On this day in history : 4th August 1865 – The birth of Edith Cavell, the English nurse who helped hundreds of British, French and Belgian soldiers escape occupied Belgium during World War I….

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Edith Cavell – Public domain

Edith Louisa Cavell, the daughter of a rector and the eldest of four children was born in Swardeston, Norfolk…. She worked as a governess in Belgium before training as a nurse in London…. She was employed in hospitals in Shoreditch, King’s Cross and Manchester and then took the position of Matron in Brussels – in what was Belgium’s first training hospital and school for nurses…. Her work involved training nurses during Belgium’s modernisation if its medical care system….

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Edith (seated centre) with a group of the student nurses whom she trained in Brussels – Public domain

Edith was back in Norfolk visiting her family when WWI broke out…. On hearing that German troops were advancing on Belgium she returned to Brussels immediately…. By the 20th of August 1914 Brussels was occupied and the nursing school became a Red Cross Hospital – treating casualties on both sides, as well as continuing to treat civilians….

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Edith with her two dogs in a garden in Brussels before the outbreak of WW1 – Public domain

On September the 14th Edith was asked to help two wounded British soldiers, who after the Battle of Mons had become trapped behind enemy lines…. She treated them at the hospital and then arranged to have them smuggled out of Belgium into neutral Holland….

Becoming part of the network who helped Allied troops, over the next 11 months Edith helped over 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers escape…. She would first treat them at the hospital and then arrange for guides to take them across the border….

On the 5th of August 1915 Edith was arrested and placed in solitary confinement at St. Gilles Prison, Brussels…. She was one of 34 members of the network to be arrested….

Edith’s court martial took place on the 7th of October 1915…. She was found guilty….and sentenced to death…. Before her execution she was granted one final communion with an Anglican Priest…. She wished her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country….“I have no fear nor shrinking, I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful for me’….

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Portrait of Edith Cavell before WW1 – from the Collections of the Imperial War Museums

Edith was shot by firing squad at the Tir National, the Brussels firing range, on the 12th of October 1915 – she was executed along with 4 Belgian men…. Her death caused outrage in Britain and many neutral countries – including the United States…. It prompted the US First Secretary, Hugh Gibson, to put intense diplomatic pressure on Germany….

Edith had been betrayed by a Frenchman, Gaston Quien….who after the war was put on trial by the French for his collaboration with the Germans…. He was sentenced to death for his treasonous acts, including Edith’s death – but this was commuted to twenty years imprisonment and he was released in 1936….

After the war had ended Edith’s body was exhumed and repatriated – she was buried at Norwich Cathedral and a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey….img_3673

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