Cavell, Edith (1865–1915)

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Cavell, Edith (1865–1915)

English nurse and hero of World War I who was executed by the Germans for assisting fugitive Allied soldiers escaping from German-occupied Belgium. Name variations: Nurse Cavell. Born Edith Louisa Cavell on December 4, 1865, in Swardeston, Norfolk, England; died by execution at the Tir National near Brussels, Belgium, on October 12, 1915; daughter of the Reverend Frederick Cavell, vicar of Swardeston, and Louisa Sophia Walming Cavell; attended a school in Somerset and in Brussels, Belgium; studied nursing at the London Hospital; never married; no children.

Served as governess for a Brussels family (1890); entered nurses training at London Hospital (1895); appointed matron of nurses training school at Berkendael Medical Institute in Belgium (1907); changed nursing school into a Red Cross Hospital during World War I (1914); aided Allied soldiers trapped in Belgium (1914–15); accused of aiding the enemy (1915); tried for treason and executed (1915).

The prisoner, an obscure 49-year-old English nurse named Edith Cavell, was led to the firing range posts at 7:00 am on October 12, 1915, in Brussels, Belgium. As a nurse serving in a foreign land, the English woman was theoretically nonpolitical, but she had been accused of aiding the enemy by the German occupiers of Belgium and had refused to defend herself throughout her trial, even admitting guilt. After she had been tied to the post and blindfolded, shots rang out, and Edith Cavell died a horrendous death. The world was shocked. To many, she was a martyr who had resolutely done her duty.

Edith Louisa Cavell was born on December 4, 1865, in the small village of Swardeston, four miles from Norwich, the daughter of Louisa Walming Cavell and Frederick Cavell. A grim, bewhiskered, pious man who prayed in a doomsday voice with a fierce demeanor, Frederick was vicar to a parish of 300 that was as poor in finances as it was in attendance. Louisa, the daughter of his housekeeper, had been sent to finishing school by Cavell before he married her. Her warmth and charm made her the perfect spouse. Edith, and an older sister Florence, spent their youth in a large 18th-century brick farmhouse that faced the village common.

From an early age, Edith showed a remarkable aptitude for art, painting watercolors of nature, especially dogs, which she adored. While her village friends attended the elementary school, Edith was tutored by her father, an education that included German philosophy. When Edith was 16, Frederick arranged for her to spend a few months at Norwich High School. She was then sent to three different boarding schools in as many years, in Kensington, Clevedon near Bristol, and at Laurel Court in Peterborough. At Laurel Court, she studied all subjects and was exceptional in French. The headmistress, Margaret Gibson , had a great impact on Edith and would later recommend her as a governess for M. François, a prominent attorney from Brussels, Belgium.

In the five years preceding her sojourn in Brussels, Edith held positions as governess for several families. She continued to grow artistically and intellectually and delighted her charges with sketches of animals to accompany nursery tunes. Cavell was also extremely athletic and loved lawn tennis and ice skating. In 1888, she was left a small competency, which she used to travel to Germany and Austria. While in Bavaria, she visited a Free Hospital maintained by a Dr. Wolfenberg, an encounter that would lead to her interest in the medical and nursing profession. Impressed with the work being done there, Cavell contributed money for the purchase of much needed medical equipment. Those associated with the infirmary adored her and called her the "English Angel."

Edith Cavell arrived in Brussels in 1890 and remained as governess to the four children of the François family for five years. She easily bridged the differences between the small village of Swardeston and the cosmopolitan life of Brussels. Her sketches of dogs, her illustrated nursery rhymes and original poems delighted the François children. Cavell traveled with the family by yacht and carriage throughout Belgium and the adjacent countries. She painted, decorated dinner party menus with illustrations, and involved herself in every aspect of her duties to the children. During long summer holidays, she returned to Swardeston to spend time with her family. She was romantically attracted to her second cousin, Eddy Cavell, but he was reluctant to pursue marriage with his close relative. Years later, during the last hours of her life, Edith Cavell would write on the flyleaf of The Imitation of Christ, "With love to E.D. Cavell," with instructions to give the book to her cousin.

In June 1895, Edith received word that her father was seriously ill with circulatory problems. Despite the efforts of the François family to retain her services, she resigned her position and returned to Swardeston. For nearly a year, Cavell nursed her father while he slowly responded to her efforts. As he resumed his duties and planned his retirement, Edith, now 30, decided to pursue a long-held desire to enter the nursing profession.

