Edith Cavell was a British nurse during the First World War. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction and in helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.
A Small Village in Swardeston
Edith Louisa Cavell was born in Swardeston, a small village in Norfolk where her father was the Reverend, on December 4th, 1865. She had 3 younger siblings and you can still visit the house they grew up in known as "Cavell House".
Edith moved to Belgium, where she worked as a Governess and she was soon fluent in French. She returned to Swardeston when her father became very unwell and Edith assisted with nursing him back to health. This act is what probably inspired Edith to become a nurse. She trained at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, under Eva Lückes. Edith wasn't always the best student, Eva described her as unpunctual and not a nurse that could be relied on! However, Edith's intentions were good!
"At a time like this, I am more needed than ever."
Edith Cavell, 1915.
The Outbreak of War
In 1907, after completing her nurse training and completing a number of roles in hospitals in the UK, Edith was invited back to Brussels to nurse a sick child. Despite Eva's comments, Edith's skills were soon recognised and she was invited to be Matron of the first Nursing School in Belgium. She excelled in this role despite the challenges presented by societal views of women and work at that time. However, it was a great accolade when the Queen of the Belgians broke her arm in an accident and requested one of Edith's nurses! By 1912, Edith was busy managing one nursing school, three hospitals, three private nursing homes, 24 communal schools for nurses, thirteen private kindergartens, private duty cases, a clinic and was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Edith was in Norwich. "At a time like this, I am more needed than ever" were the words of Edith before she set off for the Frontline in Belgium.
Edith cared for all the wounded, regardless of nationality. She was greatly criticised by many at the time for assisting the German and Austrian soldiers, when they were fighting against the British. Edith soon began to work with others to smuggle the Allied soldiers that she was caring for, out of the hospital and into neutral Holland.
Arrest and Execution
After a lengthy investigation, the suspicions of the German Officials grew and Edith, along with others, was arrested. She knew of the implications in being involved with the underground, so Edith kept it a secret from many of her nurses.
When interrogated by the Officials, Edith provided all of the details surrounding the underground and she was sent to trial with 35 others. Most were sentenced to hard labour.
Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
At the time, millions of soldiers and civilians owed their lives to the dedication, self-sacrifice and hard work of nurses. In 1917 the country responded by launching an appeal for nurses "shattered mentally and physically, who have sought the health of others at the expense of their own."
The Nation's Fund for Nurses was born, which became Cavell Nurses' Trust.
"I have no fear nor shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. 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." Edith Cavell, 1915.