Edith Cavell was a British nurse during the First World War. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides and in helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.
A Small Village in Swardeston
Edith Louisa Cavell was born on December 4th 1865 in Swardeston, a small village not far from Norwich in Norfolk where her father was the Reverend. She was the eldest of four siblings, Florence, Mary and John. Her childhood was in some ways idyllic, drawing and painting flowers in the summer months and ice skating in the winter months.
After living and working in Belgium as a Governess, Edith returned to Swardeston when her father became very unwell and assisted with nursing him back to health. It is believed that this is when Edith was inspired to become a nurse. In 1896, Edith began her training at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, under Matron Eva Lückes, a friend of Florence Nightingale. After completing her nurse training in 1898, Edith held a number of roles in British hospitals before being invited back to Brussels to nurse a sick child. Edith was invited to be Matron of the first Nursing School in Belgium, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées’.
“At a time like this, I am more needed than ever.” Edith Cavell, 1914.
The Outbreak of War
At the time of the outbreak of the First World War, Edith was at home in Norwich visiting her family. She told those closest to her that “at a time like this, I am more needed than ever” and made plans to return to 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 under her care, out of the hospital and across the border to neutral Holland. It is believed that she saved the lives of over 200 men thanks to her bravery.
Arrest and Execution
After a lengthy investigation, the suspicions of the German Officials grew and Edith, along with others, was arrested and sent to trial. Edith was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by firing squad. At dawn on 12th October 1915, despite international pressure for mercy, nurse Edith Cavell was put to death by a German firing squad.
Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage. Her image and story were widely used in propaganda and recruitment posters encouraging British soldiers to sign up to the war effort.
“I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Edith Cavell, 1915.
At the time, millions of soldiers and civilians owed their lives to the dedication, self-sacrifice and hard work of nurses. In 1917, The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror newspapers launched a national appeal for funds in her memory, raising £12,500. The fund was intended to be used for nurses “shattered mentally and physically, who have sought the health of others at the expense of their own.”
The fund came to be known as the Nation’s Fund for Nurses, which later became Cavell Nurses’ Trust.
Cavell Nurses’ Trust is a charity set up in Edith Cavell’s name. We support UK nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants when they are facing a personal or financial crisis, or suffering hardship. Find out how we help, click here
A short documentary on the life of Edith Cavell, directed by Ivo Wasdell Harris.