Few people catch the heartfelt thoughts of one so brave, but one-hundred years ago, during the early part of the First World War (1914-1918). Edith Cavell sacrificed her life for her fellow man, and became an English Martyr for her beliefs.
I don’t think anyone expected that the German Military Prussian officers would actually have her executed. Yet she was gunned down in a hail of bullets, for assisting allied soldiers out of Belgium, and home to Britain, on 12th October 1915. Following the end of the war she was moved to her final resting place in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, and since that day a small Rememberance Service has been held by her graveside, each and every year.
We should not forget the price she paid; her life!
On the 4th December 1865, in the quiet Norfolk village of Swardeston, 4½ miles south of Norwich, an English Martyr was born; Edith Louisa Cavell. Neither Louisa her mother or her father the Reverend Frederick Cavell, could have imagined as they held their child for the first time, she would be executed during the First World War, for doing her duty as a nurse.
In her early years Edith was tutored by her father, and later educated privately. At 16 she left home to attend firstly Norwich High School and other schools including Laurel Court, until she was 19, and had become fluent in the French language, this was a factor which would shape her future.
In 1886, the Reverend Powell of Steeple Bumstead in North Essex, appointed Edith as governess to his children. In 1890, she was forced to seek new employment, when the children reached an age, where they no longer needed a governess. This led to short term appointments, working for prominent families in the banking industry. She was remembered for having a good sense of humour and kindness to all children in her care.
In her mid twenties, she was left a small legacy, and for the first time travelled around Europe. Whilst visiting Austria, she visited a Free Hospital which had impressed her so much, that she endowed part of her legacy to it.
Upon the recommendation of Margaret Gibson, head teacher at Laurel Court, Edith was appointed as governess to the children of Mr & Mrs Paul Francois; a prominent lawyer in Brussels.
Whilst educating Margarite; Georges; Helene and Eveline Francois, so began her association with Belgium. Each summer she returned to Swardeston the family home, and it is here she fell in love with Eddie her second cousin. They were never married, as he’d feared he had inherited a nervous illness. Her time in Belgium was short lived, for in June 1895, news reached her, that her father was seriously ill, forcing her to resign her post and return home, and nurse him back to good health. It was during these months, whilst nursing her father, she realised there needed to be a change in her future, no longer a ‘governess’, but a nurse. In the December of 1895, she started work at the Fountains Fever Hospital in south-west London, and was accepted in April 1896, for nursing training at the London hospital in Whitechapel. Her early years must have been a gruelling introduction, as both poverty and poor health, were always high on the agenda. By 1903 she was Assistant Matron at Shoreditch Infirmary.
Dr Antoine Depage a leading surgeon, responsible for Belgium’s first training school for nurses, appointed Edith Cavell to the post of Matron in 1907. The Belgium people at that time considered it a disgrace for a woman to work. Their views changed when the Queen of Belgium broke her arm, and called upon the training clinic for assistance. Overnight nursing became an accepted career for women, with an influx of many new nurses. By the time Europe found itself at war in August 1914, the college and clinic were well established.
Whilst visiting her widowed mother in 1914, news reached her that the Germans had invaded Belgium on route to France, hastily she returned taking charge of the Red Cross Hospital in Brussels. The invading forces cornered the Belgium population including Edith, and by the autumn of 1914, only the south-east sector remained in Allied hands.
Edith as a protected member of the Red Cross sacrificed her conscience to help some 200 allied soldiers. Through a network, she secretly nursed and aided their escape via neutral Holland to safety in Britain. She always knew she risked execution if she was caught. The network was compromised, and Edith was arrested on the 5th August 1915 along with other members.
Whilst being interrogated Edith, was alleged to have ‘confessed’ to her part in nursing and assisting the escape of Allied troops, and was detained in solitary confinement prior to her trial. The German Military Authorities; Prussian officers, found Edith guilty of spying. Appeals were put forward for clemency by Brand Whitlock, the United States Ambassador to Brussels at that time. His request for clemency was denied, and the German authorities pronounced the death sentence on the 8th October, and Edith was shot by a firing squad on the 12th October 1915.
Edith said to an English chaplain before her execution. “I realise patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
A life spent caring for others came to an abrupt halt by a hail of bullets.
The violent execution of such a devoted woman, brought outrage from Britain and the allied countries.
Following her execution in Belgium, she had been hurriedly buried beneath a plain wooden cross, which is now located at St.Mary’s Church in Swardeston, along with a stained glass window in the east dedicated to her.
On the 13th May 1919, her body was exhumed, and brought to St.Paul’s Cathedral where a memorial service was held in her honour. A special train from Liverpool Street Station to Norwich Station had been laid on, complete with military escort, an honour usually bestowed on royalty.
Her body was carried through the streets of Norwich, as crowds welcomed home an English Martyr. She was buried in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, just outside the south wall, in a spot known as ‘Life’s Green,” on the 15th May 1919.
The simple grave is kept bright with colourful and fresh flowers, all year round, as a mark of respect to one so brave… Norfolk’s English Martyr; Edith Cavell.
Carried Through Norwich: Norfolk Women in History.
Edith Cavell: Wikipedia