The heroism of Nurse Edith Cavell…

Edith Cavell.

By John Telfer

I recently read a wonderful heart-warming book titled “Anzac Girls” written by Peter Rees and he gives a very detailed history of those women who answered the call to service in 1915. It gives a powerful account of the difficulties facing the nurses who attended to the Anzacs throughout the period of 1914 – 1918. But, more importantly, it shows up the spirit and courage of the nursing profession of British, Australian and New Zealand, that demonstrated the highest ideals of their profession in that time.

Although I could spend a lot of time lauding these wonderful women, I feel that Peter Rees does an outstanding job doing this in his book. However, while reading his work, a British nurse was mentioned briefly which grabbed my attention and that was Sister Edith Cavell. I realise she has been written about in other history books but I feel compelled to tell her story for those who do not recall her heroics over 105 years ago.

Edith was born on 4th December 1865 at Swardeston, Norfolk, England, one of three daughters and a son, John, to Frederick and Louisa Cavell. Frederick was a part-time Vicar, so the family lived in the Vicarage where they received home schooling by their father, before Edith went on to finish her education at Norwich High School for Girls. Edith worked as a Governess in London before she decided that she wanted to take up nursing.

In April 1896, Edith was accepted, and trained in a London Hospital, whereby after graduating, she worked at hospitals in Shoreditch, King’s Cross and Manchester. When the typhoid epidemic swept London she was awarded the Maidstone Medal for her work. Later, she accepted a position as Matron of Belgium’s first training hospital and School of Nursing in Brussels, thus becoming recognised as the founder of modern nursing education in Belgium, before moving back to England around 1913.

When World War 1 broke out in 1914, Edith returned to Brussels which was now occupied by German troops by August of that year. After the Battle of Mons in Belgium on 4th August, Edith was asked to treat 2 wounded British soldiers who had been unable to get back to their lines. She did not hesitate, and after treatment, had them smuggled back to the Netherlands. Over the next 12 months, Edith assisted around 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers by hiding them in the hospital, before handing them over to guides to get them back over the borders. She treated all soldiers whether they were German or others nationalities, as she saw it to be her duty as a nurse to do so. However, she came under notice by a German collaborator, Georges Gaston Quien, who had her arrested on 5th August 1915, and placed in solitary confinement at St. Gillies Prison in Brussels.

Edith was given a Court Martial, which is rather unusual for a non-combatant, on the 7th October 1915, found guilty, and sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was to be carried out a few days later on the 12th October 1915 at a firing range near Brussels, along with 34 others.

Edith’s execution caused outrage in Britain and she became recognised as a symbol for the Allied cause. Edith maintained both grace and charm while awaiting her death, and could not see how her dedication to helping her patients was wrong. Showing tremendous dignity in her final days, Edith responded with the words that; “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”, before the blindfold was placed over her eyes.

After the cessation of hostilities that ended World War 1, Edith Cavell’s body was exhumed and brought back to England. On her return, Edith’s body was escorted along the streets to Westminster Abbey for a memorial service, then escorted back to her home town of Norwich to be buried in the Cathedral there. Edith is also honoured by a statue in St. Martin’s Place in London, which contains her final words:

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”.

The untimely death of Edith Cavell and the courage shown at her execution, must have been an inspiration to all those heroic nurses on the battlefields of France and the Middle East. Here was a woman who apparently demonstrated the highest ideals of the nursing profession as she did not discriminate in her treatment of soldiers, both allied and German, and died defending those ideals. It is certain that the Australian nurses, as well as others, also displayed this courage.

In World War 1, a total of 8 nurses were awarded the Military Medal for bravery in the field. They included Sisters Dorothy Cawood, Clare Deacon, Alice Ross-King, Rachael Kelly, Pearl Corkhill, Rachael Pratt, Alice Birdwood and Eileen King. Eileen King’s award was won when her Casualty Clearing Station was under artillery attack from the Germans while she was assisting the surgeons. A shell almost obliterated the theatre but Eileen kept working, ignoring her injuries, which included a broken left thigh which luckily avoided her main blood vessels and numerous shrapnel wounds. Soldiers who knew her said: “Eileen King was one of the bravest women they knew”.

I wrote a story on Alice Ross-King in the Warwick Daily News on 6th September 2019, and highlighted her bravery and titled the story: “The Unsung Heroes of World War 1. That story was also about the incredible bravery of those intrepid women who answered the call to service under the most trying conditions with little help from the allies. So, to all the nurses of Australia who served in the Great War, we salute and honour you on Remembrance Day, 11th November, 2020.