforts to hide soldiers who were wounded or separated from their units, then given refuge and helped to escape to safety. In Edith Cavell's hospital, wounded Allied soldiers were tended and then helped to escape. Soon Edith was persuaded to make room for some of the unfortunates who were not wounded but merely fleeing the Germans. They too were helped to get to places where they could rejoin Allied forces. The Germans became more watchful of the comings and goings at the hospital and Edith Cavell was warned, by friends, that she was suspected of hiding soldiers and helping them escape. Her strong feelings of compassion and patriotism overruled the warnings and she continued to do what she thought was her duty.


Edith was held incommunicado for ten weeks. Brand Whitlock, the American minister to Belgium, was refused permission to see her. Even her appointed defence lawyer, a Brussels attorney, was not allowed to see her until 7 October, the day her trial began. Thirty-four others were accused of the same crime and were tried as a group. The trial lasted only two days. Each person was accused of aiding the enemy and was told that, if found guilty, would be sentenced to death for treason. Edith's lawyer was eloquent in her defence, saying that she had acted out of compassion for others.  Edith's devotion to the truth condemned her. She openly admitted that she had helped as many as 200 men to escape, whom she knew would be able to fight the Germans again, and some of them had written letters of thanks for her help. This was enough to cause her to be judged guilty and the sentence to be executed.


Though diplomats from the neutral governments of the United States and Spain fought to commute her sentence, their efforts were ultimately in vain. The night before her execution on October 12, 1915, Cavell confided to Reverend Horace Graham, a chaplain from the American Legation, "I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear, nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

Cavell’s execution led to a rise in anti-German feeling in the United States as well as in Britain, where she was idealised as a heroic martyr to the cause and was honored with a statue in St. Martin’s Place, just off London's Trafalagar Square. "What Jeanne d’Arc has been for centuries to France," wrote one Allied journalist, "that will Edith Cavell become to the future generations of Britons."

Nurse Edith Cavell is commemorated by the Church on 12th October.