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Long ago people called a nurse the watcher. Watching. Watching to see that the sick do not slip away forever in their sleep.1 Edith Cavell was a watcher. But World War I led this English-born nurse to become a member of an underground escape organization behind enemy lines. Her selfless sense of duty drove her to risk her life nursing and aiding Allied soldiers hiding from the Germans in war-torn Belgium. Cavell's patriotism and loyalty to Britain, as well as her sacrifice to humanity, has made her a significant heroine of World War I.

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Born on December 4, 1865, the oldest child of the Vicar of Swardeston and his wife, Edith was taught to help those less fortunate than herself and was often sent on errands of mercy in their village. Her father, a strict Victorian, abhorred lying and raised his children to have an unswerving respect for the truth. Cavell's compassion for others was apparent as she confided her dreams to her cousin, "Someday, somehow, I am going to do something useful. [horizontal ellipsis] I don't know what it will be, but it must be something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy."2


Cavell studied at home with her father until the age of eighteen, when she enrolled in Miss Gibson's School for Young Ladies in Peterborough. She discovered she had a gift for languages and learned to speak French fluently, earning praise as the teacher's best student. By graduation, Cavell had grown into a serious young woman with a frail build who scorned fun and mischief. In 1884, she accepted a position with a wealthy English family who needed a governess. Although this was not an occupation to fulfill her dreams, she grew to love the children and remained with the family for six years. She spent another five years as a governess in Belgium. In 1895 she returned to England to care for her seriously ill father. After tending him for nearly a year, he gradually recovered. The experience provided Cavell with a calling in which she felt needed. She decided to become a nurse. The following year, at the age of thirty, she entered the London Hospital Nurses' Training School as a probationer.


The next five years Cavell faced long hours of work and study, with little financial reward. She ministered to the old, the sick, the criminal and the poor in the dreary hospital and in the squalid London homes she visited on out-duty.


In 1901, she completed the nursing course and took a position as night supervisor of a small hospital. She was quickly promoted and within three years was employed as assistant matron of a large hospital where she gained experience teaching and lecturing senior probationers. Cavell's meticulous work and supervisory skills soon elevated her to the top of her profession. By 1906, she was matron at Ashton New Road District Home in Manchester, when she received an intriguing letter from a Belgian surgeon.


New Beginnings

The letter contained an offer to organize and direct a nurses' school in Brussels to educate and professionally train personnel as Florence Nightingale had in England. The surgeon, Antoine Depage, was frustrated with the religious orders that controlled Belgian nursing. He had available four brownstone houses and sought a matron to begin the training school. The nurse he sought must have administrative experience and teaching capabilities, understand Belgian people and be fluent in French. Nurse Cavell satisfied all the requirements.


Cavell opened the school on October 1,1907, with four students. As director of the Berkendael Institute of Brussels, she demanded the highest standards from her pupil nurses. "Her discipline was strict but scrupulously fair. She stressed duty and service to others, as well as ethical conduct, cleanliness, dedication to work and punctuality."3


As the months went by, the nursing staff grew, and by 1909, Cavell had twenty-three probationers and was supervising three other hospitals in Brussels, as well as the Institute. She wrote many articles on nursing and sent periodical reports to the English Nursing Mirror. In 1912, she started her own nursing magazine, L'infirmiere.4 By 1914, Edith Cavell had significantly improved the level of Belgian nursing by training scores of nurses, while superintending the care of hundreds of patients.


Cavell was vacationing in England when Archduke Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated. Fear and unrest spread across Europe and on July 28, 1914, Austria declared war on Serbia, triggering World War I. Although her family begged her to stay in England, Cavell insisted on returning to Belgium to ready the nurses for the flood of wounded. All were hard at work in the Institute in the suburbs of Brussels when the German army occupied the city less than a month after her return.


Underground Relief

As the war raged around them, the Belgian people began aiding Allied soldiers that had become separated from their units. Sympathetic nuns and villagers hid stragglers in woods, barns, deserted houses and shell holes, wherever they could escape the Germans. The network provided fugitive troops with food, money, civilian clothes and a guide to the border into Holland. Over the months, Germans swarmed the countryside, forcing the resistance to recruit more accomplices to hide the refugees in the city. The underground work spread, and more links were added in the chain that led to escape for many Allied soldiers.


One wet night in November 1914, three men came to the door of the Institute, now a Red Cross hospital, with a letter from Dr. Depage's wife. A member of the underground had been sent to Cavell, hoping she would help. He pleaded with Cavell to hide two English soldiers, one with a wounded leg and needing medical attention. Her sense of duty would not allow her to refuse aid to her countrymen. Cavell believed only God had the right to take a life away, and it was her sacred duty to preserve life-any life placed in her hands.5


When Cavell agreed to harbor the English soldiers, she was accepted into the underground operation. In the following months, she helped hundreds of soldiers escape from behind the German lines and eventually rejoin their units. Despite an order from the German authorities stating that anyone sheltering Allied troops be shot, Cavell's secret work continued. "With the growing number of escapees in her nursing home, it was harder and harder for Edith Cavell to make ends meet. It was difficult enough to get food under any circumstances; even water was rationed now, and the Germans were making life more difficult by the day."6


Cavell did most of the chores involving the hidden soldiers herself so she did not incriminate other nurses, but eventually the German Secret Police grew suspicious of the activities at the Institute. As the resistance continued to funnel soldiers to the hospital, one arrived whom Cavell suspected was a spy. He was a handsome Frenchman who charmed the nurses. He stayed three weeks and absorbed information.


