Anna Neagle in Nurse Edith Cavell (1939)

After her buxom parts in escapism pictures Anna Neagle proved she was capable of handling serious material with dignity and feeling in this biopic. Her stoical portrayal of nurse Edith Cavell under the direction of Herbert Wilcox won critical praise.

She was a British nurse who helped many soldiers escape from German prisoner-of-war camps. Despite her efforts, the Germans caught up with her and executed her. Her death caused worldwide outrage.

She was born in Norfolk

Edith Cavell was born in Swardeston, a small village near Norwich. Her father was the vicar of the local church. She was the eldest of four siblings and had a very happy childhood, playing croquet and lawn tennis in the summer and skating in the winter. She also enjoyed painting and drawing flowers.

In the late 1890s, Edith left her life as a governess to pursue her true calling in nursing. She studied at the London Hospital, where she excelled. She later worked at various hospitals in England and Belgium, and she was well known for her dedication and compassion.

During World War I, Edith helped several British soldiers escape from German prisoner-of-war camps. Despite her efforts to remain discreet, she was captured by the secret police and sentenced to death. Her execution sparked outrage in Britain and neutral countries, including the United States. The event was widely condemned as a travesty of justice and became a symbol of Allied patriotism.

She became a nurse

After a few years as a governess, Edith Cavell decided to pursue her true passion–nursing. She enrolled in the London Hospital Nursing School and excelled in her studies. In the end, she was a nurse for several hospitals in England and Belgium.

In 1907, she returned to Brussels where she was put in charge of a training school for nurses. When World War I erupted, she was firmly committed to the humanitarian principle that nurses should care for all wounded soldiers regardless of their nationality.

She secretly sheltered Allied soldiers and arranged for them to escape into neutral Holland by using her clinic as part of an elaborate network. She was responsible for about a thousand soldiers eventually making it home. Despite the outcry over her execution, she was executed on October 12, 1915. Her funeral was attended by royalty and senior politicians. The film depicts her life and death with a degree of realism that few films of the period did.

She escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp

In defiance of German military law she ran a line of secret safe houses for soldiers and fliers who were trying to escape into neutral Holland. She nursed both Allied and German wounded, displaying a remarkable level of kindness and consideration, which the film portrays well.

When the Germans occupied Belgium she opened her clinic to help them, but they soon became suspicious of her activities. After ten weeks in solitary confinement, she was charged with treason & sentenced to death by firing squad.

Despite pleas for mercy from the British government and representations by neutral diplomats, Edith Cavell was executed at dawn on 12 October 1915. Her execution sparked worldwide condemnation and inspired anti-German sentiment, especially among women. She is buried in Norwich Cathedral. This is a moving story of an unflinching, level-headed woman. Anna Neagle is outstanding in the lead role. She has a quiet presence and never speaks above a whisper. Her performance is a tribute to her and to director Wilcox.

She was executed

In a trial conducted by military judges, the nurse was charged with “espionage.” She admitted that she had helped several soldiers escape and was found guilty. She was sentenced to death and shot by firing squad on October 12, 1915.

Her trial was a public spectacle and prompted worldwide outrage, even in neutral countries. Many pleaded for her clemency, including the Belgian consul and a member of the German embassy in London. However, General von Sauberzweig insisted that her execution be immediate, denying higher authorities the opportunity to consider clemency.

Although it is not clear whether she was actually a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), historian Stella Rimington argues that Cavell may have been recruited for resistance activities and was part of an intelligence network, whose purpose was to collect information on enemy activities in Belgium. The Norwich Cathedral cares for two of her Bibles and a copy of Thomas a Kempis’s fifteenth-century devotional work Imitation of Christ.

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