Life and times of Norfolk heroine nurse Edith Cavell
PUBLISHED: 11:55 09 November 2020 | UPDATED: 12:16 09 November 2020
Executed by the Germans in World War One, Swardeston-born nurse Edith Cavell was a remarkable, brave woman
Ask the man or woman on the Norfolk equivalent of the Clapham omnibus to name a local hero other than Nelson, and they’ll probably say ‘Edith Cavell’. And a very good choice it would be. Renowned for her heroism, her patriotism and her amazing success in repatriating Allied soldiers from behind enemy lines in occupied Belgium during the First World War, her execution by the Germans for ‘treason’ (she was tried for ‘conveying soldiers to the enemy’ which was a form of treason to the occupying Germans as these soldiers would fight again and maybe kill Germans) aroused international disgust in 1915.
However, hers is a story as much about humanity as heroism and more about service than success. She was certainly a remarkable woman, born in 1865, who grew up in genteel relative poverty in Swardeston, of which parish her father, the Rev Frederick Cavell was vicar. The vicarage had been built using £1,000 he had inherited from his father and he had little left to supplement his small stipend. But it was an age when the clergy were still expected to live in some style and resident staff were kept – one of whom apparently scribbled on her bedroom wall ‘the pay is small, the food is bad, I wonder why I don’t go mad’!
The eldest of four siblings, Edith was originally home-schooled, but later went briefly to Norwich High School and then to a succession of small boarding establishments at the last of which, Laurel Court, she also taught. She excelled at French.
Her childhood home life had been happy – she was interested in the natural world and the countryside around Swardeston offered plenty of scope for her to indulge her love of animals and her fondness for drawing. In the winter there were opportunities for ice-skating.
But, like most ’children of the manse’ at the time, she was brought up with a very clear understanding of what was expected of her by way of contribution to the community. She home- visited with her mother, and taught in the village Sunday school. That sense of duty never left her, though she knew how to enjoy herself too, with tennis and dancing favoured forms of recreation.
When her education was complete the usual dilemma of what to do with an unmarried daughter of a family with social standing but limited means had to be faced – and was solved in the usual way. Edith became a governess, first to another clerical family in Essex, and then to the Gurneys.
While there she was the beneficiary of a small bequest and decided to visit the continent. Her father, who had read theology at Heidelberg, was perhaps the reason for her choice of countries for her tour – Austria, Bavaria and Belgium. In Bavaria she became interested in the work of a free hospital and gave part of her small legacy as an endowment to it – the first mark of an interest in the profession she was later to grace.
She enjoyed her travels and was particularly taken with Belgium, at that time a popular choice for English families unable to afford to maintain their position in London society. On the introduction of her headmistress at Laurel Court she became governess to a Belgian family, the Francois, returning to Swardeston in 1895 to help nurse her father who was seriously ill. By the time he recovered she had decided that, rather than remain a governess, she would train to become a professional nurse, enrolling at the London Hospital as a probationer in 1896.
The days were long; a 15-hour day on the wards in addition to the lectures which formed part of her training. Shortly after completing her two-year probationary period she left the London Hospital and after a number of short term appointments, returned to Brussels where a friend of the Francois family, Dr Antoine De Page, was determined to professionalise nursing, feeling that the nuns who traditionally performed that role in Belgium were resistant to modern medical practice. He decided to open a nurse training school in Belgium and invited Edith to become its first director in 1907.
One of her first challenges was to find recruits. Nursing was not then looked upon as an appropriate career for ladies, but she was persistent and persuasive and the reputation of her school grew; within five years she was supplying qualified nurses to multiple hospitals, schools and kindergartens and plans were in place to expand by building additional premises.
Throughout these years she had returned regularly to Norfolk to visit and spend holidays with her mother on the coast; West Runton was a favourite. While she was in Norfolk in 1914 war was declared. As always, duty was her driving force and she immediately returned to Brussels, where she rapidly converted the training school into an additional hospital facility. She was adamant that in the treating of wounded soldiers no distinction should be made between Germans and Belgians.
Following the British retreat from Mons two wounded members of the 1st Cheshire Regiment, Colonel Dudley Boger and Sergeant Meachin, were brought to Edith’s clinic by members of the Belgian resistance movement. Their wounds were treated and they were assisted in their attempts to escape home to England – Meachin was successful though Boger was quickly captured. In helping these men Edith had embarked on a highly dangerous course that was to lead eventually to her execution.
