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WWI nurse executed by firing squad helped two Irish soldiers escape their German captors

This month marks the centenary commemoration of brave and inspirational nurse Edith Cavell who was shot by firing squad.

Michelle Cresswell

AS THE AUTUMN leaves begin to fall this October and the sun starts to fade to a mellowing light, it will bring with it the centenary commemoration of a brave, deeply inspirational nurse felt by many to be the most famous woman executed in World War One.

On the 12 October, it will be exactly one hundred years ago that the body of nurse Edith Louisa Cavell fell to the cold, bare floor at 7am in the stark, early morning light after facing two firing squads of eight men at the National firing range, Tir National in Brussels .

Nurse Cavell was a deeply religious nurse, brought up by a loving family in the quiet Norfolk village of Swardeston, where her father was an Anglican vicar for 45 years.

As a young girl Edith had not thought her religious upbringing to be much fun which is reflected in a letter once wrote to her cousin asking her to come over to stay, but not for a weekend as “father’s sermons are so long and boring!”

However, as her young years passed, Edith developed into a caring, dutiful daughter whose high social and religious principles were a direct result of her parent’s influential upbringing which encouraged from a young age to help those less fortunate.

An example of her defining nature may be illustrated by the way Edith with her sister Florence helped raise enough money to build their father’s Sunday School by selling their own sketches, watercolours and self-designed Christmas cards.

Strong sense of faith

After a brief career as a governess and tutor in both England and Belgium, her father became ill and Edith found her vocation whilst looking after him. Guided by her strong sense of faith and purpose, in 1896 at the age of 30 years, Edith decided to train as a nurse at the London Hospital.

Nursing as a profession for young respectable women was still a relatively new concept at this time and had previously been done by nuns and women who had ‘lost their characters’.

Florence Nightingale’s influential work had helped to transform the profession in England following her revolutionary nursing care in the Crimean war.

Following Edith’s nurse training and subsequent employment in various English hospitals, it was the offer of a post to work in a Belgian hospital which was to inadvertently and dramatically change her life.

Her good reputation

In 1907, a Brussels physician, Dr Depage was seeking a visionary nurse to raise the standard of nursing care by setting up a training school for nurses in Belgium, and it was Edith’s name put forward to fill this position because of her capable and determined reputation.

A medal merited to her for diligent work during a typhoid outbreak and her steadfast devotion to the profession had begun to gain her recognition and stature. Her recommendation for the position also came from being known previously in Brussels in her role as governess.

Edith was subsequently appointed Matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium.

During this period, Edith worked tirelessly to improve nursing care to the highest standards by systemically changing the way nurses were trained. No attention to detail was overlooked, including cleanliness, conduct of manner and major improvements to hygienic aspects of the uniform.

Edith_Cavell Source: Wikipedia

By 1910 she had commenced the publication of one of the first nursing journals, ‘l‘Infirmiere’.

Her highly regarded nurses had become the backbone of hospitals, nursing homes and communal schools throughout Brussels. Within just five years, her dedication meant nursing as a profession for women in Belgium had truly been transformed.

Outbreak of war

Always the loving daughter, Edith wrote home regularly and returned to England to spend the tranquil, warm summer holidays with her family. It was during such a break in the August of 1914 whilst Edith was peacefully attending to her mother’s back garden that an urgent telegram arrived informing her of the startling news that Germany had invaded Belgium.

Edith’s own sense of duty demanded her immediate return to the Belgian hospital stating, “I am needed more than ever”. She was never to return to England or see her mother again.

British nurses were instructed to return home, but Edith somehow remained. The hospital soon came under the flag of The Red Cross and preparations busily made for the wounded.

By late August 1914, Brussels was under strict military German occupation and the silencing hum of heavy marching was to echo from the cobblestones for many weeks to follow.

