Edith Louisa Cavell ( 4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse.
She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during the First World War, for which she was arrested.
She was accused of treason, found guilty by a court-martial and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
She is well known for her statement that “patriotism is not enough”. Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” The Church of England commemorates her in their Calendar of Saints on 12 October.
Edith Cavell, who was 49 at the time of her execution, was already notable as a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.
Edith Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father was vicar for 45 years. She was the eldest of the four children of the Reverend Frederick and Louisa Sophia Cavell and was taught always to share with the less fortunate, despite her family’s meagre income. She was educated at Norwich High School for Girls.
After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels 1890–1895, she trained as a nurse at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes and worked in various hospitals in England, including Shoreditch Infirmary.
In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school, L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, (or The Berkendael Medical Institute) on the Rue de la Culture (now Rue Franz Merjay), Ixelles in Brussels.
By 1910, “Miss Cavell ‘felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal’ and, therefore, launched the nursing journal, L’infirmière”. A year later, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.
When the First World War broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk in the East of England. She returned to Brussels, where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.
In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands. Wounded British and French soldiers and Belgian and French civilians of military age were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers by Prince Reginald de Croy at his château of Bellignies near Mons.
From there, they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell, Louis Séverin and others in Brussels, and furnished by them with money to reach the Dutch frontier and with guides obtained through Philippe Baucq. This placed Cavell in violation of German military law. German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse’s actions, which were backed up by her outspokenness.
She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She had been betrayed by Gaston Quien, who was later convicted by a French court as a collaborator. She was held in Saint-Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two in solitary confinement.
She made three depositions to the German police (on 8, 18 and 22 August), admitting that she had been instrumental in conveying about 60 British and 15 French soldiers and about 100 French and Belgians of military age to the frontier and had sheltered most of them in her house.
In her court-martial she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and eventually enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial.
Cavell declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when arriving safely in Britain. This admission confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany.
The penalty according to German military law was death. Paragraph 58 of the German Military Code said; “Will be sentenced to death for treason any person who, with the intention of helping the hostile Power, or of causing harm to the German or allied troops, is guilty of one of the crimes of paragraph 90 of the German Penal Code.”
The case referred to in the above-mentioned paragraph 90 consists of “Conducting soldiers to the enemy”, although this was not traditionally punishable by death. Additionally, the penalties according to paragraph 160 of the German Code, in case of war, apply to foreigners as well as Germans.
While the First Geneva Convention ordinarily guaranteed protection of medical personnel, that protection was forfeit if used as cover for any belligerent action. This forfeiture is expressed in article 7 of the 1906 version of the Convention, which was the version in force at the time. The German authorities instead justified prosecution merely on the basis of the German law and the interests of the German state.
The British government could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, “I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless.” Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, said, “Any representation by us”, he advised, “will do her more harm than good.”
The United States, however, had not yet joined the war and was in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the U.S. legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany’s already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:
We reminded [German civil governor Baron von der Lancken] of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilised countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the rather irrelevant remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier, and his only regret was that they had not “three or four old English women to shoot.”
Baron von der Lancken is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. However, General von Sauberzweig, the military governor of Brussels, ordered that “in the interests of the State” the implementation of the death penalty against Baucq and Cavell should be immediate, denying higher authorities an opportunity to consider clemency.
Cavell was defended by lawyer Sadi Kirschen from Brussels. Of the 27 put on trial, five were condemned to death: Cavell, Baucq (an architect in his thirties), Louise Thuliez, Séverin and Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Of the five sentenced to death, only Cavell and Baucq were executed; the other three were reprieved.
Cavell was arrested not for espionage, as many were led to believe, but for ‘treason’, though not a German national. She may have been recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) and turned away from her espionage duties in order to help Allied soldiers escape, although this is not widely accepted.
Rankin cites the published statement of M. R. D. Foot, historian and WW2 British intelligence officer, as to Cavell’s having been part of SIS or MI6.
When in custody, Cavell was questioned in French, but the session was minuted in German. This gave the interrogator the opportunity to misinterpret her answers.
Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor. A previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins, was ultimately rejected by the governor.