On December 6, 1895, she applied for an appointment as Assistant Nurse, Class II, at Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting. Although she confessed to her lack of training, she began work on December 12. After seven months at Fountains, her superiors were impressed enough to support her application for a six-week nurses' training program at Tredeger House. On completion, she spent two years in training at the London Hospital. Extremely proficient, she was given supervision over other nurses assigned to combat a typhoid epidemic in Maidstone, Kent, in October 1897. Her organizational skills, energy and dedication in this pre-vaccine outbreak was praised by her superiors, and she was given the silver medal for her efforts, the only award she received in her lifetime. Cavell was granted her nursing certificate and was appointed for a third year on the private nursing staff. She worked in several hospitals in London, Sussex, and Gloucestershire during that year. Having attained the position of staff nurse, she worked in poor-law nursing in infirmaries at St. Pancras, Highgate, and Shoreditch. Subsequently, she served nine months as temporary matron of the Ashton New Road District Home as Queen's District Nurse in Manchester. Her kindness to the poor and laboring classes in the mine and mills of Manchester led the people to call her the "poor man's Nightingale."

Edith Cavell emerged from her training and nursing experience as a quiet, strict, overly serious professional with little humor but great compassion and patience. She was an attractive woman, 5′3", about 150 pounds, with dark brown hair and aquiline features. At times shy, she was tender towards animals and devoted to improving everything. One nurse observed that "next to Miss Cavell, other women seem so weak, so thin."

In 1907, Edith Cavell was invited by Doctor Antoine Depage, one of the most eminent surgeons in Europe, to move to Brussels and become matron of Belgium's first training program for nurses. Depage envisioned an extensive, modern school based on the English system. Prior to 1907, the only available nurses in Belgium were sisters from the Catholic religious orders. The offer to Edith came as a direct result of her employment with the François family. Mme Graux , a member of the committee supporting Depage's nursing school, was the mother-in-law of one of the children formerly under Edith's governance. On the recommendation of Graux, Depage offered the appointment. Cavell accepted the position and arrived in Brussels in August.

The nursing school opened on October 1, 1907, as the École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées Clinique, but in time it became popularly known as the Berkendael Institut, from the street bordering the school's buildings. Cavell's initial class of probationers, which numbered 13, were uniformed in blue cotton dresses, white collars, high white aprons and caps. She became a close friend with Mme Marie Depage , who often served as a peacemaker between the imperturbable Cavell and Marie's volatile husband Antoine. Edith staffed the school with excellent graduate assistants from England, Holland, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She was respected,

trusted and admired by her staff, the students and doctors. All business, her conversations tended to center on her patients, students, and the school. Some students actually feared her curt manner, and as time passed her occasional smile was seldom seen. Cavell was impressive with her clipped French accent, her knowledge of nursing, and her emphasis on hygiene and preventative medicine. She knew anatomy like Gray and used her artistic skills to illustrate her lectures. Edith's duties continued to expand. Her skills as a surgeon's assistant were sought for all major operations. By 1912, she was also matron of St. Gilles Hospital and carried out similar responsibilities at the St. Pierre and St. Jean hospitals. In addition, she supervised a sanitarium established by Dr. Depage. She and her students worked nine hours a day, six-and-a-half days a week.

I know now that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred and no bitterness toward anyone.

—Edith Cavell

Years passed at the school, and Cavell became a lonely, gaunt, gray woman. She had spent almost all her vacations in Swardeston but even that changed following Reverend Cavell's death in June 1910. Her mother tried to live with her in Brussels but, unable to adjust to a foreign country, returned to England. Edith's constant companions were her two dogs, a mongrel named Don and a collie named Josh. Although she kept them immaculate and hygienically scrubbed, the dogs were a humorous diversion since the irascible Dr. Depage disapproved of their presence.

On July 14, 1914, just two weeks after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie Chotek in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Cavell traveled to Norwich to visit her mother. They spent a few days at a Norfolk seaside resort during Edith's last visit to her beloved England. The trip back to Brussels found the railway carriages and boat overcrowded. By the time she arrived back at the Beckendall Institute on August 3, the Great War or World War I had begun. Though she could have remained in Britain, Cavell believed her duty was with her nurses in Brussels.

