Edith Cavell

A statue in St. Martin’s Place, just off London’s Trafalgar Square, prominently displays words spoken by Edith Cavell, a British nurse executed during the First World War: ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

Cavell’s humanity and loyalty to Britain led her protect Allied troops trying to avoid German capture early in the war. She considered it a part of her duty to others, a lifelong obligation encouraged by her father, the Vicar of Swardeston. A loving and understanding mother balanced her father’s rigidity in the closely knit family. Edith, born on 4th December, 1865, was the oldest of four children. Despite his limited means, the vicar taught his children to share with those less fortunate. Before their evening meal, they made a habit of carrying a portion of meat to the poorer families of the village. Austerity, sacrifice, and prayer punctuated Edith’s upbringing. Throughout her entire life, she rare found reason to smile.

The vicar taught Edith at home in her early years, because he could not afford a governess or a private school. Nevertheless, she attended a special school at Laurel Court, run by Miss Margaret Gibson, during her middle teens. She became proficient in French and Miss Gibson subsequently recommended her as a governess to the Francois family in Brussels.

By then Edith had grown into a straightforward, humourless woman of medium height and seemingly frail build with an unswerving respect for truth. She wore her brownish hair brushed straight back. With thin lips and a determined mouth, she scorned fun and mischief, but the four Francois children liked her despite her rigid sense of discipline and self-reliance.

She enjoyed her job, but as the years passed and the children grew older, she yearned to serve larger and needier groups of people. In 1895 her father became seriously ill and she hurried back to England to care for him. The experience convinced her to become a nurse and the following year she entered the London Hospital Nurses’ Training School. After completing the course she continued there as a private nurse and in 1901 became night supervisor at St. Pancras Infirmary. Three years later, the prospect higher pay, an end to night duty, and the opportunity to do administrative work and to teach practical nursing enticed her to take the position of Assistant Matron at Shoreditch Infirmary.

She made only one friend during all this time–Evaline Dickenson, with whom she had kept in touch since their training days at the London hospital. The two occasionally spent their holidays together. In 1906 they took several months abroad after Edith, wanting an extended vacation, resigned from her job. Soon after their return, Evaline married and settled in Ireland. Thereafter, she and Edith maintained their relationship only through occasional correspondence. The shy and retiring Nurse Cavell never married, nor was there ever any great love in her life.

At about this time, Antoine Depage, a gruff but brilliant Belgian surgeon, grew increasingly frustrated the religious orders that controlled Belgian nursing. He wanted to shift to a non-denominational system with professionally trained personnel as developed by Florence Nightingale in England. He hoped to thus provide physicians all over Belgium with trained nurses while simultaneously creating a new career for young ladies of good education.

He proposed to start with a nurses’ training school at his Berkendael Institute. To implement it, he sought a matron who had administrative experience, teaching capabilities, an understanding of the Belgian people, and fluency in French. He also wanted someone who had been trained in the manner of Florence Nightingale. Edith qualified on all counts and one of the Francois children, Marguerite, who by this time had become Madame Graux, presented Edith’s name for the job. Soon after, sheaccepted the position.

Edith opened the school on 1st October, 1907. Her discipline was strict but scrupulously fair. She streesed duty and service to others, as well as ethical conduct, cleanliness, dedication to work, and punctuality.

As a teacher, she was aloof, detached, and professionally correct at all times. She guarded her independence vehemently and thus had frequent clashes with the temperamental Doctor Depage. Neither of them yielded and it remained for the tactful and diplomatic doctor’s wife, Marie, to smooth over the difficult moments between the sedate Matron and the emotional surgeon. In the process, Edith came to know and deeply respect Marie Depage.

Through her talents as both a teacher and a capable administrator, she soon improved the level of Belgian nursing and began attracting more recruits. By 1909 she had 23 probationers and by 1914, at the onset of First World War, her school had become a source of nursing personnel for hospitals, communal schools, and private nursing homes.

Then, on a fateful September day in 1914, Herman Capiau, a young engineer in a village near Mons, arrived at Miss Cavell’s office, telling of a battle that had been fought at Mons in south-west Belgium. He explained that a number of Allied soldiers had been separated from their units in the confusion of the struggle, and sympathetic nuns and villagers had hidden them. As the Germans advanced, they were shooting not only any stragglers they found, but also the civilians who harboured them.

Capiau asked Cavell to take in two English soldiers who had accompanied him, disguised as Belgian labourers. One, Colonel Bodger, had been wounded in the leg and needed medical attention badly. The other, Sergeant Meachin, was still in relatively good health. Capiau said that it had become too dangerous to hide them in the countryside any longer and he had, therefore, brought them to Brussels, where had referred him to Miss Cavell.

Edith trusted Madame Depage implicitly, and the sight of the two English soldiers, distressed and facing execution if caught, put an end to any hesitation she felt. She admitted the two Englishmen and assigned them to empty beds, where the received food and immediate medical attention. When they had sufficiently recovered, Edith provided them with expert guides who escorted them to Holland. The entire venture was successful enough to be the forerunner of a much greater involvement for Edith.

