Nurse Edith Cavell, Resistance Fighter

Profiles in Nursing

Nurse Edith Cavell, Resistance Fighter

Caught in the web of history, she faced danger with extraordinary bravery

By Suzanne Ridgway
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Fate and chance played a role in bringing British Nurse Edith Cavell to Brussels during World War I — and in placing her at the head of an underground escape organization for Allied soldiers stranded behind enemy lines. Although Ms. Cavell never sought out this responsibility, she accepted it willingly. She also accepted her fate when the Germans caught her and condemned her to death.

Ms. Cavell became a nurse in 1885 at the age of 20. Her career brought her to Brussels in 1907 when she was hired to be the head matron at Belgium’s first nurse training school, the Berkendael Medical Institute. Soon after the outbreak of "the Great War” in 1914, the Germans invaded Brussels and the Institute became a Red Cross hospital caring for wounded soldiers from both sides. According to letters to her mother, there was deprivation in wartime Brussels under German occupation, but no real danger to Ms. Cavell or her nurses.

Nurse Edith Cavell, Resistance FighterThings changed, however, the day she was sent two wounded English soldiers, Col. Dudley Boger and Sgt. Frederick Meachin. There had been many French and Belgian civilians, from cottagers to nobility, developing a resistance network that hid, fed and transported wounded Allied soldiers. Mr. Boger and Mr. Meachin were aided by several individuals and were ultimately referred to Edith Cavell as someone who might help them. They arrived at Berkendael looking for a place to hide until they could find safe passage to neutral Holland.

“It therefore happened entirely by chance that Edith Cavell found herself involved in the hiding of English soldiers … [she] had always involved herself with anyone in need," biographer Rowland Ryder writes. He states that, with her acceptance of the first two English soldiers, there was an implicit understanding “that she had agreed to accept Allied soldiers in general, and she was happy to do so, regardless of the consequences.”

Ten French soldiers followed and Ms. Cavell herself found and arranged for guides to Holland. More and more wounded soldiers arrived. Eventually she was also helping able-bodied Belgian and French men to find a way to cross the Dutch border. “Aiding the enemy,” which included sending Allied soldiers out of the occupied territory, was a treasonable offense under German military law.

By July 1915, there had been several visits from the German authorities, although the nurses managed at first to hide their complicity in any illegal activities. Her colleagues urged her to leave the organization, but Ms. Cavell remained despite the growing danger of discovery. The group at Berkendael was found out and Ms. Cavell was arrested on Aug. 4.

The interrogation at her trial lasted about four minutes. She admitted, not to the crime of “aiding the enemy” by sending recruits to them, but only to helping men reach the frontier (some 200 or so in total). She was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad on Oct. 12, 1915.

There was general worldwide outrage at this, causing the Germans to spare 33 other accused prisoners. Another result was a huge surge in enlistment in the war against the Germans by Britains, Australians and Canadians.

Edith Cavell’s memory is celebrated by a statue in Trafalgar Square and by a sculpture in Paris. The nurse training school in Brussels is now called Ecole Edith Cavell.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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