Nurse Cavell – The Life-Giver
This extremely well qualified nurse and supreme manager of women, even men, is a striking example of sticking to your guns however grievous the going may become. We owe the rarity of her sacrifice to her extraordinary professional dedication and her selfless devotion to the Allied escaping soldiers in 1914 in German occupied parts of Belgium, her adopted Country.
I have taken much of my historical material, as opposed to the analytical and moral message, from the Readers Digest potted Nurse Cavell biography published in 1965 – fifty years ago this year. She was one of three sisters all daughters of a Clergyman. One sister was married to a doctor; another was a nurse superintendant of a London Hospital. Nurse Cavell opened a Nursing School in Brussels in the Edwardian period which quickly acquired 50 trained nurses from Belgium and the Low Countries and further afield. They wore bright blue cotton dresses and white collars as Nurse Cavell directed. They addressed her as Madame, in other words “My Lady”. Florence Nightingale was her inspiration. Her belief was a nurse gives life – she does not take it. Not even an insect.
2) The Great War – The War to End All Wars
This War broke out in the summer of 1914 when Belgian troops marched nobly to the Front and the Germans rolled across the Flemish Plains. Nurse Cavell, an English national, found herself in the full force of this conflict. She did not take refuge in England and take the easy way out. We had guaranteed Belgium’s territorial integrity, and thus any English woman in Belgium was an alien and enemy to Germany who violated herself Belgium’s boundaries when the fighting began.
The rumble of canon fire and the reddish glow on the horizon with the black smoke unfurling told the tell tale story of the First Battle of Ypres all visible and audible in the Belgian Capital. Up until 1 November 1914 this Great War was relatively mobile on the Western Front. Thus certain Allied casualties and soldiers could escape capture and flee to Nurse Cavell’s clinic in Brussels. When war broke out in the West Nurse Cavell told a nurse in her clinic,“Your life belongs not to you alone now my dear, but to your duty as a nurse.”
Nurse Cavell proved in her conduct and life in this War, and she did not live long after hostilities began, that she put others first as indeed she had done in all her adult life as a Nurse of such seniority and high command over her fellow women and patients.
3) The Trap Closes
Because of her deep religious faith she permitted Allied soldiers – fugitives from the Western Front – to shelter in her Brussels clinic in late 1914. Many were treated and hidden there and guided to escape to Holland – a neutral country. A small “underground” route to safety was formed: Nurse Cavell’s clinic was at the centre and as the Nurse in charge and proprietor, clearly she would carry the can.
The Germans became suspicious and arrested her. The message she sent out to her nurses from prison was;“Be good Christian women not just good nurses.”
The stakes were being raised to very high levels as she well knew. As she said;“They must do with me what they will.”
Her sense of resignation, one of the greatest Christian virtues, was outstanding. She did not accuse the Germans of malice or brutality. She understood the German position exactly. She did not seek to be understood herself.
4) The Outcome
She was sentenced to death by the German Judge for her acts of “underground” help to the enemies of the Kaiser. She was killed by firing squad. What a life of service and how terrible an ending. The British Government press and people were up in arms about this “martyrdom” as they saw it. She was executed with Baucq the architect and man behind the underground escape route to Holland. In her own last words she had sometimes been harsh but never voluntarily unjust.
5) The Message of Nurse Cavell
To her last she helped others even at the cost of her own life. She knew the risk she was taking in helping these Allied soldiers. She made full admissions at her trial all freely offered. She made no bones about it and did not try to save herself. Arguably she was no victim but an early war casualty in this horrific World War. The Germans wished to make her an example as a foreign national in an occupied City who was aiding the enemies of Imperial Germany. The German Judge who sentenced her to death had no mercy on her and without doubt Edith Cavell forgave him as a Christian woman.
She was a non-combatant, but even they are in jeopardy in modern wars if they act as Nurse Cavell did. She went out of her way to help these Allied soldiers seek sanctuary. She was a woman with real authority and power – you did not tell Edith Cavell what to do in 1914! She knew perfectly well she had put herself at risk and she had to “face the music”. She was an outstanding and exceptionally courageous leader of women and men.
6) The Moral:
Was her extraordinary preparedness to face her death and her decision not to exculpate herself. To the last she wanted to make it easier for her tormentors and her friends and countrymen with her own family. Was it a crime to help these Allied soldiers? Not by God’s Law only by the militaristic law of 20th Century Germany in 1914-15. No matter Edith Cavell accepted the inevitable and her firing squad. She did not argue with the Judge who sentenced her. She was a chip off the old block and a true blooded Englishwoman.
She had no one with her at her lonely death in a foreign land. We are proud to say we are English and belong to her Country. She is a shining example of a truly compassionate approach to wartime conditions and the English Nursing profession. What is more she was an accomplished exponent of the stiff upper lip. She asked for no mercy and received none. That should be her epitaph in our hearts.