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The Belgian resistance movement appears to have started as the spontaneous reaction of individuals to the German occupation – there was little time for organisational planning, war had been declared on August 4 and Brussels, evacuated by the government the next day, was occupied by the Germans within two weeks, leaving little opportunity for co-ordinating resistance. Soon the allied retreat from Mons, a battle in which Col Boger’s Cheshire Regiment had particularly distinguished itself, suffering a casualty rate of almost 80%, meant that there were British soldiers, mostly wounded, left behind enemy lines. Many Belgian nationals took it upon themselves to hide these fugitives and try to arrange for them to be smuggled out of the country. Given both that so many were wounded and the need to return them to Britain, Edith Cavell’s clinic was an obvious choice of staging post. Unfortunately, it was obvious to the Germans as well.
Despite the German interest in her, Edith (running the hospital under the auspices of the Red Cross) succeeded in disguising the help she was giving to allied soldiers both in terms of treatment and by arranging guides for their transfer out of Belgium for about nine months, during which time she had helped at least 150 – some say up to 900 – men. But the suspicions of the Germans did not go away and in June 1915 a member of the German secret police was posted to Brussels with the specific aim of investigating the clinic and Edith’s part in it. Inspections were stepped up and a collaborator, posing as an allied soldier seeking escape, infiltrated the hospital and betrayed her. Edith had been well aware of the risk she was taking but ignored advice to stop because she believed it her duty to continue. “If one of them were caught and shot it would be our fault.”
In early August she, and others, were arrested and held in solitary confinement for ten weeks. During this time she was interrogated and believing, incorrectly, that the others arrested with her had already admitted their guilt, did the same. Eventually, the day before she was tried, she signed a statement admitting not only that she had helped allied soldiers to escape across the Dutch border but that she had successfully repatriated some to Britain so that they could re-join the army.
This admission effectually raised the potential sentence to death and a court-martial held on October 7 and 8 so sentenced her. With some haste, and in the face of much critical reaction, the sentence was carried out at 2am just four days later.
The execution itself gave rise to a number of probably apocryphal stories, the most extreme being that the firing squad refused to fire, and a German officer shot her in the head with his pistol. A little more credibility attaches to an alternative tale – that one of the firing squad, refusing to shoot, put down his rifle and was executed on the spot and buried with Edith Cavell.
Whatever the truth of that story there can be no doubt that Germany forfeited goodwill both at home and round the world by its action. Recruitment in Britain soared (conscription had not yet begun) and the neutral stance of the United States weakened. In the aftermath it seems that even the Kaiser felt the execution had been a mistake, insisting that in future the execution of any woman had to be approved by him personally.
There have been a number of suggestions that Edith Cavell was also engaged in espionage. Most recently Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of MI5, unearthed evidence to support this contention, but it appears mainly to have comprised smuggling documents out of Belgium in the clothing of the soldiers being helped to escape.
It seems probable that some members of her circle tried to provide information but this seems to have been gathered in an almost haphazard way. If she was aware of what was happening, as seems quite possible, then it should not detract at all from the outstanding humanity she displayed in occupied Belgium.
The important part of this story is the extraordinary courage, patriotism, sense of duty and Christian faith displayed throughout by Edith Cavell. The duty that impelled her to return to Belgium, the courage to take enormous and ultimately costly risks to help trapped soldiers and above all her Christian faith which sustained her through her imprisonment, at her trial, and facing execution. Allowed, a few hours before her execution, to receive Holy Communion in her cell she told the priest “Patriotism is not enough – I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
After the War Edith Cavell’s remains were brought back to England and a state funeral was held at Westminster Abbey. Early newsreel footage shows huge crowds lining the streets in homage to a national hero. Her coffin was then brought by train to Norwich and her final resting place is at Norwich Cathedral. A true Norfolk great.
Edith’s grave was situated outside Norwich Cathedral in 1919 – the original stone was erected in 1920 and a new one erected in 2016. Nearby a statue of her had been unveiled in Tombland on October 15 1918 by Queen Alexandra, in front of a new nurses home named in her honour near the Maid’s Head Hotel. Parishioners in Swardeston collected funds for a new east window in the church in Swardeston which she’d attended for over 40 years.
Among many monuments worldwide is the statue unveiled in 1920 by Trafalgar Square.
Find out more at edithcavell.org.uk and the archive in Swardeston as well as in Norfolk Record Office and Norwich Castle Museum and Norwich Cathedral library
Edith Cavell’s memory is maintained by a UK charity in support to health care workers facing difficulties – see cavellnursestrust.org