Edith Louisa Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse and humanitarian. She is celebrated for saving the lives of casualties from all sides without distinction and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was arrested. She was court-martialled and found guilty of treason. She was sentenced to death and shot by firing squad. She received worldwide sympathetic press coverage.
She is well-known for her statement that “patriotism is not enough.” Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved”. Cavell was also an influential pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.
Early life and career
Edith Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell, was priest for 45 years. She was the eldest of four children and was taught to always share with the less fortunate, despite her family’s meagre earnings. After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels 1900 -1905, she trained as a nurse at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes. In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr. Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school by the name of L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées on the Rue de la Culture in Brussels. By 1910, “Miss Cavell ‘felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal,’ and therefore launched the nursing journal, L’infirmière. A year later, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
When World War I broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk in the East of England. She returned to Brussels where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.
World War I and execution
In late 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. In the following months, an underground organisation developed, allowing her to guide some 200 Allied soldiers to safety, which placed Cavell in violation of German military law. German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse’s actions, which were backed up by her outspokenness.
She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She was held in St Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two in solitary confinement, and was court-martialled. She was then prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial, thus reaffirming the crime in the presence of all other prisoners and lawyers present in the court at the beginning of the trial. Cavell gave the German prosecution a much stronger case against her when she declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when arriving safely in Britain. This admission proved hard to ignore because it not only confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany.
As the case stood, the sentence according to German military law was death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code says: “Will be sentenced to death for treason any person who, with the intention of helping the hostile Power, or of causing harm to the German or allied troops, is guilty of one of the crimes of paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code.” The case referred to in the above-mentioned paragraph 90 consists of “Conducting soldiers to the enemy.” Additionally, the penalties according to paragraph 160 of the German Code, in case of war, apply to both foreigners as well as Germans.
The British government said they could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.” The sentiment was echoed by Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. “Any representation by us”, he advised, “will do her more harm than good. The United States however had not yet joined the war and was in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the U.S. legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany’s already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:
We reminded him (Baron von der Lancken) of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to one of the humblest German soldiers, and his only regret was that they had not ‘three or four English old women to shoot.”
The German civil governor, Baron von der Lancken, is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. However, the German military acted quickly to execute Cavell and so deny higher authorities the opportunity to consider clemency.
Cavell was not arrested for espionage, as many were led to believe, but for treason. Of the 27 put on trial, Cavell and four others were condemned to death, among them Philippe Baucq, an architect in his thirties who had also been instrumental in the escapes. Evidence has recently emerged that Cavell was in fact a spy working for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), but her espionage role was compromised by her helping prisoners to escape.
When in custody, Cavell was questioned in French, but the session was minuted in German. This gave the interrogator the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor. A previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins, was ultimately rejected by the governor.
The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as, “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”
Despite efforts by Brand Whitlock, the U.S. minister to Belgium, and by the Marquis de Villalobar, the Spanish minister, on Cavell’s behalf, on 11 October, Baron von der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed. Sixteen men, forming two firing squads, carried out the sentence pronounced on her and on four Belgian men at Tir National shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 6:00 am on 12 October 1915. There are conflicting reports of the details of Cavell’s execution. However, according to the eyewitness account of the Reverend Le Seur, who attended Cavell in her final hours, eight soldiers fired at Cavell while the other eight executed Philippe Baucq.
There is also a dispute over the sentencing imposed under the German Military Code. Supposedly, the death penalty relevant to the offence committed by Cavell was not officially declared until a few hours after her death.
On instructions from the Spanish minister, Belgian women immediately buried her body next to St. Gilles Prison. After the War, her body was taken back to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and then transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest at Life’s Green.
Role in World War I propaganda
In the months and years following Cavell’s death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicised her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain to help increase favourable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. She was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.
News reports shortly following Cavell’s execution were found to be only true in part. Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell’s execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad. Allegedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver. Numerous accounts like these stimulated international outrage and general anti-German sentiments.
Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Cavell’s execution was widely publicised in both Britain and North America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau.
