Edith Cavell was a British nurse during World War 1 who saved the lives of soldiers from both sides while helping 200 allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium, offering them refuge in her own home. Her plot was eventually uncovered and she was executed by German firing squad on October 12th 1915.
After working as a governess in Brussels, Edith Cavell entered the nursing profession aged 20, and trained at the London Hospital under the renowned matron and medical reformer Eva Luckes. Upon returning to Belgium, she was appointed matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in 1907, where she utilised her new skills to improve and modernise the standard of Belgian nursing.
After war broke out in 1914, Edith, who had been visiting family back in England, immediately returned to Belgium and joined the Red Cross at Berkendael hospital. Here she treated both German and Allied troops. Many of the captured Allied soldiers who were treated at Berkendael subsequently succeeded in escaping – with Cavell’s active assistance – to neutral Holland.
The German authorities became increasingly suspicious of Edith, alarmed by her outspokenness and unwillingness to cooperate with them. She was arrested on 5 August 1915 by local German authorities, and charged with treason for having personally aided in the escape of 200 soldiers, in violation of German military law.
During her 10 weeks in prison, the final two of which were in solitary confinement, the Germans extracted the confession from Cavell which formed the basis of her trial. She, and her Belgian accomplice Philippe Baucq, were pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Throughout her trial Cavell conducted herself with incredible bravery and dignity. She refused to deny any of the accusations and answered all questions put to her with unflinching honesty. Her noble conduct during the proceedings earned her great respect and significantly contributed to her heroic image. Neutral countries were appalled by the proceeding with US diplomats unsuccessfully attempting to intervene on her behalf.
The sentence was carried out on 12 October 1915 without reference to the German high command. Edith’s death was loudly condemned as an act of merciless brutality, and garnered sympathetic press coverage worldwide. This stirred up further hostility against Germany among countries – including the US – who were not at the time involved in the war, and stoked up a desire for revenge amongst British troops and men at home yet to volunteer.
The night before her execution, Edith told the Reverend Stirling Gahan: “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.