Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell.jpg
Edith Cavell
Born 4 December 1865, Norfolk, Great Britain
Died 12 October 1915 (aged 49), Brussels, Belgium
Venerated in Anglican church
Feast 12 October

Edith Louisa Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse and humanitarian. She is celebrated for helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was executed. This led to worldwide sympathetic press coverage of her.

She is well-known for her statement that "patriotism is not enough." Her strong Anglican beliefs propelled her to help all those who needed it, both German and Allied soldiers. She was quoted as saying, "I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved".[1] Cavell was also an influential pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium.

Early life and career

Edith Cavell (pronounced /ˈkævəl/; rhymes with 'gravel') was born in Swardeston, a village near Norwich, where her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell, was priest for 45 years.[2] After a period as a governess, including for a family in Brussels 1900 -1905, she trained as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes. In 1907, Cavell was recruited by Dr. Antoine Depage to be matron of a newly established nursing school by the name of L'École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées on the Rue de la Culture in Brussels.[1] By 1910, "Miss Cavell 'felt that the profession of nursing had gained sufficient foothold in Belgium to warrant the publishing of a professional journal,' and therefore launched the nursing journal, L'infirmière.[1] A year later, she was a training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium.[3]

When World War I broke out, she was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She returned to Brussels where her clinic and nursing school were taken over by the Red Cross.[4]

World War I and execution

In the autumn of 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funnelling them out of occupied Belgium to neutral Holland.[4] In the following months, an underground organisation developed, allowing her to guide some 200 Allied soldiers to safety, which placed Cavell in violation of German military law.[5][6] German authorities became increasingly suspicious of the nurse's actions, which were reinforced by Cavell's own disregard and outspokenness.[5]

She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers. She was held in St Gilles prison for 10 weeks, the last two in solitary confinement,[5] and court-martialled.

The British government said they could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, "I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless." The sentiment was echoed by Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. "Any representation by us", he advised, "will do her more harm than good." The United States, which had not yet joined the war, did not agree. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the American legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm their nation's already damaged reputation. Later, he wrote:

We reminded him (Baron von der Lancken) of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania, and told him that this murder would stir all civilized countries with horror and disgust. Count Harrach broke in at this with the remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to one of the humblest German soldiers, and his only regret was that they had not 'three or four English old women to shoot.'

The German civil governor, Baron von der Lancken, is known to have stated that Cavell should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped save so many lives, German as well as Allied. However, the German military acted quickly to execute Cavell to deny higher authorities the opportunity to consider clemency.[7][8]

She was not arrested for espionage as many were led to believe, but for treason.[9] Of the 27 put on trial, Cavell and four others were condemned to death, among them Philippe Baucq, an architect in his thirties who was also instrumental in the escapes.

When in custody, Cavell was asked questions in French, with transcripts made in German. This process gave the inquisitor the opportunity to misinterpret her answers. Although she may have been misrepresented, she made no attempt to defend herself. Cavell was provided with a defender approved by the German military governor. A previous defender, who was chosen for Cavell by her assistant, Elizabeth Wilkins,[5] was ultimately denied by the governor.[8]

The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain 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."[10] These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as, "Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country."

Despite efforts by American minister Brand Whitlock and the Marquis de Villalobar, the Spanish minister to Belgium, on Cavell's behalf, on 11 October, Baron Von Der Lancken allowed the execution to proceed.[6] Sixteen men, composed of two firing squads, carried out her sentence along with four Belgian men[3] at Tir National[5] shooting range [11] in Schaerbeek, at 6 am on 12 October 1915. There are conflicting reports of the details of Cavell's execution. However, according to the eyewitness account of the Reverend Le Seur, who attended Cavell in her final hours, eight soldiers fired at Cavell while the other eight executed Philippe Baucq.[9]

There is also a dispute over the sentencing imposed under German Military Code. Supposedly, the death penalty equivalent to the offence committed by Cavell was not officially declared until a few hours after her death.[12]

With instructions from the Spanish minister, Belgian women immediately buried her body next to St. Gilles Prison.[6] After the war, her body was taken back to Britain for a memorial service at Westminster Abbey and again transferred to Norwich, to be laid to rest at Life's Green.[4]

Role in World War I propaganda

File:Eca dead2.jpeg

In the months and years following Cavell's death, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicised her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain to help increase favourable American sentiment towards the Allies.