Because of the British government’s decision to use her story as propaganda, Cavell became the most prominent British female casualty of World War I. The combination of heroic appeal and a resonant atrocity-story narrative made Cavell’s case one of the most effective in British propaganda of World War I.
Unlike the rest of the world, the German government thought that they had acted fairly towards Cavell. In a letter, the German Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmermann, stated:
It was a pity that Miss Cavell had to be executed, but it was necessary. She was judged justly. We hope it will not be necessary to have any more executions.
Their laws do not make distinctions between sexes, the only exception to this rule being that according to legal customs, women in a “delicate” (probably this means “pregnant”) condition could not be executed; Cavell was not considered delicate. From the Germans’ perspective, had they released Cavell, there would have been an influx of women partaking in acts against Germany because the women knew they would not be severely punished. It was up to the responsible men to follow their legal duty to Germany and ignore the world’s condemnation.
The German government also believed that all of the convicted people were thoroughly aware of the nature of their acts. The court paid particular attention to this point, releasing several accused persons because there was doubt as to whether the accused knew that their actions were punishable. The condemned, on the other hand, knew full well what they were doing and the punishment for committing their crimes because “numerous public proclamations had pointed out the fact that aiding enemies’ armies was punishable with death.”
Two representations of Edith Cavell
“Cavell was not a particularly well-known figure outside the field of nursing prior to the Great War”. This allowed for the creation of two different depictions of her in British propaganda. British propaganda ignored anything that did not fit this image, including the suggestion that Cavell, during her interrogation, had given information that incriminated others. In November 1915, the British Foreign Office issued a denial that Cavell had implicated anyone else in her testimony.
“The first representation was the distorted but highly emotive portrayal of her as the girlish innocent victim of a ruthless enemy with no sense of honour in its dealings with frail women”. This depicted Edith Cavell as innocent of espionage, which was most commonly used in various forms of British propaganda, such as postcards and newspaper illustrations during the war.”The British Press presented her story in such a way as to capture the public imagination and fuel the masculine desire for vengeance on the battlefield”. These important images implied that men must enlist in the armed forces immediately in order to stop the murder of innocent British females.
The second representation of Cavell during World War I described her as a serious, reserved, brave, and patriotic woman who devoted her life to nursing and died to save others. This portrayal has been illustrated in numerous biographical sources, from personal first-hand experiences of the Red Cross nurse. Pastor Le Seur, the German army chaplain, recalled at the time of her execution, “I do not believe that Miss Cavell wanted to be a martyr…but she was ready to die for her country… Miss Cavell was a very brave woman and a faithful Christian”. Another account from British chaplain, the Reverend Mr Gahan, remembers Cavell’s words, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!”In this interpretation, “her gender made her remarkable enough to be remembered as an individual on a scale that, had she been a man, she would not have been”.
Burial and memorials
Her remains were returned to Britain after the war and a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. On 19 May 1919, her body was reburied at the east side of Norwich Cathedral; a graveside service is still held each October.
Following her death, many memorials were created around the world to remember Cavell. One of the first was the one unveiled in October 1918 by Queen Alexandra on the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, near a home for nurses which also bore her name.
Other honours include:
- a stone memorial, including a statue of Cavell, adjacent to Trafalgar Square in London
- a memorial in Peterborough Cathedral, Peterborough
- a memorial outside Norwich Cathedral
- a marble and stone memorial near The Shrine in Melbourne, Australia
- an inscription on a war memorial, naming the 35 people executed by the German army in a place called Tir national on the Schaerbeek municipality
- a dedication on the war memorial on the grounds of Sacred Trinity Church, Salford, Greater Manchester
- Monument to Edith Cavell and Marie Depage in Brussels by Paul Du Bois.
- a stone memorial statue by Canadian sculptor R. Tait McKenzie in the garden behind the Red Cross National (U.S.) Headquarters, 1730 E Street, NW Washington, DC in the block south of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and north of the Daughters of the American Revolution building.
