10 Facts About Heroic World War One Nurse Edith Cavell | History Hit

10 Facts About Heroic World War One Nurse Edith Cavell

Lily Johnson

19 Apr 2023
Image Credit: Public domain

I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

The night before her execution by German firing squad, Edith Cavell uttered these words to her private chaplain. Convicted of treason by the German government for smuggling Allied troops out of Belgium, Cavell’s courage and dedication to saving others never wavered.

Working as a nurse in World War One, she tended to the wounded of both sides of the conflict, and helped save the lives of over 200 Allied soldiers fleeing German occupation. Here are 10 facts about the woman whose story has inspired the world for over 100 years.

1. She was born and raised in Norwich

Edith Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston near Norwich, where her father had been vicar for 45 years.

She attended Norwich High School for Girls before moving to boarding schools in Somerset and Peterborough, and was a talented painter. She also had a knack for French – a skill that would come in handy in her future work on the continent.

Though opportunities for female employment were scarce in the 19th century, the young Cavell was determined to make a difference. In a prophetic letter to her cousin, she wrote “some day, somehow, I am going to do something useful. I don’t know what it will be. I only know that it will be something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy.”

After completing her studies she became a governess, and between the ages of 25 and 30 worked for a family in Brussels teaching their 4 young children.

2. Her career in nursing began close to home

In 1895, she returned home to care for her seriously ill father, and following his recovery resolved to become a nurse. She applied to study at the London Hospital, eventually becoming a private travelling nurse. This required treating patients in their homes with conditions such as cancer, appendicitis, gout and pneumonia, and for her role in assisting the typhoid outbreak in Maidstone in 1897, she received the Maidstone Medal.

Cavell gained valuable experience working in hospitals all over the country, from Shoreditch Infirmary to institutions in Manchester and Salford, before fatefully being called abroad.

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3. She was involved in pioneering work on the continent

In 1907, Antoine Depage invited Cavell to be matron of Brussels’ first nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées. With experience in Brussels and proficiency in French, Cavell was a triumph and in a mere year became responsible for training nurses for 3 hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 nurseries.

Depage believed that the country’s religious institutions were not keeping up with modern medicinal practices, and in 1910 established a new secular hospital in Saint-Gilles, Brussels. Cavell was asked to be the matron of this establishment, and that same year set up a nursing journal, L’infirmière. With her help, the nursing profession established a good foothold in Belgium, and she is often considered the mother of the profession in that country.

Edith Cavell (centre) with a group of her student nurses in Brussels (Image Credit: Imperial War Museums / Public Domain)

4. When war broke out she aided wounded troops on both sides

When World War One broke out in 1914, Cavell was back in Britain visiting her now-widowed mother. Rather than remain in safety, she was determined to return to her clinic in Belgium, informing relatives “at a time like this, I am more needed than ever.”

By the winter of 1914, Belgium was almost completely overrun by German troops. Cavell continued to work from her clinic, which had now been turned into a hospital for wounded troops by the Red Cross, and nursed both Allied and German troops back to health. She instructed her staff to treat each soldier with equal compassion and kindness, no matter what side of the war they fought on.

5. She joined the Belgian Resistance, and helped to save hundreds of lives

As the war continued on in Europe, Cavell began smuggling wounded British and French troops out from behind enemy lines and into neutral Holland, preventing them from being captured. 

Where possible, she also manoeuvred young Belgian men out of the country so that they would not be called up to fight and possibly die in the increasingly bloody war. She provided them with money, fake identification cards and secret passwords to ensure their safety upon escape, and is credited with saving over 200 men in the process, despite this being against German military law.

6. It has been suggested that she was part of the British Secret Intelligence Service

Though vehemently denied by the British government following her death, it has been suggested that Cavell was in fact working for the British intelligence agency while in Belgium. Key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies and she was known to use secret messages, as former head of MI5 Stella Rimington has since revealed.

The widespread use of her image in war propaganda following her execution however strove to paint her as a martyr and a victim of senseless violence – revealing her to be a spy did not fit into this narrative.

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7. She was eventually arrested and charged with treason by the German government

In August 1915, a Belgian spy discovered Cavell’s secret tunnels beneath the hospital and reported her to German officials. She was arrested on 3 August and imprisoned in Saint-Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the final two being held in solitary confinement. 

At her trial, she admitted to her role in transporting Allied troops out of Belgium, maintaining complete honesty and dignified composure.

The trial lasted only two days, and Cavell was soon convicted of ‘conveying troops to the enemy’, an offence punishable by death in times of war. Despite not being a German native, Cavell was charged with war treason and sentenced to execution.

8. There was international outcry over her arrest

All over the world, public outrage was heard for Cavell’s sentence. With political tensions rife, the British government felt powerless to help, with Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, advising that “Any representation by us will do her more harm than good.”

The USA however, having not yet joined the war, felt in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. They informed the German government that going through with Cavell’s execution would only harm their already damaged reputation, while the Spanish embassy also fought tirelessly on her behalf.

These efforts would be in vain however. The German government believed to relinquish Cavell’s sentence would only encourage other female resistance fighters to act without fear of repercussion.

9. She was executed at dawn on 12 October 1915

At 7:00am on 12 October, 1915 Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad at the Tir national shooting range in Schaerbeek, Belgium. She died alongside fellow resistance fighter Philippe Baucq, who too aided wounded Allied troops in escaping the country. The night before her execution, she told her Anglican chaplain Stirling Gahan: “I have no fear nor shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me”.

Her immense bravery in the face of death has been a noted aspect of her story since it occurred, with her words inspiring generations of Britons to come. Understanding her own sacrifice, she at last relayed to the German prison chaplain: “I am glad to die for my country.”

10. A state funeral was held for her at Westminster Abbey

She was buried in Belgium immediately after her death. At the end of the war, her body was exhumed and repatriated to Britain, where a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on 15 May, 1919. Atop her coffin, a wreath given by Queen Alexandra was placed, the card reading:

In memory of our brave, heroic, never to be forgotten Miss Cavell. Life’s race well run, Life’s work well done, Life’s crown well won, now comes rest. From Alexandra.

Though over 100 years have passed since her death, Edith Cavell’s inspiring story of bravery is still felt all around the world. In 1920, a statue of her was unveiled near Trafalgar Square, around the top of which 4 words may be found – Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion and Sacrifice. They are a reminder on an incredible woman’s resolve to help those in need, at the cost of her own life.

The Edith Cavell Memorial near Trafalgar Square, London (Image Credit: Prioryman / CC)

Lily Johnson