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Edith Cavell

Edith Louisa Cavell (December 4, 1865October 12, 1915) was a British World War I nurse and humanitarian. She is celebrated for helping hundreds of Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. Her subsequent execution received significant sympathetic press coverage worldwide. “Patriotism is not enough…” Her strong religious belief propelled Cavell to help all those who needed help - whether a member of the German forces or the Allied forces. “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved”.

Early life and career

Edith Cavell (pronounced /ˈkævəl/ to rhyme with 'travel') was born in 1865 at Swardeston in Norfolk, England, where her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell, was a priest for 45 years. She trained as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital and in 1907 was appointed matron of the Berkendael Institute, founded by Antoine Depage, in Brussels, Belgium. When World War I broke out, the hospital was taken over by the Red Cross. On 10 October 1907, Antoine Depage founded L'École d'Infirmière Dimplonier, and Edith Cavell became the first director of this new nursing school.

World War I and execution

Nurse Cavell helped hundreds of soldiers from the Allied forces to escape from occupied Belgium to the neutral Netherlands, in violation of military law. She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers, not for espionage. She was held in prison for 10 weeks, the last two weeks being in solitary confinement , and court-martialled by the Germans for this offence. UK and USA diplomats disagreed about whether anything could be done to help her case, with Sir Horace Rowland, from the Foreign Office suggesting, "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, who joined the coalition government in 1915 as an undersecretary for foreign affairs after working for the Red Cross. "Any representation by us," he advised, "will do her more harm than good."

Representing the United States, which had not yet joined the war, Hugh 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. In a statement issued afterward, he noted:

"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 rather irrelevant 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.'"
Baron von der Lancken stated that Cavell should be pardoned for her crime because of her complete honest truth, and because she had helped save so many lives of both Allied soldiers as well as German soldiers. However, the German military acted quickly to execute Cavell so that higher German authorities would not issue the pardon .

She made no defence, admitting her actions, and was ordered to be executed by firing squad at 2am on 12 October. A degree of controversy attends the execution itself: according to one account, on the way to the Wall she became faint, stumbled and fell; while she was unconscious on the ground, the German commanding officer took a revolver and shot Cavell dead . However, the eyewitness account of "one Pasteur Le Seur," who attended Cavell in her final hours, asserts that the firing squad functioned normally, with eight soldiers firing at Cavell while eight others executed a Belgian civilian, Philippe Baucq. Regardless of the details, Cavell became a popular martyr and entered British history as a heroine. The execution took place at the Tir National, a State military site (today a memorial, near the State television buildings), where she was buried. Edith Cavell's case became an important article of British propaganda throughout the war. The German medical officer assisting was the expressionist poet Gottfried Benn (1886–1956), who gave an account of the event.

The night before her execution she told the Anglican chaplain, the Revd Father Gahan, 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." These words are inscribed on her statue in Saint Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London.

Her final words to the German pastor, 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."

After the war, Edith Cavell's body was exhumed and returned to the UK. In order to exhume Cavell’s body from St. Gilles Prison, “written permission from the minister of war at Berlin” needed to be obtained . A memorial service at Westminster Abbey led by King George V was followed by travel by special train to Thorpe Station, Norwich. She was reburied on Life's Green, at the east end of Norwich Cathedral. Every year a service is held at the grave.

Role in World War I propaganda

The execution of Edith Cavell was widely publicized by the British government through a large number of newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books in the months and years immediately following her death. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain, and to help increase favourable American sentiment towards the Allies. Cavell was an appealing public icon due to her sex and her nursing profession, and because she apparently approached her death with a considerable amount of heroism. Cavell’s execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity, as the title of one of the many biographies written about her in 1915 proclaims: The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell: The Life Story of the Victim of Germany’s Most Barbarous Crime. Along with the invasion of Belgium, and the sinking of the Lusitania, Cavell’s execution was widely publicized in both Britain and America by Wellington House, the British War Propaganda Bureau.

One image of Cavell promoted in postcards and newspaper illustrations during the war depicted her as an innocent, girlish nurse who became one of the victims of the German war machine. These images implied that men must enlist in the armed forces immediately if they wished to stop the murder of innocent British females. The images depict Cavell, who was 49 years old when she was executed, as a much younger and more attractive-looking woman than photographs of her at the time depict.

The second representation of Cavell that emerged during World War I was literature describing her as a mature, brave, patriotic woman who died to save the lives of others. In this representation, Cavell is depicted as a strong woman who has devoted her life to nursing. British propaganda emphasized the heroic, dignified nature of Cavell’s actions and denied or ignored anything that did not fit this image. It was suggested at the time that Cavell, during her interrogation, had given information that incriminated other people. In November 1915, the British Foreign Office issued a denial that Cavell had implicated anyone else in her testimony.

During World War I, the French shot a number of women, including two German nurses who did the same thing for which Cavell was executed: for aiding prisoners of war to escape. The German government did nothing to publicize or propagandize the incident. When asked why the German press did not comment on the executions, the German officer in charge of war propaganda replied, “What? Protest? The French had a perfect right to shoot them!”. While this may have been true, it did not ultimately aid the German government in the World War I propaganda battle.

Because of her sex and the British government’s decision to shape her story and use it as propaganda for military recruitment purposes, Cavell became the most prominent British female casualty of World War I. The execution of Cavell at the hands of the German army provided British propagandists with an opportunity to increase military numbers at home and to emphasize to neutral nations, particularly America, the barbarity of the Germans. This 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.


Following her death, many memorials were created around the world to remember Cavell. One of the first occurred in 1917 when Queen Alexandra unveiled a monument near her grave in Norwich in front of a home for nurses which also bore her name.

Other memorials include:



  • Daily News & Leader, The. “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 the World War. 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.
  • Sconil, 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),
  • 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),
  • Dawn;: A biographical novel of Edith Cavell, by Reginald Cheyne Berkeley, Publisher: Sears (1928),
  • 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),
  • Edith Cavell, heroic nurse, by Juliette Elkon Hamelecourt, Publisher: J. Messner (1956),
  • 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),
  • With Edith Cavell in Belgium, by Jacqueline Van Til, Publisher: H.W. Bridges (1922),
  • 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),
  • The case of Edith Cavell: A study of the rights of non-combatants, by James M. Beck, Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons,
  • The secret trial: An unhistorical charade suggested by the life and death of Edith Cavell, by Richard Heron Ward,
  • The Dutiful Edith Cavell, by Noel Boston, Publisher: Norwich Cathedral (1955),

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