- Edith Cavell Hospital, in Peterborough, where she received part of her education
- the Edith Cavell Hospital in the Brussels borough of Uccle (Ukkel), Belgium
- a wing of Homerton Hospital, Hackney, London
- a wing of Toronto Western Hospital, Canada
- Cavell Building, Quinte Children’s Treatment Centre, Belleville, Ontario, Canada
- University of East Anglia, Norwich, named its School of Nursing and Midwifery centre, the Edith Cavell building, when it opened in 2006.
- Edith Cavell Care Centre, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada,
- a ward in the Whittington Hospital in Archway, London
- a building at the Medical School, University of Queensland, Australia
- The Edith Cavell Home, Hospital, and Village (a retirement village) is located in Sumner, Christchurch, New Zealand.
- Cavell Road, Norwich, UK
- Edith Cavell Drive Steeple Bumpstead, UK
- Cavell Avenue, Twin Cities, Minnesota
- Cavell Street, running next to the London Hospital in Whitechapel, where Cavell trained, formerly known as Bedford Street
- Cavell Street, West Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
- Cavell Street, Dunedin, New Zealand
- Rue Edith Cavell / Edith Cavellstraat, a street in Uccle/Ukkel, Brussels, Belgium
- Edith Cavellstraat, a street in Ostend/Oostende, Belgium
- Rue Edith Cavell, Vitry-sur-Seine, France
- Avenue Edith-Cavell, in Nice, France
- Rue Miss Cavell, Arques, France
- Rua Edith Cavell, a street in Lisbon, Portugal
- Cavell Drive in Winnipeg, Manitoba
- Cavell Avenue in Guelph, Ontario
- Edith Cavell Boulevard, a road in Port Stanley, Ontario, Canada
- Cavell Avenue, in Trenton, New Jersey
- a street in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa
- a street in Port Louis, Mauritius
- Cavell Avenue in The Danforth neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Avenue Miss Cavell,St-Maur-Des-Fosses,France
- Cavell Walk, Stevenage, UK
- Edith Cavell Way, Shooters Hill, London, UK
- Cavell Primary School, Norwich, UK
- Edith Cavell Regional School of Nursing, in Belleville, Ontario, Canada
- Edith Cavell School, Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
- Edith Cavell Elementary School, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
- Edith Cavell Lower School in Bedford, UK
- Edith Cavell Elementary School, St. Catharines, Ontario
- a middle school in Windsor, Ontario, which closed in 1987
- an elementary school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, which was later renamed to S.F. Howe
- Wymondham College in Norfolk, Britain, has a boarding block named after her.
- Cavell House, green house at Queen Mary School, Mumbai
- Cavell House, the fourth, blue house of St Aidan’s Anglican Girls’ School, Brisbane, Australia
- Cavell House, blue house at Sheringham High School, Norfolk.
- Northlands School Cavell House
- Cavell Gardens, Inverness, Britain
- Cavell Park, a playground in Northeast Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
- Mount Edith Cavell, a peak in the Canadian Rockies, named in 1916
- Cavell Corona, a geological feature on Venus
- a bridge in Queenstown, New Zealand
- The Edith Cavell Trust was established by the New South Wales Nurses’ Association which provides scholarships to nurses in New South Wales
- The Edith Cavell Nursing Scholarship Fund, a philanthropy of the Dallas County Medical Society Alliance Foundation providing scholarships to exceptional nursing students in Dallas, Texas and the surrounding area
- a guest house in Clevedon, Somerset (Cavell House) where she spent some of her childhood
- a variety of rose first bred in 1917 is named after her.
- a YWCA camp in Lexington, Michigan
- Edith became a popular name for French and Belgian girls after her execution. The French chanteuse Édith Piaf, born two months after Cavell was executed, was the best known of these.
- Radio Cavell 1350am. Broadcasting to the staff and patients on The Royal Oldham Hospital! Charity Radio.
- The Edith Cavell public house, Tombland, Norwich.
- The Nurse Cavell Van is the prototype passenger luggage van that transported her remains from Dover to London during her repatriation.
- Cavell Gardens Care Home, Vancouver, Canada; Site was Edith Cavell Hospital from 1955 to 2000.