London Lantern

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Edith Cavell - A British Heroine

07/06/2003, By David McIntosh

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 15615 votes


Near Trafalgar Square, not far from the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, is a statue that commemorates a woman, who while she may not be as familiar to people today, was in her time and the years that followed a legend in the English speaking world as a model of bravery and morality in a world rapidly going mad. On the monument in large letters the words "Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion, Sacrifice." As much as the world-famous statue of Nelson not far away represents one kind of courage, the kind of courage born under fire, the monument to Nurse Edith Cavell remembers another kind of courage, the quiet bravery of those who set out of heal the wounds caused by war and strife. It is a story, especially in the times in which we live, that is worth repeating.

To an earlier generation the story of Edith Cavell, a nurse from the village of Swardeston in Norfolk, was one of heroism in the face of adversity and an example of how one should conduct oneself when confronted with questions of life and death. Facing the rifle barrels of the firing squad and the end of her days on earth Edith would conduct herself coolly; with the conviction that God would judge her and her executioners fairly and justly.

The eldest of four children, Edithís father, an Anglican vicar in Norfolk instilled in his children, especially young Edith the strong values and Christian virtues which were to sustain her throughout her life and especially through the troubled times to come. Her early education was handled by her father, schools and governesses falling out of the financial wherewithal of a vicar in Norfolk. As a teen she would attend a school run by a Miss Margaret Gibson, where she showed a particular talent for languages, especially French. It was her facility with French that led to her becoming a governess to a family in Brussels.

The illness of her father necessitated her return to Norfolk and after his death she decided upon a career in nursing, becoming a probationer at London Hospital and after completion of her training working at St. Pancras Infirmary, later becoming Assistant Matron at Shoreditch Infirmary. In 1906 she would become matron for Belgiumís first non-denominational training school for nurses, founded by a Belgian surgeon named Antoine Depage at Berkendael Institute, which by 1914 had become a leader in the provision of trained nurses for Belgiumís hospitals.

Sacrifice and Fortitude

The outbreak of war found Edith in England visiting her mother. Telling her that she "was needed now more than ever" Cavell returned to Belgium and duties as matron as Depageís nursing school.

After the opening phase of World War I known as "the race to the sea" where the British Expeditionary Force or BEF prevented the German Army from enveloping the allies and the Battle of Mons which resulted in the retreat of Allied armies toward the Marne, it came to Edithís attention that a number of British soldiers had become separated from their units. She was also distressed to learn that the Germans upon capturing the fugitives were shooting them along with the villagers who were providing aid and assistance as they attempted to make their way back to the safety of their lines.

The Allied retreat however had created another more personal problem for Edith Cavell; most of Belgian was now under German occupation and she was, in the eyes of the occupiers, now an enemy alien. The Germans, who had turned the nursing school into a Red Cross Hospital, allowed Edith, for the time being, to continue her duties and she provided care and comfort for the wounded of both sides while continuing to teach nursing classes and handle the administration of the hospital and nursing school.

It was her background of caring and compassion that would lead her to become a legend by providing aid and succor British, French and Belgian soldiers trying to evade the clutches of the Germans and ultimately lead to her death and becoming a legend. After first aiding two Britons who had been brought to her by a Belgian engineer who had formed an escape network, Cavell became more deeply involved in the dangerous business of helping allied soldiers on their way down the road to freedom and the chance to fight another day.

In the coming months as part of another escape and evasion network headed by Prince Reginald de Croy, a Belgian aristocrat, she would hide and assist in the escape of some 200 soldiers, half of them British. Soldiers were hidden in the hospital, fed and cared for until they were ready to begin their journey back to England. Clothing and papers were provided, if needed and she even took on the job of taking the escapees through the streets of Brussels to meet guides who would then shepherd them to freedom. During that time she was careful to shield her staff from the clandestine side of her activities, taking on chores such as cooking and cleaning for the soldiers in addition to her regular duties.

On August 5th, 1915, the German secret police, who had long suspected Edithís involvement in an escape network and watching and waiting, came for her. She was subjected to questioning for three days, denying any involvement, until Germans, in a ruse told her that they already knew all about her activities and that she could save the lives of others who had been arrested by simply confessing all. Trustingly, she did and thus sealed her own fate. Her trial lasted only two days and when a sentence of death was delivered she accepted the verdict with grace and calm.

The American and Spanish ambassadors tried everything to win clemency, but to no avail, the Germans, saying she was a spy, were anxious to make an example of Cavell.

The night before her execution she was visited by the Reverend Stirling Gahan, chaplain of Christ Church in Brussels. He was the last Englishman she would see and to him she would say words that have become immortal: "Standing, as I do, in the view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

On the morning of October 12th, 1915 she was led from her cell and executed by firing squad. Her body was buried nearby, but in 1919 it was exhumed and returned to England. A memorial service was in Westminster Abbey. Among those in attendance King George V. Cavell was then buried at Norwich Cathedral, not far from the village where she grown up.

It would not take long for the Germans to realize that they had committed what we today would call a public relations blunder; in fact a disaster. Condemnation from around the world was quick in coming and was vocal and damning. Enlistments in Britain experienced an increase, American public opinion already outraged at the sinking of the Lusitania began to sway from neutrality to favoring the allied cause, and image of the Germans as modern day Huns began to take hold in the popular imagination.

While Edith Cavell is most remembered for her courage during a time of war, her contributions to nursing and the practice of medicine should not be overlooked. In her day medicine was peopled more by generalists than specialists, yet Cavell, while a generalist by necessity, did show particular interest in the care of children as well as inured soldiers. Given the range and severity of the kind of wounds she and her nurses faced on a regular basis, it is not a stretch to say that Edith Cavell was one of the pioneers in what we know think of a trauma care. It should noted that in the care of wounded soldiers Cavell made no distinction between allied and German casualties; all needing care and comfort received it.

In addition to the statue in Trafalgar Square, the memory of Edith Cavell is kept alive around the world; hospitals and schools bear her name, a mountain in Alberta, Canada is now called Mount Edith Cavell and there are educational endowments honoring her. At least four movies about Edith Cavell, including the classic Dawn starring Dame Sybil Thorndike, have been made. To this day on the Saturday nearest the date in October on which she was shot a short service in her memory is held in Norwich Cathedral.

Given that civilization again finds itself fighting the darkness of barbarism we all can find strength and inspiration by remembering a woman who, in her time, carried the torch for the and ideals and principles we again find ourselves defending.

David McIntosh

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Re: Edith Cavell - A British Heroine

By Kathleen Pook Gaioni 01/07/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 14659 votes)

When I used to go to school in Dalston East London, there was a school in the area called Edith Cavell.

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Re: Edith Cavell - A British Heroine

By sue 20/11/2008, (Rating: 3 from 12548 votes)

i used to go to the school in quensbridge road and in dalston between 1971 and 1976 do you know of anyone else who went there or any intrest facts about the school during that time. thank you

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