German troops violated Belgian neutrality when they crossed the border on August 3. Although she had only arrived that day, Edith Cavell had already draped Red Cross flags across the school. Bewildered refugees and battle-weary troops soon filled the streets of Brussels. As the German assault continued, tales blending truth and propaganda circulated, telling of burning villages, executions, and rape. In time, almost everyone, including Cavell, came to believe the stories of savagery. By August 20, nearly 20,000 Germans had entered Brussels. Dr. Depage had been called away to set up military hospitals, and Edith was in charge of the institute. She and her staff devoted themselves to the care of the wounded, both Allies and Germans. They continued their nursing duties encumbered by curfews, restrictions, and shortages of necessities. The fighting moved swiftly away and centered around the battle of Mons and Charleroi in late August and early September.

Several hundred Allied survivors from these battles eventually reached Brussels. Throughout Belgium, resistance to the German invaders began to evolve. Many French and Belgian civilians sheltered and fed the Allied troops. Eventually, they organized networks to help them escape to their own lines. The underground system was led by Prince Reginald deCroy and his sister, Princess Marie deCroy , and consisted of an amateurish group of Belgian nationalists, including Philippe Baucq, an architect, Herman Capiau, an engineer, Albert Libiez, a lawyer, Louise Thuliez , a school teacher, and eventually Edith Cavell.

Herman Capiau, a friend of Madame Depage, came to the institute one night and informed Cavell that two wounded English soldiers were hiding in a Brussels convent. She agreed to shelter them and administer medical treatment. The soldiers eventually left the institute with the help of the Belgian underground. During the next nine months, over 200 soldiers passed through Cavell's hospital in their flight to freedom, moving about in the guise of doctors, nurses, patients, visitors, and domestics. Her involvement took a dramatic toll on Edith Cavell. Because her staff was entangled in her actions, her concern for their safety affected her health and produced a visible strain on her weary face.

The Germans eventually infiltrated the underground, and many refugees were arrested or killed. One informer, Georges Gaston Quien, who had passed through Cavell's hospital, was the betrayer of the network. On August 5, 1915, Otto Meyer and other members of the secret police arrested Cavell and another nurse, Elizabeth Wilkins . After being questioned, nurse Wilkins was released but Edith was detained. Led to believe that other members of the underground had supplied the authorities with ample evidence, she freely admitted her role in the escape operations.

Edith Cavell, condemned on the charge that she had conducted enemy soldiers back to their lines where they could once more take up arms against Germany, was held in solitary confinement for two months in the prison of St. Gilles. It was nine weeks before she and 35 others were brought to trial. At first, because of German secrecy and efficiency, support for Cavell was slow in developing. Nurse Wilkins and the hospital staff pled her case to foreign embassies. During the weeks preceding the trial, Brand Whitlock, the U.S. ambassador in Brussels, was the most energetic on her behalf. Whitlock, representing British interests, wrote an impassioned letter to Baron von der Lancken, the German political minister in Brussels, stating that he was instructed to take charge of her defense and requesting that an attaché of the U.S. legation be permitted to consult with Cavell to arrange for her defense. When von der Lancken failed to reply, Whitlock wrote again and was informed that nurse Cavell had already confessed her guilt and was legally represented by Thomas Braun. At the last minute, Braun was replaced by Sadi Kirschen, a member of the Brussels bar, who did everything possible, under the circumstances, to defend Edith.

The trial was a foregone conclusion. Under German legal procedures, Edith Cavell was not permitted to meet with her advocate before the trial, nor could the defense have access to documents pertaining to the case. She was officially charged with enabling no less than 130 people to escape from Belgium. Had she confessed to merely assisting the men to escape to Holland, the charges would have constituted nothing more than an attempt to conduct soldiers to their homelands. That was not a capital offense under German military law. But Edith Cavell was alleged to have signed a confession the day before her trial that she had actually assisted Belgian men of military age to reach the front, and that she had provided funds and guides, or helped conceal French and British soldiers in order that they might cross the Belgian borders to Holland. Her confession was not surprising since she had been in solitary confinement for two months without benefit of legal counsel and suffered some self-doubts about the morality of her own actions.

