By Judith Phillips
Well, the snow and generally dreadful weather forecast on Saturday 17 March didn’t deter seventeen people coming to hear Ian McArdle talk about Edith Cavell, ‘a quiet heroine’ in his words. It was a fascinating afternoon and the Question and Answer session afterwards threw up an amazing coincidence.
Edith Cavell was an unlikely and certainly reluctant ‘heroine’. Ian showed how all her life her sense of duty, coupled with a strong religious faith, drove her to strive for ‘the best’ and her attitude sometimes brought her into conflict with authority. The daughter of a Church of England vicar, she grew up in Swardestone near Norwich. She was taught at home by her father until she was sixteen when she was sent to schools in Kensington and Clevedon as a pupil teacher. She was a governess in several families in Britain until 1890 when she went to Brussels as governess to the family of Antoine Depage, a well-known surgeon.
In 1895 she returned to nurse her ailing father and this experience, coupled with a previous time at a German hospital while on holiday, convinced her that she had a vocation as a nurse. She gained experience at the Tooting Fever Hospital and then trained at The London Hospital (now part of Barts) whose matron had known Florence Nightingale. Edith gained her nursing qualifications and worked in hospitals and privately but wasn’t being promoted to the higher posts she wanted. Her reference from The London Hospital makes it clear that she didn’t hesitate to argue with authority, which probably didn’t make her popular. After a short break to recover from exhaustion she spent some time nursing in Manchester where she experienced working with victims of industrial accidents.
In 1907 Antoine Depage invited her to run and develop the first nursing school in Belgium (now the Institut Cavell) which he had just established in Brussels. Starting with just four probationer nurses, Edith introduced a syllabus that covered medical and ethical issues. The school’s reputation grew, as did numbers, and in 1910 Edith was also in charge of the new hospital at St. Gilles in Brussels. An inventory of her belongings in 1912 showed a large number of books and not much else.
She spent the summer of 1914 in England with her mother and returned to Brussels the day before the declaration of war and the German invasion of Belgium. Within a few weeks German soldiers were in Brussels, cutting off any idea of leaving for England. The speed of the German invasion had left isolated pockets of British and French troops behind enemy lines. In October 1914 Antoine Depage’s wife, herself a nurse, suggested Edith’s clinic as a place for treating injured Allied soldiers who had found their way to Brussels. Once started, Edith’s involvement increased and she helped hundreds of men escape to neutral Holland through the Belgian resistance movement.
Ian shared his view that the German authorities probably suspected, or knew, what was going on but held back until they had identified as many people as possible. Edith herself showed a certain naïvété in her letters to her mother – letters that were almost certainly opened before being despatched.
She was arrested in August 1915 and sent to the St. Gilles prison where she was kept mainly in solitary confinement. She was interrogated three times and put on trial in October 1915 with about thirty other people – guides, chemists (who provided false documentation), people who provided shelter. She had no contact with her defence lawyer and had already signed a statement admitting she had helped men get to Holland (and subsequently to England). The German prosecutor questioned her for about ten minutes in all. Incidentally, he lived until 1960. The court minutes were in German although the questioning was in French and, with only one interpreter in court, there may have been misunderstandings and misinterpretations. Ian pointed out that frontière (border in French) could have been misunderstood as ‘the front’.
The judges gave their verdicts on a Saturday: Edith and Philippe Baucq (who was involved in resistance newspaper distribution and networks) and three others were sentenced to death, although only Edith and Baucq were executed; the others were generally condemned to hard labour with a few acquittals. The defence lawyers had not expected any activity over the weekend and were unprepared for any appeal. Despite representations by the American legation, the sentence was carried out in the early morning of Tuesday 12 October 1915 at the National Shooting Gallery near Brussels. Edith spoke with both the Anglican minister in Brussels and a German Lutheran pastor before her death. She asked that her mother be informed of her death and she left a letter to be read to the nurses in the Institut, where the letter is read out annually on the anniversary of her death. She was buried at the Shooting Gallery, along with others executed there.
Edith’s execution was seized by the Allies and used as propaganda. Ian showed some examples which clearly distorted her appearance and how she died. After the war her body was exhumed and brought back to England in May 1919. Crowds lined the train route taken by her body from Dover to London where the cortege was escorted by nurses and the military service to Westminster Abbey for a memorial service before the coffin was taken for burial at Life’s Green beside Norwich Cathedral. Ian ended with images of the memorials to Edith in London and Norwich, and he pointed out that streets, schools, hospitals, a bridge and a carpark are named after her as well as the Cavell Homes for Nurses.
A lively question and answer session followed covering reasons why she is not so remembered nowadays, the source of her famous words ‘Patriotism is not enough’ and a railway carriage connection with Captain Fryatt (also executed by the Germans) and the Unknown Warrior. But it was a question from the youngest member of the audience that gave us that amazing coincidence: ‘When was the memorial in London put up?’ Ian confessed he didn’t know but a quick search on Wikipedia said it was 17 March 1920 – exactly 98 years ago. An amzing conclusion to a fascinating afternoon.