Friday, 21 August 2015

A Nurse Who Tried To Do Her Duty


I bought this book when we were in Norwich a few weeks ago. It has been a truly fascinating story, and I have found it well worth reading, although at times it was incredibly sad.

I knew many of the basic facts of Edith’s life, but Souhami’s book gave much more detail and set things in context.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth – and centenary of the death – of Edith Cavell. As a small child, I learned the story of this brave woman, and my father took me to see the huge statue at the corner of Trafalgar Square [see picture at bottom of post]

When we moved to Norfolk, I visited her grave in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, and saw the memorial close by  [then, the memorial was outside in the area called ‘Tombland’ – but in 1993 was moved to the Cathedral gateway.


Edith grew up in Norfolk, where her father was a clergyman. From childhood she had a strong faith, and a strong sense of duty. Like many women of her class at the end of the 19th C, she trained as a governess.

At the age of 25, she went to Belgium, to be the governess for a family friend. She became fluent in French and then, five years later, as the youngest child of the family left for boarding school, and Rev Cavell became ill, Edith returned to Norfolk. Her time as a governess was over- and there was no sign of a husband – so she decided, as her two sisters had done, to become a trained nurse.

To cut a long story short – after training in London, and a spell in Maidstone in 1897. nursing during the awful typhoid epidemic there [for which the grateful townspeople presented her with a medal ‘with gratitude for loving services’] she was invited to set up a Nurses Training School in Brussels in 1907. This she did, and became the much loved Matron.

She was incredibly hard-working, self disciplined, and possessed of a strong Christian conscience. As a nurse, her duty to her patients came first. After a day training on the wards, her students were expected to sit in the evenings and listen to Edith instructing them on the duty and fortitude which she expected them to display also. The new Belgian School of Nursing has been an entire success, declared Dr Antoine Depage at the International Nurses Congress in Cologne in 1912.

edith-cavells-quotes-6Edith came home to visit her mother in the summer of 1914 – but was was declared, and she swiftly returned to Belgium. She told her [rather scared] nurses that any inured soldier must be treated, friend or foe – every one was a father, husband, or son.

As nurses they took no part in the quarrel, their work was for humanity, and the profession of nursing knew no frontiers. Many wounded British soldiers, fleeing the Hun, ended up at her hospital. She became part of the resistance movement organising their escape back to England. Putting herself at incredible risk [but ensuring minimal danger to her nursing staff] she nursed the men, found false papers, and fresh clothes, and necessary travel funds, and then guided them to the people who would see them over the frontier into Holland.

In the end, she was betrayed, and the Germans arrested her and imprisoned her in August 1915. After a hastily convened trial, with her statements ‘translated’ from French into German [often very inaccurately, and deliberately falsified] she was sentenced to death, for treason. She was kept in prison, waiting – while various people endeavoured to secure her release. But at 4pm on the afternoon of October 11th, 1915, her execution date was set – for a mere 15 hours later.  Rev Stirling Gahan, an Irish Pastor living in Brussels, was allowed to take Holy Communion, and pray with her in her cell. She asked him to pass on farewell messages to those she loved  “We shall remember you as a heroine and a martyr” he told her “No – think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty”

She was shot at dawn the following morning. After the execution, her body was buried, in the unmarked grave beside where she was shot. Hearing of her death, the Belgians, and the British people were stunned, there was a great feeling of disbelief and horror.

ec posterThe propaganda machine went into overdrive - A woman, a nurse, a poor, defenceless English girl – murdered by the evil Boche. Her death doubled army recruitment overnight – for eight consecutive weeks, numbers went up from 5K to 10k – an extra 40K men enlisted to fight. I am not sure Edith herself would have been happy about that. She hated war, in all its forms.

The family were asked about a memorial – there had been great public demand for something. They suggested no statue- but rather that a home should be set up for retired nurses[which Edith herself had intended to do, one day] Five such homes were set up – but ironically, more commemorative monuments have been set up to Edith than to any other woman of WW1.


The great London Monument bears at the top, the statue of a mother protecting her child, below that the words FOR KING AND COUNTRY – and on the four sides, the words Humanity, Devotion, Fortitude and Sacrifice. At the back is a [British!] lion, crushing the serpent of treachery and the words ‘Faithful unto death’ In the front at the base of the plinth is a 10foot high image of Edith , and below that, the words


Her final words to the priest, who brought her Communion in her cell, the night before her death had been these -“I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone” – but the government would not allow these words to be engraved [after all, such sentiments questioned the integrity of hegemony and war] In 1923, they had to capitulate, following strong representation from the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, and the words were belatedly added.

In 1919, after the was ended, her body was exhumed- her features bore a perfectly calm expression, and had not suffered decomposition [for some this implied saintliness] Her hair comb, collar stud and hat pin were returned to the family. Edith’s body was brought back through crowd-lined streets of Brussels, on to Ostend, and eventually to a huge funeral in Westminster Abbey and then burial in “Life’s Green” outside Norwich Cathedral. This is the centenary year – many events are planned

  • tomorrow a group of people will begin climbing Mount Cavell in Canada [yes, it was named after Edith] to raise money for the Cavell Nurses Trust
  • there are events all year throughout Norfolk
  • on October 12th, there will be a special wreath laying at her statue in Trafalgar Square
  • The Edith Cavell Rose, first bred in Holland in 1917, then ‘lost’ but rediscovered in a garden in Norfolk 1985, is on sale this year to benefit the EC Nurses Trust

cavell rosecavell quote

I thought Diana Souhami’s book was meticulously researched, and beautifully written, without becoming a hagiography – and that it definitely merits *****.


  1. What an incredable woman and a facinating post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. i used to live near to the village where Edith's father was a Vicar. In those parts, Edith Cavell's memory lives on


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