Written by: Justin Brett
Edith Cavell was a practicing nurse in Britain, and while not a resident of Canada she became an important figure in World War I due to her actions and what she represented.
Cavell grew up in Norfolk in the village of Swardeston as the daughter of a rector, and would end up working as a Governess in Belgium for a time. Her true calling, however, was Nursing, which she studied for in London. After working in hospitals across England, she found work in Belgium as matron of its first hospital and school for the training of nurses. This may seem like a rapid change, but luck was somewhat in her favor, as until that point nursing had not been a fully established profession in the country. Cavell is considered by many to be the founder of modern nursing education in Belgium.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Cavell was actually out of the country visiting her mother, but decided to return to Belgium upon hearing that fighting was going to break out there. By August that year the country was totally occupied by the Germans, and the nursing school had become a Red Cross hospital, treating casualties from both sides in addition to civilians. In September of 1914 Cavell was asked to treat two wounded British soldiers who had been trapped behind enemy lines. Not only did she do this, but arranged to have them smuggled from the hospital to neutral territory in the Netherlands.
This would not be the only time Cavell did this, as she became a network of people that helped to send British and Belgium soldiers to safety. It is estimated that over the course of eleven months she aided over two-hundred soldiers in this way. Unfortunately, her luck in doing so wouldn’t last forever.
In 1915 Cavell would be arrested by Germany for aiding enemy soldiers along with others in the network, ending up in solitary confinement within St. Gilles Prison. Some months later she was tried and sentenced to death by a firing squad. This decision, understandably, attracted a great deal of controversy to Germany, as while they may not have broken any laws the execution of a civilian and medical worker was seen as going too far by many.
For this reason, Cavell’s death quickly (and perhaps regrettably) ended up becoming a source of propaganda for the Allies. There are multiple recruitment posters mentioning her execution, with one postcard in the Museum’s collection even claiming she was shot after fainting. Following the war, Cavell’s body was exhumed and transported back to Britain, where it was given a proper burial in Norwich Cathedral. She was also given a memorial near Trafalgar Square in Westminster, with a quote by her: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hate or bitterness towards anyone,” which truly shows her strength of character, as it was said the night before her execution.