“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.” These were the words of Edith Cavell, a British nurse who was shot for helping Allied soldiers escape from Belgium during the First World War. Now, Edith’s memory will be honoured in a service held in Belgium to mark the 100th anniversary of her execution. The service will be attended by a number of eminent individuals, including The Princess Royal, whose great-grandfather attended Edith Cavell’s funeral service nearly a century ago.
Edith was a nurse and caretaker who helped over 200 soldiers, both German and Allied fighters, escape from German-controlled Belgium during the First World War. She honestly believed that where a life could be saved, it ought to be saved, and is cited as having said: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” Her humanity and selflessness are remembered even today, and the 12th of October, the anniversary of her death, is celebrated by the Anglican church in her memory.
Edith Cavell was born on December 4th, 1865, the oldest child of the Vicar of Swardeston and his wife. From a very young age, Edith and her siblings were taught to help those less fortunate than themselves, sharing a portion of their evening meal with the poorest families of the village.
Edith was initially taught by her father, and attended a school at Laurel Court as a teenager. She soon become proficient in French, and, after leaving school took up a job as a governess to the Francois family in Brussels. However, in 1895, her father became ill, and Edith rushed back to England to care for him. This experience prompted her to become a nurse, and after completing a course at the London Hospital Nurses’ Training School, she became a night supervisor at St Pancras Infirmary.
Meanwhile, Antoine Depage, a Belgian surgeon, was planning to start a nurses’ training school in Brussels. He sought a Matron to run the school, and Edith was recommended for the job by one of her former students, Marguerite Francois. Edith Cavell returned to Belgium in 1907, where she managed the school until the outbreak of the First World War.
On a fateful day in 1914, Edith was approached by a young man who told her about a battle that was being fought between the Allied troops and German forces nearby. In the struggled, two Allied soldiers had been wounded and separated from their company. Edith took the Englishmen in, and after tending to their wounds, provided them with an expert guide to escort them to Holland. This was the first time Edith would help English soldiers escape to safety – but it was far from the last.
Over the next year, Edith provided refuge to hundreds of British and French soldiers, caring for the men until they had recovered from their injuries and then providing them with false papers and 25 francs for their journey before sending them off to the Netherlands. But by 1915, the German police had begun to grow increasingly suspicious of her activities and had her placed under surveillance.
On 5th August, the Germans arrested Edith. By pretending that they had evidence against her, they coerced her into confessing to harbouring Allied soldiers, and sentenced her to death. Despite pleas from both the American and Spanish ambassadors, Edith Cavell was executed by a firing squad on the morning of October 12th, 1915.
Following her execution, Edith Cavell was buried nearby, in Brussels. Four years later, after the war was over, her body was exhumed and brought back to England, where it was taken to London by a special railway carriage. On 15 May 1919, a horse-drawn gun carriage carried the body through the streets of London to Westminster Abbey, where a funeral service was held for her, and attended by King George V himself. At her family’s request, Edith was buried in her hometown of Norwich rather than at the Abbey. However, a memorial statue of Edith Cavell was made by Sir George Frampton, and erected near Trafalgar Square in 1920.
Events to commemorate the anniversary of Edith’s execution will be held in both Brussels and London, both later today and tomorrow. Princess Anne and her husband, Sir Timothy Laurence, will be joining Belgium’s Princess Astrid for the ceremony at the Belgian Senate, where Edith was tried before her execution. Afterwards, the two Princesses will unveil a contemporary bust of the war heroine, designed by Belgian sculptress, Natalie Lambert. The sculpture is aptly located near the Edith Cavell Hospital, in the Belgian suburb of Uccle.
Meanwhile, in London, there will be a wreath laying ceremony at Edith Cavell’s memorial near Trafalgar Square on Monday morning. Following the ceremony nurses from the Royal London Hospital and members of the armed forces will be taking part in an event at St Martin’s Place. St Martin-in-the-Fields will be hosting an exhibition and a few live events for people to learn more about a brave British woman, who gave her life for her country, and indeed deserves a royal farewell.