The trial, which opened on October 7, 1915, lasted for only two days, but none of the 35 defendants were denied legal rights. Possibly because she did not want to compromise the Berkendael Institute or dishonor the uniform of the nursing profession, Cavell wore civilian clothing for the trial. Some have speculated that her uniform, much honored by Germans, might have stood her in good stead and earned her sympathy. She did little to defend herself. Asked a dozen questions, her entire defense, spoken in French, consisted of 130 words and took less than four minutes. The trial ended on Friday, October 8, and the prisoners heard nothing until they were summoned back to court on Monday afternoon, October 11. Nine defendants were acquitted, but most received prison sentences ranging from two to fifteen years at hard labor. Five death sentences were pronounced, but three of them were commuted. Edith Cavell and Philippe Baucq were sentenced to immediate execution. When it was suggested that she appeal for mercy, Cavell replied serenely: "It is useless; I am English and they want my life."

The American embassy was informed unofficially at eight o'clock on Monday evening, October 11, that the sentence had been pronounced on Edith Cavell and that her execution would take place the following morning. From his sickbed, Whitlock wrote a letter to the German authorities, pleading for mercy; he also dispatched Hugh Gibson, the American embassy attaché, and Marquis de Villabobar, the Spanish ambassador, to see Baron von der Lancken. Continuous attempts to persuade the German officials to commute or delay the execution were in vain.

Edith Cavell wrote farewell letters at St. Gilles prison to her nurses, her family, and the note to Eddy Cavell in her copy of Imitation of Christ, which she had also used for a final diary. The Reverend Horace Stirling Gahan, chaplain of Christ Church in Brussels, was permitted to celebrate communion with her and to carry away her last messages. The guards came for her at 6:00 am on October 12, 1915, and she was driven to the Tir National, a rifle range near the city. As they approached the execution site, she declined an offer of smelling salts from Pastor Paul le Seur, the German army chaplain. When they reached the execution post, le Seur squeezed her hand and recited the Grace of the Anglican Church to her in English. She asked the chaplain to have Reverend Gahan inform her loved ones that "my soul I believe is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country." She was then bound to the execution post and her eyes, full of tears, according to the soldier who put on the bandage, were blindfolded. She and Baucq were shot dead by firing squad at 7:00 am and buried near the place of execution.

The execution of Edith Cavell—a woman and a nurse—aroused widespread indignation around the world. There was no evidence that she was a spy and many considered her death to have been a judicial murder. Prime Minister Herbert H. Asquith, speaking in the House of Commons, said that Edith Cavell faced a worse ordeal in her last hours than that of a soldier on a battlefield. Even the Germans realized too late the propaganda victory they had presented to the Allies and Kaiser Wilhelm II announced that no woman was to be executed without his approval.

Following the end of World War I, Edith Cavell's body was returned to England and commemorative services were held at Westminster Abbey on May 15, 1919. When the solemn ceremony was completed, the funeral continued by train to Norwich, where her body was laid to rest in Life's Green, just outside the south transept of the cathedral. A statue in her honor stands in Saint Martin's Place near Trafalgar Square in London.


Grey, Elizabeth. Friend Within The Gates: The Story of Nurse Edith Cavell. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.

Hoehling, A.A. A Whisper of Eternity: The Mystery of Edith Cavell. NY: Thomas Yoseloff, 1957.

Judson, Helen. Edith Cavell. NY: Macmillan, 1941.

Ryder, Rowland. Edith Cavell. NY: Stein and Day, 1975.

Til, Jacqueline van. With Edith Cavell in Belgium. NY: H.W. Bridges, 1922.

suggested reading:

Berkeley, Reginald. Dawn (novel). London: London Book Co., 1928.

DeCroy, Marie. Memoirs of Marie deCroy. London: Macmillan, 1932.

Got, Ambroise. The Case of Miss Cavell. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1920.

related media:

Dawn (silent film), starring Sybil Thorndike , 1928.

Bechofer, C.E., and C.S. Forester, Nurse Cavell, (3-act play), London: Bodley Head, 1933.

Nurse Edith Cavell (95 min.), based on the novel Dawn, produced by Imperadio/ RKO, directed by Herbert Wilcox, starring Anna Neagle, Edna May Oliver , and May Robson , 1939.

Phillip E. Koerper , Professor of History, Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama

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Cavell, Edith (1865–1915)

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