By Pamela D. Toler (Regular Contributor)
Forty-nine year old British nurse Edith Cavell was the director of the first nurses’ training school in Belgium. When Germany occupied Brussels in the first month of the war, Cavell refused to leave. She turned her clinic into a Red Cross hospital and cared for wounded soldiers from both armies.
On November 1, 1914, Cavell took her heroism to a new level when a Belgian resistance worker brought two British soldiers to her door. Hiding Allied soldiers was punishable by death, but Cavell took the soldiers in without question. She hid them for two weeks while plans were made to take them across the border into the Netherlands, which remained neutral throughout the war.
These two soldiers were the first of more than 200 Allied soldiers whom Cavell helped escape from German-occupied Belgium during the first year of the war. Working with a resistance network, she provided medical care for wounded soldiers, hid the healthy until a guide could escort them over the border, and made sure they had money in their pockets for the journey.
Catching Cavell in the act became a priority for the German political police, who assigned an officer to the task full-time. Searches of the clinic became more frequent. (On one occasion she hid a wounded soldier in an apple barrel, covered with apples.)
On August 5,1915, the Germans arrested Cavell. Told that the other prisoners had confessed, she admitted during interrogation that she had used the clinic to hide Allied soldiers. Ten weeks later, Cavell and 34 other resisters were tried for assisting the enemy. Five, including Cavell, received the death penalty.
American and Spanish diplomats tried to get her sentence commuted without success; her execution was scheduled to be carried out the next day at dawn. When an English chaplain visited her that night to offer her comfort, he was surprised to find her calm and collected. She told him, “I realize that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” As he left, Rev. Gahan said “We will always remember you as a heroine and a martyr.” Cavell answered “Don’t think of me like that. Think of me only as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”
Cavell’s hope to be remembered “only as a nurse” was idealistic–and unrealistic. The British propaganda office at Wellington House used her story both to increase enlistment in Britain (the number of volunteers doubled in the weeks after her death) and to increase anti-German sentiment in the United States.
Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is the author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and is currently working on a global history of women warriors, with the imaginative working title of Women Warriors.