Nurse_Edith_Cavell_1865-1915_Q32930 Source: Wikipedia

Fear shrouded the city like a grey mist and life inevitably changed. As war blazed around  and casualties lay dying from all sides on nearby battlefields, Edith felt a sense of hopelessness as the enemies made their own arrangements for the wounded and her staff concentrated on making garments for the refugees and homeless.

However, an unexpected visit from a stranger one miserably overcast night in the closing days of autumn was to change events for Edith irrevocably.

Escape from their German captors

A young Belgian engineer asked Edith to help assist two wounded, disguised British soldiers who had escaped their German captors.

Her decisive response to assist and provide the soldiers with food, medical care and a retreat to rest was to be the start of a pattern which would bring her into the underworld of the resistance movement.

Edith continued with her official duties at the hospital, and unbeknown to most of her staff for fear of incrimination she secretly began sheltering British, French and Belgian soldiers assisting them to escape to neutral land.

She provided a place of refuge and cared for the men until they were well enough to escape and on doing so provided each man with money and occasionally helped provide false papers to enable their escape.

Edith knew this was violating German military law, but continued out of a sense of duty and patriotism.

Nurse_Edith_Cavell_1865-1915;_Brussels_Q70204 Source: Wikipedia

By the summer of 1915, the German authorities were becoming increasingly distrustful of nurse Edith Cavell and activities suspected during routine military inspections of the hospital.

Two soldiers from the Irish rifles were among the last soldiers Edith was able to assist – she disguised them as monks from a silent order, enabling them to escape dramatically on a tram.

Time was running out and each day brought more danger as the Germans became more suspicious. On 5 August, the inevitable happened and Edith was finally arrested.

Ten weeks lay ahead in St Gilles prison before the trial date was to arrive. Charged with being instrumental in ‘conducting soldiers to the enemy’,  she did not try to defend herself, but simply stated that she felt compelled by duty to help all those who came to her in need.

The trial lasted just two days but the final judgement to be imposed was delayed by desperate attempts to save her from the blunt grim outcome of execution. Three days later after many futile attempts there was to be no clemency and Edith was sentenced to death.

Death by firing squad

The news that she had been condemned to death by firing squad only hours later met Edith late into the evening. Her last words conveyed to her Anglican Chaplain in those chillingly bleak final hours, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness to anyone” were to become symbolic to her memory and ultimate prominence  throughout the world.

Edith’s last entry to her diary read simply ‘Died at 7am October 12th 1915’. She was just 49 years old.

The shock relating to the solemn news of nurse Cavell’s death caused outrage and
consternation across the globe.

To this day she is remembered throughout the world for her heroism and sense of duty to care for and help others with a myriad of places being named after her.

In total, Edith was credited with caring for and assisting over two hundred allied soldiers escape from an occupied Belgium to the safety of neutral land.

At home, each year she is remembered by a simple service on the Saturday before her anniversary at her final resting place in the ancient Cathedral of Norwich for her compassion, bravery and humility.

Edith’s devotion to her job was instrumental in bringing about change to the training of nurses throughout Belgium.

Her focus on hygiene and cleanliness, meticulous administration and capable lecturing were all pivotal in the implementation of improved nursing practices and thus immeasurable advances in levels of nursing care.

Whilst insisting on high standards and strict discipline, her tenacious spirit and capacity for care also stretched to the welfare of her nurses whom she regarded greatly.

Nurse Cavell will be remembered as an illuminating, formidable lady as stalwart as the statue of her that stands proudly in her nurse’s cloak in London’s Trafalgar Square.

The statue certainly a stark reminder of War but of an accomplished nurse who brought prestige and growth to the nursing profession by good practice and true dedication laying the grounds for what nursing has become today.

Despite the heroine and martyr that many nations have made of her, Edith in her own words wished only to be remembered a “a nurse who tried to do her duty”.

This article was first published in the October issue of the World of Irish Nursing magazine. The author, Michelle Cresswell is a nurse working in Dublin in the area of third level student health.

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