Edith Cavell Executed
The 12th of October 1915 AD
Edith Cavell, who trained as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital, was matron and director of nursing at the Berkendael Institute in Brussels from 1907 until her death in 1915. She had previously worked as a governess in the city, and retained a great affection for it. When Belgium was invaded the Institute became a Red Cross hospital.
The daughter of the vicar of Swardeston, south of Norwich , Edith was deeply religious, and in her dealings with both Allied and German soldiers she was said to be scrupulously even handed.
Edith Cavell (it rhymes with gavel) became involved in helping Allied soldiers to escape over the border to the Netherlands, seeing this as part of her Christian duty and out of concern for their welfare. She and her partner in the smuggling of soldiers, M Baucq, were arrested on August 3 1915, after another of their team was captured and forced to divulge details of the operation. Edith somewhat naively made a full confession of her activities. There has been some controversy over the years as to whether she implicated others in her confession, but it has always been strenuously denied by the British authorities.
She was kept in prison for 10 weeks by the German military, the last two in solitary confinement. There was conflict within the German hierarchy about her fate, the political powers seeing the propaganda danger of carrying out the sentence of execution, also it seems moved to clemency by her history of caring for wounded German fighters, whilst the military were determined to exact revenge for her success in returning soldiers to the enemy ranks.
Neutral diplomats from America and Spain made representations to the Germans seeking her pardon, or at least the commuting of her sentence to imprisonment. But the German military leaders involved were not willing to draw back. On the eve of her execution she spoke the memorable words: “Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” One of the controversies surrounding her death regards the lack of effort made by the British on her behalf. Was this done as some records indicate in the belief that the less they said the better her chances? Or did they see the powerful propaganda tool they were about to be handed by the enemy?
The sentence was carried out at 2am on October 12, 1915, an hour chosen by the military as the least likely to be interrupted by the civil powers.
There are several mysteries surrounding the execution. One version has it that Cavell fainted on what was to the place of execution, and was shot by the commander of the firing squad as she lay on the ground. Another relates that one of the eight soldiers assigned to shoot her refused, and was himself shot by his officer and buried with Cavell and Baucq. Eye witness accounts merely state that eight soldiers shot her from six paces.
The execution proved, as expected, a massive political and propaganda error. American public opinion was swayed by the combination of religious piety, her selfless work as a Red Cross nurse, and her sex. For the American government it was added to the litany of Germany’s brutal acts, notably the sinking of the Lusitania and the deliberate burning of the magnificent Louvain library.
In Britain, there was a huge surge in recruitment in the wake of the execution, and the British propaganda machine squeezed every drop out of the story, issuing postcards depicting a young looking nurse in the grip of the dastardly Hun – in fact Cavell was almost 50 when she died.
After the war Edith Cavell was reburied outside Norwich Cathedral . Various hospitals and nursing schools were named in her honour in the years immediately after World War One , but she retains a special place in Norfolk popular culture to this day, a local heroine for the lives she saved and the contrasting violence of her own end.
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