Edith Cavell, RN (1865-1915), Tinker, Tailor, Nurse, Spy

Profiles in Nursing

Edith Cavell, RN (1865-1915), Tinker, Tailor, Nurse, Spy

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
to Save

Nurses involved in armed conflicts have often risked injury or death for the sake of their patients, but few nurses have faced an ordeal like that of Edith Cavell, an English nurse whose determination to save lives brought her before a German firing squad in 1915.

A Promising Career Unfolds

The daughter of an Anglican vicar, Cavell (whose last name rhymes with “travel”) was born in 1865 in the village of Swardeston, near Norwich, England. After working for a time as a governess, she studied nursing at the Royal London Hospital and in 1907 moved to Brussels, Belgium, to become head matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute.

In Brussels, the head of Cavell’s institute asked her to organize Belgium’s first nursing school, L’Ecole Belge d’Infimieres Diplomees, bringing professional discipline and scientific techniques to a role that until that point had been handled mainly by unskilled nuns.

In 1910, Cavell founded one of the first European nursing journals, L’infirmière. Although the idea of women having careers was still controversial in conservative Belgian society, she was also in demand as a lecturer.

Under an Enemy Flag 

When war broke out following the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand in June 1914, Cavell was visiting her widowed mother in Norwich. Although Cavell could have remained in England, she felt duty-bound to return to Brussels, where her clinic was declared a neutral Red Cross facility.

On August 4, the German army invaded and occupied Belgium. British and French civilians were ordered home, but Cavell and her assistant insisted on remaining, now supervising a staff of mostly Belgian and German nurses.

That fall, two escaped British prisoners of war made their way to Cavell’s clinic seeking shelter. Although the German occupation authority had posted signs throughout the city warning of dire penalties for anyone caught harboring an enemy combatant, Cavell’s conscience would not allow her to turn the fugitives away. She agreed to hide them and later helped them try to flee the country.

Over the next ninth months, Cavell and a small network of Belgian civilians helped about 200 fugitive Allied soldiers escape back to friendly territory. This was extremely dangerous work; treating injured soldiers was one thing, but hiding them or helping them escape was a violation of Cavell’s neutrality. 

Moreover, as civilians, if she or her collaborators were caught, they would not be protected by international conventions regarding prisoners of war. Cavell understood the danger, but she also knew that many of the soldiers she was helping would be shot if they were captured (or in some cases recaptured) by the Germans. She was willing to risk her life for the chance to save others.

Death Sentence

Cavell was cautious enough to avoid suspicion for a time, but in July 1915, several of her collaborators were captured with correspondence naming Cavell. She was arrested on August 15 and, unwilling to lie even in her own defense, confessed everything.

The British Foreign Office was slow to realize Cavell’s plight and assumed that she would receive nothing worse than a prison sentence. Representatives of Spain and the United States, which were both still neutral in the conflict, pleaded for clemency, but on October 11, a German judge sentenced Cavell to death after a perfunctory two-day trial.

That night, Cavell told English chaplain Stirling Gahan that she was not afraid and had no regrets about her actions or her sentence. She felt that the lives she’d saved were worth the consequences and expressed no malice towards her captors. Early the following morning, she and another of her collaborators, Belgian architect Philippe Baucq, were executed by a German firing squad.

The execution proved to be a major diplomatic blunder for Germany, provoking international outrage and galvanizing anti-German sentiment. England’s King George V attended Cavell’s memorial service and her likeness soon appeared on British recruitment posters. She was hailed as a martyr of the Allied cause.

Cavell’s life has been dramatized in numerous films, plays and novels and the anniversary of her death is still commemorated each year at Norwich Cathedral, where her body was reburied in 1919. The charitable foundation established in her name back in 1917, Cavell Nurses’ Trust (www.cavellnursestrust.org), still exists today, supporting British nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants facing personal crisis or financial hardship.   

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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