Nurse Edith Louisa Cravell, the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman, is known throughout the world as a model of compassion and bravery who gave her all for her country. Her death by firing squad on 12th October 1915 brought her suddenly into the public consciousness, and almost 100 years later she has still not been forgotten. The Eastern Daily Press newspaper reported yesterday that £50,000 has been pledged by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to restore her grave at Norwich Cathedral, build new pathways and create a memorial rose garden, while a £91,000 Heritage Lottery Grant has been earmarked to help the Cavell Nurses’ Trust explore the myths and truths surrounding her life and death, including the use of her story as propaganda.
That story began in 1906, when she left England to answer the call from the King and Queen of Belgium for experts to help promote nursing as a profession for girls. She joined Dr Depage, the head of the Belgium Military Hospital, to set up a training school for nurses on Rue de la Culture, and in 1909 read a paper on nursing in Belgium at a nursing congress in London. When the war started in 1914, she willingly took charge of the Birkenhead Medical Institute in Brussels, which became a Red Cross Hospital, caring for Allied and German casualties alike.
Her work brought her into contact with people of all classes, backgrounds and needs, and in time the Germans began to suspect that she was working against them. It is not certain, but some have suggested that a German spy went to Miss Cavell asking for help to leave the country; she willingly gave it, and so was caught. However she was discovered and arrested on 5th August, and on 7th October 1915 she was charged with assisting some 130 British and French soldiers and Belgian Citizens, many of whom may have possessed valuable information, to flee the country and join the Allied Forces over a period of several months. She freely confessed her involvement, and, according to ‘Twenty Years after the Battlefields of 1914-18, Then and Now, Supplementary Volume’, said in court that she’d thought if she hadn’t helped the fugitives would have been shot by the Germans, and she felt that by saving their lives she was only doing her duty to her country. At 4.30pm on 11th October, 1915, she was convicted and condemned to death by firing squad the following morning.
News of her terrible predicament reached her friends at 9pm on the 11th; that left them just 5 hours to plead for her life. Brand Whitlock, the US Minister in Belgium, was too ill to petition on her behalf himself, but he sent letters to Baron von der Lancken, the head of the German political in Brussels, and the Governor General pleading for mercy. Gibson, the Secretary of the US Legion, and Spanish Minister the Marquis de Villalobar, went in person to deliver the letters and put across her case to the Baron. They spoke passionately about the evil of executing a compassionate woman who had helped the Germans too in the course of her career, and tried to explain that her death would villanise Germany in the eyes of the world. They also pointed out that the death sentence had previously only been handed out in cases of actual espionage, of which she had never been accused. Her crimes were already committed and done with, and nothing would be gained by quick action
Although he was surprised by their claim of such prompt retribution by the courts, and phoned the prison to confirm the sentence, the Baron ultimately explained that his hands were tied. He said that only General von Sauberzweig, the military Governor of Brussels, could issue such a pardon, and this the General refused to do, as he felt the crime which Nurse Cavell was accused of was serious and that the case would be an example to others considering committing such acts of treason. By pushing the case through so fast, he ultimately denied the Kaiser any opportunity to intervene.
Miss Cavell had not been given access to her solicitor prior to the case, but apart from that there is no reason to suspect that she received an unfair trial by German standards, which were admittedly much harsher than British ones when it came to accusations of spying and treason. 35 others were charged alongside her for assisting with the smuggling of fugitives. Four others were sentenced to death, and just one was executed alongside her, Philippe Baucq; the rest had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment in the wake of the fury surrounding her death. The Germans were completely taken aback by the immense reaction, as they could not understand how one death could stand out amongst thousands of innocent people killed in the course of the war. They reckoned without the outstanding character, reputation and bravery of the convicted woman.
Nurse Cavell, according the Reverend H Sterling Gahan, who was the only one permitted to visit her prior to her death, felt no fury. He quotes her in ‘The War Illustrated the Story of the Great European War Volume X’ as saying, “I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. I thank God for this 10 weeks quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing here as I do in view of God and eternity. I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” He said she wished her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country.
The impact of her death was everything Gibson and the Marquis de Villalobar had predicted and more. The world was outraged. People stood hushed in the streets, discussing the case, and it is claimed that Miss Cavell’s name became a battle cry in the trenches. The King and Queen, along with Queen Alexandra, wrote to Edith’s mother expressing their shock and condolences. There was a memorial service in St Paul’s Cathedral on 29th October 1915. ‘The Illustrated War News, November 3rd 1915’ carries an account by Mr Hall Caine, who said, “What a sight it was… statesmen, scholars, scientists, a great company of nurses in their various uniforms, fresh from the great houses of pain, pathetic groups here and there of wounded soldiers home from the battlefield, and then an immense concourse of the general public, chiefly women… What has brought this great multitude together? A great victory? ...No, but the memory of a poor woman, a hospital nurse, who has been foully done to death by a barbarous enemy.”
In May 1919 her body was exhumed and brought to England in state, there to rest in the Cathedral in her home town of Norwich, but not before a memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey. A nation mourned. A statue to Edith Cavell was unveiled by Queen Alexandra on October 12th 1918, three years after her execution, at Norwich, while another was created in London near the church of St.Martin-in-the-Fields in 1920 by public subscription, with the fund being inaugurated by the Daily Telegraph. A host of other memorials honour her worldwide, and the inscription on her grave proclaims, “Her name liveth for evermore”. Queen Alexandra probably captured the sentiments of the nation best in her letter to Mrs Cavell. She said, “The women of England are bearing the greatest burden of this terrible war, but by all the name of Miss Cavell will be held in the highest honour and respect. We shall always remember that she never once failed England in her hour of need.