Edith Cavell was a heroine even before her name became internationally known. She became a nurse in 1900 and devoted her life to saving the lives of others.
Born Dec. 4, 1865 in Swardeston, United Kingdom, Cavell was the daughter of an Anglican minister.
She moved to Belgium in 1907 where she served as matron of the nursing school L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées’ and wrote for a nursing journal.
When World War I broke out, she was visiting her family in Britain but quickly returned to Belgium.
Cavell did not discriminate among soldiers when it came to medical care. She treated Allied and Central Power soldiers equally.
She also helped Allied soldiers and civilians escape Belgium to safety in Holland. This violated German law.
Cavell was arrested in August 1915, having been betrayed by someone she trusted. She spent several months in prison before being tried in a military court.
Cavell never once denied her guilt and admitted to helping nearly 200 individuals escape.
Cavell was found guilty of treason and sentenced her to death. Politicians and diplomats pleaded on her behalf for a pardon, but none came.
“Miss Cavell is the head of the Brussels Surgical Institute,” the plea from diplomat Brand Whitlock said. “She has spent her life in alleviating the sufferings of others, and her school has turned out many nurses who have watched at the bedside of the sick all the world over, in Germany as in Belgium.
“At the beginning of the war Miss Cavell bestowed her care as freely on the German soldiers as on others. Even in default of all other reasons, her career as a servant of humanity is such as to inspire the greatest sympathy and to call for pardon.”
Rev. H. Stirling Gahan visited Cavell after she had been confined for 10 weeks in prison. He found her calm and in good spirits.
“I have no fear nor shrinking,” she told Gahan, “I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”
On Oct.12, 1915, Cavell died, executed by firing squad.
Cavell’s death was used in numerous propaganda campaigns. In addition, she became a bit of a legend as fiction mingled with truth in the accounts of her death. These stories were meant to make the Germans as monstrous as possible and painted Cavell as an innocent victim.
Many memorials were built to remember Cavell. She also has been portrayed in films (including some written during the war) and television shows and has inspired works of classical music.
“Patriotism is not enough,” Cavell said, “I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone.”
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Updated: 19 October 2020
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