The daughter of a vicar, Edith Cavell was born in Norfolk, England, in 1865. As a young woman she had a governess job in Brussels. In 1896, she decided to return to London for nursing training.
In 1907, one of Europe’s leading surgeons, Dr Antoine Depage, invited Edith to become director of Belgium’s first training school for nurses in Brussels. Edith accepted his offer.
After the British and French divisions withdrew to the Marne, many wounded soldiers remained behind throughout northern France and in the Ardennes in field hospitals, while others remained because they had lost contact with their units. At first, they escaped the attention of the Germans and, with the help of local people, they tried to get back to their army or to escape to England. Edith Cavell’s hospital soon became a reception centre for soldiers who wanted to rejoin their divisions via the Netherlands. Cavell herself became a key link in the escape route that led from northern France via Brussels to the Netherlands. Edith Cavell testified later that she had helped about 200 people.
The network was finally rounded up, probably as a result of betrayal by an informer. The loose tongues of the first people to be arrested led ultimately to the capture of 66 members. Edith Cavell was taken into custody on 15 August 1915 in Sint Gillis/Saint-Gilles.
Edith Cavell seems to have detested lies: at her interrogation, she told the truth. This was held against her later, as it led, among other things, to the arrest of the British Intelligence Corps’s two best Belgian contacts.
Edith Cavell was placed in solitary confinement - as a major criminal - and was allowed no visitors, not even a defence lawyer. Her trial began on 7 October 1915.
Everyone was convinced that the Germans would not sentence a woman to death, but they were quite wrong: for the Germans, this trial was intended to have a deterrent effect. The verdict was announced on 11 October 1915: Edith Cavell was sentenced to death for high treason, for supplying soldiers to an enemy army. A plea for clemency for Edith Cavell, submitted by the secretary of the US embassy, was rejected. She was executed on 12 October 1915, at 7 am.
Those responsible were sought after the war. The French spy Gaston Quien was accused of having informed on the network, but was acquitted. It seems most likely that the reason was to be found in the network’s amateurish way of operating, whereby everyone knew too many people by their real names and where there was too much discussion with each other, instead of working - like the British secret service - with small cells and pseudonyms.
In the UK, Cavell’s execution provoked a storm of protest. The propaganda machine worked flat out. Crowds of volunteers signed up to fight the Germans. Edith Cavell became a martyr, depicted during the war and long afterwards on postcards, posters, and stamps and in magazines and newspapers as a brave young nurse.
Subsequently, the German occupier proceeded more cautiously in relation to the hasty execution of women.
After the war, Edith Cavell’s remains were brought to England and buried with full national honours. She became a symbol of the unyielding, courageous heroine, living on in the collective memory.