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.




Allied Powers WW1

World War One technically began as a strictly European conflict with Austria-Hungary‘s declaration of war against the Kingdom of Serbia on July 28th, 1914. Within literally days it escalated as Russia initiated mobilization of its army and reservists as a precautionary measure, and in sympathy with its Serbian Slavic “cousins”. Refusing Germany’s ultimatum to stand down its mobilization, which had not yet taken any offensive action against any state, Germany subsequently declared war upon the Russian Empire on August 1st.

This brought France into war against Germany on August 3rd, and this development along with Germany’s unprovoked invasion of neutral Belgium that same day, caused Great Britain to declare war against Germany on August 4th. These first three “Allied Powers”, the empires of Russia, France and Britain, were known as the “Triple Entente, this name deriving from the “Entente Cordiale” agreement between Great Britain and France. The Entente Cordiale was the public and popular name for the Anglo-French agreement of 1904 and it was the basis for Great Britain’s entry into the war on behalf of France and Russia, a true military mutual assistance treaty existing between  the latter two countries. Of course, Great Britain’s entry also brought the “British Dominion” nations of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa into the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Japan’s entry into the war, British and South Africa into the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. Japan’s entry into the war, British and South African moves against Germany’s African colonies, and Canadian, Australian and New Zealand contribution of troops to Britain’s European war  theaters were what converted a European conflict into a

“world war”.

The German propagandists were the first to use the term “Weltkrieg” (world war), and it was soon picked up by both sides. The nations opposing the Germanic Empires quickly became simply and universally known as “The Allied Powers”.
By the end of World War One in November 1918, some 26 countries had joined the Allied Powers and declared war upon the Central Powers. Presented below is a summary of the growing list of Allied Powers, ordered by  the year  they  formally entered  the war.

1914 Serbia,Russia,France,Belgium,Japan,Montenegro,Great Britain(Australia New Zealand Canada South Africa

1915 Italy

1916 Portugal & Romania

1917 USA,Cuba,Brazil,Panama,Thailand,Liberia & China

1918 Greece,Guatemala,Nicaragua,Costa Rica & Haiti

As well as those Latin American countries which formally declared war against Germany, most of the remainder severed diplomatic and economic relations with Germany and Austria-Hungary by early 1918. The motivations for Latin America turning against Germany were to protest that country’s unhindered submarine warfare practices and as a show of solidarity with the United States. Significantly, America’s immediate southern neighbour, Mexico, did not join in the war.

The major brunt of the war effort on the Allied side was borne by France, Great Britain and her four Dominion nations, Russia, Serbia and Belgium. These five nations alone of the twenty-six Allies accounted for over 91% of the 16.2 million Allied military casualties. While fifteen more nations joined the Allied cause during the course of the war, the only two additions that had substantive military impact on the ultimate Allied victory were the entry of the Kingdom of Italy in May 1915 and the United States in April 1917.

Who was Tommy Atkin’s?

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a ...

Image via Wikipedia

Tommy Atkins” was a general name given to the British soldier and first appeared in 1815 when “Thomas Atkins” was used as a representative name on specimen forms of the “Soldiers Book” which was, to all intents and purposes, his record file.

The minimum height for infantrymen was 5 feet 3 inches and 5 feet 5 inches for the cavalrymen. The average “Tommy” was slightly built and at best, semiliterate, which would probably account for the few letters and diaries which exist today to tell us about his life at this time.

Unlike his Boer counterpart, “Tommy” joined the army at a young age and knew little of life outside the regiment. On enlisting he swore allegiance to Her Gracious Majesty, Queen Victoria by taking the “Queen’s Shilling”, a shiny new coin which sealed the contract for the next six years. Thereafter he was owned, body and soul, by the military establishment and was subject to its rules and regulations some of which were barbaric. to say the least. Lord Wolseley called the British Soldier “the worst paid labourer in England”. His military training was hard and laborious and he was soon turned into an “unthinking” machine. The British military ruled by fear and this worked well in as far as “Tommy” never considered retreat or surrender. He was disciplined to follow orders without question.

He existed on a diet of meat and potatoes and occasionally vegetables and this was washed down with the inevitable mug of “char” and when he could afford it, a pint of beer. His duties were to dig trenches, build sangars, mount piquet duty and fight to the death when told to. Living conditions were far from comfortable in the hot African sun and there was a lack of fresh water despite the often heavy rainfall. To add to his discomfit he was often confronted with scorpions, snakes and spiders. Despite all this he was the most courageous soldier as can be substantiated by the many awards for gallantry that he received during the Natal campaign, the highest of which was the Victoria Cross.

His day started at about 3.30 am. By 4 he was on parade with bare feet, a cleaned rifle, and his emergency rations of tinned meat or “bully” and biscuits at the ready. Breakfast was at 6 o’clock consisting of bread and jam followed by a cup of tea affectionately called “gunfire”. An occasional tot of rum was issued to the men and for those who were literate, the cost of posting a letter to England at this time was twopence.

Christmas food for “Tommy” Turkey or Chicken with Potatoes and Onions and this was followed by a pint of beer and finished off with a small piece of cake. Various forms of recreation were enjoyed, race-running, tug o war etc. The British soldiers besieged in Ladysmith were not as lucky and had to survive on quarter rations of biscuits and horsemeat, washed down with polluted water from the Klip River.

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