Women and WW1: Miss Edith “Cavell”

Edith Louisa Cavell was born on 4 December 1865 in Swardeston in Norfolk (GB).


In 1907 she became the matron of the Berkendael Institute in Brussels. In August 1914, Cavell was spending a short holiday with her mother in Norwich after her husband’s death. Edith was weeding her mother’s back garden when she heard the dramatic news that Germany had invaded Belgium. “I am needed more than ever,” she said, and immediately left for the Continent. Her mother never saw her again.


Cavell sheltered at the Institute British, French and Belgian soldiers, from where they were helped to escape to Holland, which was neutral. It became obvious however, that the escape route could not be kept open indefinitely. The Germans were well aware that large numbers of fugitive soldiers were crossing the Belgian border into Holland. Then, in August 1915, the Germans raided the home of Philippe Baucg, a member of the escape organization, and arrested him. Unfortunately Baucq failed to destroy several incriminating letters in which Edith Cavell‘s name appeared.

On August 5, Otto Mayer of the German Secret Police arrived in the Rue de la Culture. Cavell was driven to police headquarters and questioned. But nothing of importance was found in the Institute — Cavell had, in fact, sewn her diary inside a cushion. Although more than 200 troops had passed through her hands, the only document incriminating the nurse was a tattered postcard sent, rather unwisely, by an English soldier  thanking her for helping him to reach home. Cavell was sentenced to death, along with four Belgians. Two firing squads, each of eight men, carried out the execution at dawn on October 12, 1915, at the national rifle range in Brussels. Cavell was still wearing her nurse’s uniform.

Although the German action was justified according to the rule of war, the shooting of Edith Cavell was a serious blunder. Within days, the heroic nurse became a worldwide martyr, and the Germans were universally described as “murdering monsters.” As a result of her execution, Allied morale was strengthened, and recruitment doubled for eight weeks after her death was announced.




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