Cavell was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her apparently heroic approach to death.[12] Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity. The many biographies that surfaced shortly after her death were, in reality, only fictional.[5]

News reports shortly following Cavell's execution were found to be true only in part.[5] Even the American Journal of Nursing repeated the fictional account of Cavell's execution in which she fainted and fell because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad.[5] Supposedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver.[6]

Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Cavell's execution was widely publicised in both Britain and America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau.[13]

During World War I, the French shot a number of women, including two German nurses who aided German prisoners of war to escape. The German government did nothing to publicise that incident. When asked why not, the German officer in charge of war propaganda replied, "What? Protest? The French had a perfect right to shoot them!"[14]

Because of the British government's decision to use her story as propaganda, Cavell became the most prominent British female casualty of World War I.[15] The combination of heroic appeal and a resonant atrocity-story narrative made Cavell's case one of the most effective in British propaganda of World War I.[13]

Two representations of Edith Cavell

"Cavell was not a particularly well-known figure outside the field of nursing prior to the Great War".[5] This allowed for the creation of two different depictions of her in British propaganda. British propaganda ignored anything that did not fit this image, including the suggestion that Cavell, during her interrogation, had given information that incriminated others. In November 1915, the British Foreign Office issued a denial that Cavell had implicated anyone else in her testimony.[15]

"The first representation was the distorted but highly emotive portrayal of her as the girlish innocent victim of a ruthless enemy with no sense of honour in its dealings with frail women".[8] This depicted Edith Cavell as innocent of espionage, which was most commonly used in various forms of British propaganda, such as postcards and newspaper illustrations during the war.[8] "The British Press presented her story in such a way as to capture the public imagination and fuel the masculine desire for vengeance on the battlefield".[8] These important images implied that men must enlist in the armed forces immediately in order to stop the murder of innocent British females.

The second representation of Cavell during World War I described her as a serious, reserved, brave, and patriotic woman who devoted her life to nursing and died to save others. This portrayal has been illustrated in numerous biographical sources, from personal first-hand experiences of the Red Cross nurse. Pastor Le Seur, the German army chaplain, recalled at the time of her execution, "I do not believe that Miss Cavell wanted to be a martyr…but she was ready to die for her country… Miss Cavell was a very brave woman and a faithful Christian".[5] Another account from British chaplain, the Reverend Mr Gahan, remembers Cavell's words, "I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!"[6] In this interpretation, "her gender made her remarkable enough to be remembered as an individual on a scale that, had she been a man, she would not have been".[8]


Edith Cavell monument

Memorial to Edith Cavell outside Norwich Cathedral

A marble statue of Edith Cavell in nurse's uniform backed by a large granite column, surmounted by a figure representing Humanity

Memorial to Edith Cavell at St. Martin's Place, London

Following her death, many memorials were created around the world to remember Cavell. One of the first was the one unveiled in October 1918 by Queen Alexandra on the grounds of Norwich Cathedral, near a home for nurses which also bore her name. On May 19, 1919, her body was interred near the memorial.[16] Other honours include:


Medical facilities:




See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Judson, Helen (July 1941). "Edith Cavell". The American Journal of Nursing: 871. 
  2. Hoehling, A.A. (April 1955), "The Story of Edith Cavell"; The American Journal of Nursing, p. 1320
  3. 3.0 3.1 Clowes, P. (1996). A Fanatical Sense of Duty Drove Nurse Edith Cavell to Harbor Allied Soldiers Behind German Lines. Military History, 18-21
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Great Britain Heroes-#2: The execution of Edith Cavell. (2007). British Heritage , 63-64
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 5.6 5.7 5.8 5.9 Hoehling, A. (1957). "The Story of Edith Cavell"; The American Journal of Nursing, 1320-1322
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Scovil, E. R. (November 1915). "An Heroic Nurse"; The American Journal of Nursing: 118-120
  7. Scovil, Elisabeth (November 1915), "An Heroic Nurse"; The American Journal of Nursing, p. 120
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 8.5 Hughes, Anne-Marie Claire (2005). "War, Gender & National Mourning: The Significance of the Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell in Britain"; European Review of History, 425-444
  9. 9.0 9.1 Book Review (1958). The American Journal of Nursing, 940
  10. Account by the Reverend H. Stirling Gahan
  12. 12.0 12.1 M.M.R. (1941). Book Review - Edith Cavell. The American Journal of Nursing, 871
  13. 13.0 13.1 Peterson 1939, p. 61
  14. Lasswell 1927, p. 32
  15. Hughes 2005, p. 425
  16. Norfolk Section, The Britannia and Castle 105, 2005
  19. Plant: Miss Edith Cavell (polyantha, De Ruiter, 1917)


