Working in Brussels and nursing the wounded from both sides, she instructed her staff to “take no part in the quarrel – our work is for humanity”. After refusing to hand over Allied soldiers to the German forces she was arrested, charged and later executed by firing squad, despite protests from Britain and the USA.
Nursing in Belgium
Born in 1865 at Swardeston in Norfolk, England, Edith Cavell trained as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital and in 1907 was appointed matron of the Berkendael Institute, in Brussels, Belgium.
Nurse Edith Cavell (seated centre) with a group of her multi-national student nurses whom she trained in Brussels. The garden they are sitting is possibly that of the training hospital in Brussels.
When the First World War started, the hospital Edith worked in was taken over by the Red Cross.
After Brussels fell to the Germans, the hospital came under their control for German wounded only. Despite this, Edith Cavell helped hundreds of soldiers from the Allied forces to escape from occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands, in violation of military law.
"Any wounded soldier must be treated, friend or foe. Each man is a father, husband or son. As nurses you must take no part in the quarrel. Our work is for humanity. The profession of nursing knows no frontiers."Edith Cavell 1914
Execution for Treason
As a Red Cross nurse, she was protected until two of those she had helped to escape were captured. She was arrested on 3 August, 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers, but not for espionage. She was jailed for 10 weeks and then court-martialled by the Germans for this offence.
Authorities in the UK felt there was little they could do to help her and instead appeals went to the Americans who had not joined the war in 1915. Hugh Gibson, First Secretary of the American legation at Brussels, approached the German authorities. He emphasized “… the horror of executing a woman, no matter what her offence...”, pointing out that “... the death sentence had heretofore been imposed only for actual cases of espionage, and that Miss Cavell was not even accused by the German authorities of anything so serious.” The German military authorities did not listen.
Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad at 2am on October 12, 1915. The night before her execution she told the Anglican chaplain, the Revd Father Gahan, who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are inscribed on her statue in Saint Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London.
The statue of Edith Cavell in Saint Martin’s Place, inscribed with the time of her execution and one of her last comments.
Account by Rev H Stirling Gahan on the execution of Edith Cavell
On Monday evening, October 11th, I was admitted by special passport from the German authorities to the prison of St. Gilles, where Miss Edith Cavell had been confined for ten weeks.
The final sentence had been given early that afternoon. To my astonishment and relief I found my friend perfectly calm and resigned. But this could not lessen the tenderness and intensity of feeling on either part during that last interview of almost an hour. Her first words to me were upon a matter concerning herself personally, but the solemn asseveration which accompanied them was made expressedly in the light of God and eternity.
She then added that she wished all her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country, and said: “I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”
She further said: “I thank God for this ten 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 as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards any one.”
We partook of the Holy Communion together, and she received the Gospel message of consolation with all her heart. At the close of the little service I began to repeat the words, “Abide with me,” and she joined softly in the end.
We sat quietly talking until it was time for me to go. She gave me parting messages for relations and friends. She spoke of her soul’s needs at the moment and she received the assurance of God’s Word as only the Christian can do.
Then I said “Good-by,” and she smiled and said, “We shall meet again.”
The German military chaplain was with her at the end and afterwards gave her Christian burial. He told me: “She was brave and bright to the last. She professed her Christian faith and that she was glad to die for her country. She died like a heroine.”
Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. III, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923