Edith Cavell – A One-Of-A-Kind British Nurse

Edith Cavell is a one-of-a-kind British nurse whose story caught the attention of people around the world. She is famous for treating wounded soldiers without discrimination during WWI and for helping Allied prisoners escape to neutral Holland.

When war broke out, she was at home in Norfolk visiting family but raced back to Belgium saying ‘at this time I am needed more than ever’. She opened her clinic to help stranded soldiers, including Germans.

Born in Swardeston, Norfolk

Edith Cavell was born on December 4, 1865 in a Georgian farmhouse in Swardeston, near Norwich. She was the eldest daughter of Reverend Frederick Cavell and Louisa Sophia Walming.

She was a high-spirited child who enjoyed playing lawn tennis, skating, painting and swimming. She also had a strong sense of duty and volunteered to help others.

When she was a young woman, her father fell ill and she helped to nurse him back to health. This experience is believed to have inspired her to become a nurse.

After working as a governess for a while, she began nursing training at the London Hospital under Eva Luckes. She soon became a matron and worked to pioneer new techniques in nursing. However, she was executed by German soldiers in 1915.

Matron of Berkendael Medical Institute

Edith Cavell, like trailblazing nurse Florence Nightingale, had a passion for helping others. She started her nursing career aged 20, moving from one hospital to the next before being appointed matron of Antoine Depage’s new hospital and nursing school in Brussels in 1907.

By 1914, when war broke out in Europe, Cavell had built up a reputation for modernising Belgian nursing. She encouraged her nurses to treat all soldiers, irrespective of their nationality.

When German troops advanced into Belgium in August that year, Cavell became involved in a secret network to help wounded Allied soldiers escape to Holland – a neutral country. She sheltered them at her hospital, providing them with food, money, fake identity cards and passwords. She also smuggled them out, all at her own risk.

Matron of the First Nursing School in Brussels

After her time as a governess she was invited by Doctor Antoine Depage, the surgeon of the Royal family in Brussels to come and set up Belgium’s first nursing school. He wanted to establish a modern nurse training program modeled on Florence Nightingale’s work in London.

She accepted the position and improved the quality of nursing in Belgium. When World War I broke out, she worked at a hospital that had become a Red Cross hospital and helped wounded soldiers regardless of their nationality.

This led to her being involved with the Belgian Resistance, assisting around 200 British, French and Dutch soldiers evade capture by helping them escape into neutral Holland. This was in direct violation of German military law. This eventually resulted in her arrest and execution in August 1915.

Nurse to the Belgian Resistance

Edith Cavell loved her adopted country, Belgium. She stayed there even when the Germans invaded in August 1914, ignoring her family’s pleas to return to Norfolk and saying, “At a time like this I am needed here more than ever.”

The clinic and nursing school she operated became a hospital for wounded soldiers, both allied and German. But she also worked with a network of people who helped smuggle escaped British, French and Belgian soldiers to neutral Holland. She sheltered them in her home and provided them with fake identity cards, food and guides to escape.

The risky work was dangerous, and she attracted the attention of the German secret police. She was arrested and sentenced to death. She was executed on October 12th 1915.

Executed in 1915

Edith’s steadfastness and clear-eyed sense of duty withstood intense interrogation, but ultimately led to her execution. Her death inspired allied soldiers and generated widespread outrage, even in neutral countries.

The German authorities suspected her of helping Allied soldiers escape from Germany, and she was arrested in August 1915. After ten weeks in solitary confinement, the German secret police managed to extract a confession from her that formed the basis of her trial.

Her conviction and execution sent shockwaves through Allied nations, and her sacrifice helped to propel troops into battle in not one, but two world wars. Norwich Cathedral cares for two of her Bibles and her copy of the Imitation of Christ. The original plaque which was placed on her grave in Schaerbeek Tir National (National Rifle Range) has been rediscovered and is now displayed at the Cathedral.

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