Soon after, the Institute was placed under surveillance. Then one night the Secret Police came to search the hospital. Cavell remained calm. As she delayed the Germans, nurses sneaked the soldiers out the back door before they could be found.


As rumors continued to circulate about Berkendael, the Germans were closing in on the resistance. Key members of the network were arrested, and incriminating letters were confiscated bearing Edith Cavell's name. Cavell expected to be arrested, and although her colleagues urged her to escape, she refused. The Germans seized Cavell on August 5, 1915, and placed her in solitary confinement. During questioning, Cavell's trusting nature allowed the Germans to trick her into confessing by pretending they already had the necessary information. She remained in prison more than a month before she was tried, along with thirty-five other members of the network that had aided English, French and other Allied soldiers to escape.


At her trial, Cavell couldn't lie to the judges. As a young child she had been taught lying was a sin, so she answered, yes, when asked if she had nursed and given money and food to Allied soldiers. Yes, she knew they were going to cross the border into Holland. Yes, she had helped over two hundred soldiers escape. And yes, she had done her duty in trying to save men who might otherwise have died.



The judges could not believe this small, frail, middle-aged woman was not frightened. They resented her truthfulness, simple dignity and patriotic pride. Cavell and her conspirators were found guilty of high treason and were sentenced three days later. Edith Cavell remained stoic as her death sentence was pronounced.


Despite diplomatic efforts by neutral countries to obtain a reprieve, on October 12, 1915, Edith Cavell, wearing her nursing uniform, was shot at dawn by a firing squad at the national rifle range in Brussels. The night before her execution, Cavell had told her last visitor, an English chaplain, "Standing as I do, in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."7


She became an instant martyr, and her death aroused a worldwide storm of protest. Allied morale was strengthened, and recruitment doubled for eight weeks after her death was announced.8


Until the end of the war, Cavell lay buried in Belgium near the place she was executed. In May 1919, her body was brought home to England with great ceremony, and she was reburied at the Cathedral of Norwich, a few miles from her hometown of Swardeston. Her memory is kept alive today in the Institut (French spelling) Medical Edith Cavell in Brussels, where she served as matron and helped improve nursing standards. In Saint Martin's Place, near London's Trafalger Square, stands a tall statue of Edith Cavell in her nurse's cloak. Perhaps the best tribute to this heroic nurse is found in the words carved beneath her image: "Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion, Sacrifice"-a fitting description of this Christian watcher.



Following in Florence Nightingale's footsteps, Edith Cavell instituted the nursing reforms in Belgium that Nightingale had pioneered in England. Nightingale's military service during the Crimean War left her shocked by the lack of hygiene and elementary care that men in the British army received. Before her reforms, no one set out to be a nurse. Hospitals were so dirty and filled with disease that they attracted only the poorest women. These women stayed only until they had enough money to quit. Nightingale changed the face of nursing.


The "Nightingale Training School for Nurses," established in 1860, provided the best technical training available. Probationers were given room, board, uniforms, laundry facilities and pocket money. They nursed real patients in the hospital ward and were educated in the medical sciences through lectures by the medical staff. Those trainees who successfully completed the one-year training course were certified and registered as nurses.


Successful candidates for Nightingale's school had to adhere to her Christian standards. Immoral behavior, including drunkenness and excessive flirting, was not tolerated. Upon completion of the course, the Florence Nightingale graduate was an educated, disciplined, morally sound nurse. Local hospitals snapped them up and medical professionals proclaimed the program "revolutionary."


Florence Nightingale's radical nursing principles formed the basis for the training school. Published in 1 859, her book, Notes on Nursing: What It Is and What It Is Not, describes in detail her essential doctrines of caring for the sick. She believed, above all else, in hygiene (fresh air, cleanliness, clean water, proper drainage and plenty of light), constant consideration for the patient's feelings and shrewd observations at the sick bed.


Nightingale's revisions laid the foundation of the modern nursing profession and established nursing as a respectable vocation for women, while greatly alleviating human suffering in the nineteenth century.


1 Iris Vinton, The Story of Edith Cavell (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1959), 70. [Context Link]


2 Elizabeth Grey, Friend Within the Gates (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1961), 16. [Context Link]


3 Abraham linger, "Edith Cavell," British History (May 1997) accessed at http://www./ [Context Link]


4 Adele DeLeeuw, Edith Cavell (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1968), 28. [Context Link]


5 Grey, 120. [Context Link]


6 DeLeeuw, 54. [Context Link]


7 Vinton, 174. [Context Link]


8 Peter Clowes, "Intrigue," Military History (August 1996) accessed at [Context Link]