“Her name liveth for evermore,” reads the inscription on nurse Edith Cavell’s grave at Norwich Cathedral but sadly over the years her name, together with her bravery and the sacrifice she made, has faded from the public eye, as so often happens with the passing of time.
It is the 100th anniversary of her execution during the First World War on Monday and commemorations are taking place around the world – particularly in her home county of Norfolk – so I thought I would add my own by sharing her story as part of my East Anglian tales.
Like many little girls (and maybe boys) I went through a (short-lived) phase of wanting to be a nurse when I grew up.
My dolls, friends and even older brother, on rare occasions, became patients and there wasn’t a single ailment that couldn’t be cured with bandages (lots of them) but then I discovered that you could write for a living and the rest is history.
In Edith Cavell’s case she didn’t discover her calling until much later in life after she’d come home to Norfolk, where she was born in 1865, from working as a governess in Brussels, to care for her poorly father.
He was the vicar of Swardeston, a village just outside Norwich, and had instilled in her not just an unwavering faith but also a caring attitude and strong sense of moral obligation.
In the course of nursing him back to health Edith was inspired to take up a new career.
She was 30 when she was accepted to train as a nurse at the London Hospital and once qualified she worked at various places over many years before she returned to Brussels in 1907 to look after a poorly child.
While there she was recruited to head a pioneering new nursing school which she helped to turn into a success.
When the First World War broke out she was visiting Norfolk and was tending her now widowed mother’s garden in Norwich when she heard the news. While many might have stayed put she quickly returned to her school.
She is quoted as saying: “I must return. At a time like this I am more needed than ever”.
Her school was turned into a Red Cross Hospital and she looked after soldiers from both sides, impressing on others that their duty was to care for all, before it was taken over by the Germans when Brussels fell.
In November 1914 she began secretly sheltering allied soldiers and helping them to escape to the neutral Netherlands despite the fact that she knew she was risking her life to do so.
She helped some 200 allied soldiers in this way but the following year, in August 1915, she was arrested and under interrogation admitted her guilt at aiding the men. There is some suggestion that she also implicated her colleagues but opinion varies as to if and why she did so.
Despite widespread calls for mercy she was sentenced to death and on October 12, 1915 was shot by German firing squad, aged 49.
The night before her execution she said: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
She wanted to be remembered as simply “a nurse who tried to do her duty” but the British government at the time used her story in propaganda material, turning her into a martyr which caused recruitment to double for a period after her death.
When the war was over her body was returned to Britain and after a service at Westminster Abbey her remains were brought to Norwich by train, in a carriage now known as the Cavell Van, where she was reburied at the cathedral.
In the run up to Monday’s anniversary, I was commissioned to write two stories about her for The Eastern Daily Press and while I already knew who she was it has been fascinating learning more about her and her legacy.
Her name is very much back in the public eye now and a new generation of children is learning about her and perhaps even being inspired to become nurses.
- For more information please visit this site, which brings together the details of all the events to commemorate her death as well as a very detailed history of her life.
- A trust in her name was set up after her death. Now known as the Cavell Nurses’ Trust it supports nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants in times of need. You can find out more here.