  • The Daily News & Leader. "The Death of Edith Cavell" London: H.C. & L., Ltd., 1915.
  • Hill, William Thomson. The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell: The Life Story of the Victim of Germany's Most Barbarous Crime. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1915.
  • Hoehling, A.A. "The Story of Edith Cavell": The American Journal of Nursing. 57.10 (Apr. 1955).
  • Hughes, Anne-Marie Claire. "War, Gender and National Mourning: The Significance of the Death and Commemoration of Edith Cavell in Britain": European Review of History. 12.3 (Nov. 2005) 425-444. EBSCOhost. 5 November 2007.
  • Judson, Helen. "Edith Cavell": The American Journal of Nursing. 41.7 (July 1941).
  • Lasswell, Harold. Propaganda Technique in World War I. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., 1927.
  • Marquis, Alice Goldfarb. "Words as Weapons: Propaganda in Britain and Germany During the First World War"; Journal of Contemporary History. 13.3 (Jul. 1978) 467-498. JSTOR. 5 November 2007.
  • Peterson, H. C. Propaganda for War: The Campaign against American Neutrality, 1914-1917. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1939.
  • Roberts, Mary. "A Whisper of Eternity" and "The Mystery of Edith Cavell" by A.A. Hoehling. 58.7 (July 1958).
  • Sarolea, Charles. The Murder of Nurse Cavell. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1915.
  • Scovil, Elisabeth Robinson. "An Heroic Nurse"; The American Journal of Nursing. 16.2 (Nov. 1915).

Further reading

  • Kindred Spirit: Memory, Landscape and the Martyrdom of Edith Cavell, by Katie Pickles, Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (due for publication June 2007), ISBN 1-4039-8607-X
  • The Edith Cavell Nurse from Massachusetts—The War Letters of Alice Fitzgerald, an American Nurse Serving in the British Expeditionary Force, Boulogne-The ... ... Trial, And Death of Nurse Edith Cavell by Alice L. Fitzgerald, E. Lymon Cabot (July 2006), Publisher: Diggory Press, ISBN 1-84685-202-1
  • A Journal from our Legation in Belgium bu Hugh Gibson, Doubleday vPage, New York, 1917.
  • Edith Cavell by Sally Grant, David Yaxley and Robert Yaxley (illustrators), Publisher: The Larks Press (May 1995) ISBN 0-948400-28-5
  • A whisper of eternity;: The mystery of Edith Cavell by A. A Hoehling, Publisher: T. Yoseloff (1957), Template:ASIN
  • Friend Within the Gates: The Story of Nurse Edith Cavell, by Elizabeth Grey, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co (June 1971), ISBN 0-395-06786-3
  • The Story of Edith Cavell, by Iris Vinton, Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap (1959), Template:ASIN
  • Dawn;: A biographical novel of Edith Cavell, by Reginald Cheyne Berkeley, Publisher: Sears (1928), Template:ASIN
  • Edith Cavell, by Rowland Ryder, Publisher: Hamilton (1975), ISBN 0-241-89173-6
  • Edith Cavell: Nurse, Spy, Heroine, by Leeuwen, Published: G. P. Putnams Sons (1968), Template:ASIN
  • Edith Cavell, heroic nurse, by Juliette Elkon Hamelecourt, Publisher: J. Messner (1956), Template:ASIN
  • The Secret Task of Nurse Cavell: A Story about Edith Cavell, by Jan Johnson, Publisher: Harper San Francisco (1979), ISBN 0-03-041661-2
  • A noble woman: The life story of Edith Cavell, by Ernest Protheroe, Publisher: C.H. Kelly; 3rd ed edition (1918), Template:ASIN
  • With Edith Cavell in Belgium, by Jacqueline Van Til, Publisher: H.W. Bridges (1922), Template:ASIN
  • Ready to Die: The Story of Edith Cavell (Faith in Action Series), by Brian Peachment, Publisher: Canterbury Press, ISBN 0-08-024189-1
  • In memoriam: Edith Cavell, by William S. Murphy, Publisher: Stoneham (1916), Template:ASIN
  • The case of Edith Cavell: A study of the rights of non-combatants, by James M. Beck, Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons, Template:ASIN
  • The secret trial: An unhistorical charade suggested by the life and death of Edith Cavell, by Richard Heron Ward, Template:ASIN
  • The Dutiful Edith Cavell, by Noel Boston, Publisher: Norwich Cathedral (1955), Template:ASIN
  • "The Meaning of a Memory: The Case of Edith Cavell and the Lusitania in Post-World War I Belgium" by Peter van Alfen, ANS Magazine 5.1 (Spring 2006).

External links

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ro:Edith Cavell fi:Edith Cavell sv:Edith Cavell

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