When Capiau returned to his native Wasmes and reported Edith’s accommodation of the two British soldiers to Prince Reginald de Croy, the aristocrat visited her and convinced her to join his group which included, among others, Phillipe Baucq, a Brussels architect. The group combed the fields around Mons, as well as northern France just across the border, for fugitive troops, whom they then hid, provided with food, money, and civilian clothes, and relocated to avoid the Germans and certain death.

As part of that apparatus, Edith provided a place of refuge in the nursing home and cared for the men until they could continue their escape. She saw to it that each man had 25 francs for his journey. If he lacked identification papers, she supplied them. If he needed guides, she found them, and she often led the soldiers through the streets of Brussels herself to the meeting place with those guides. On such occasions she chose a crowded street or a tramway terminus so as to attract the least possible attention.

Despite her administrative position at the nursing home, Edith did most of the chores herself. Only a few of the staff knew of her work, and she did not want to incriminate the nurses in her charge. Nor did she want them to know too much in case the Germans picked them up and questioned them.

The organization functioned smoothly, helping British, French, and Belgian soldiers to escape from behind the German lines and eventually rejoin their units. They also helped young Belgians and Frenchmen of military age to escape and enlist in the Allied fighting forces. At one time, Edith housed as many as 35 refugees in her nursing home. When space ran short, she would hide soldiers in a private home in Brussels.

After occupying Belgium, the Germans converted Cavell’s nursing home into a Red Cross hospital, but they allowed Edith to continue as Matron. German authorities supervised her as she cared for wounded German soldiers. Regardless of their nationality, she gave all her patients the finest possible treatment.

She carried on with her regular duties of supervising her nurses, delivering her regular lectures to them while maintaining her official records of food costs and other expenses. Despite the reduced food allowances ordinarily found in an occupied nation, she managed to feed not only the patients and staff, but also the hidden soldiers. She secreted the escapees in whatever nursing home space she could, even placing them in unoccupied beds and listing them as patients, or putting them in the cellar away from prying eyes and suspicious minds. At times she cooked their food at night, served it to them herself, and then washed the dishes before morning to remove all traces of what she had done.

By 1915 she had lodged more than 100 British and an additional 100 French and Belgian soldiers. Comings and goings at the Institute had become so frequent that Germans grew suspicious, especially after they heard whispered reports of Edith’s Allied sympathies and actions.

One day, a man who called himself Jacobs came to Edith one day claiming to have heard of her from peasants near Mons after escaping from a German labour camp. He knew neither her address nor the password but had found her by asking neighbours where she lived. Although his story was doubtful, she admitted him. He remained a week, evaded personal questions, and departed, leaving papers that were suspiciously torn into small pieces.

Shortly thereafter came Gaston Quien, a handsome French soldier who also gained admission to the Institute and absorbed as much information about it as he could. Affable and flirtatious, he took undue liberties with the ladies and resisted all attempts to have him discharged from the Institute until Edith herself insisted that he go. He escaped with a group to Holland but returned a week later, claiming that French officials had ordered him back to gather information for them.

The German secret police grew more interested in the activities at the Institute and made a number of visits but found nothing incriminating. They placed it under surveillance as well, but careful precautions by those inside helped avoid serious consequence.

Gradually, though, the evidence against Edith mounted. Collegues urged her to escape while she could, but she refused. In addition, a recent event had stunned her: Marie Depage, returning from a successful fund-raising tour of the United States, had gone down in the ocean waters on the ill-fated Luisitania.

On 31st July, 1915, the Germans seized Phillipe Baucq and on 5th August, they arrested Edith. After three days of fruitless questioning, they tricked her into talking by feigning they already had the necessary information and that the best way to save her friends would be to make a full confession. Edith, ever trusting, believed them and poured out names, dates, and places. The trial in October lasted only two days. When she heard the death sentence pronounced, she accepted it stoically, still unable to bend.

Despite appeals from both the American and Spanish ambassadors for clemency, Edith fell before a firing squad on the morning of 12th October, 1915, and was buried nearby. In May 1919 her body was exhumed and returned to Britain where a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, attended by His Majesty, King George V. She was then reburied at the Cathedral in Norwich, just a few miles from her native Swardeston. Her statue in St. Martin’s Place bears the words, ‘Humanity, Fortitude, Devotion, Sacrifice’–fitting tributes to the life she led.

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43 Comments

  1. Hi, I just want to tell you that I think Edith Cavell is very amazing. Infact I am blood related to her. I just love to read about her.

    P.S this is a good artical.

  2. I would love to hear from kaitlin and Alice as I have done extensive Cavell family research for the past 30yrs.E.C. was my grandfather’s first cousin but your names are new to me.Please contact,Jenny.

  3. re Edith Cavell I would love to hear from Jenny Bowman as my gggrandfather and E.C.’s grandfather were brothers. jenny gould

  4. Hello Jenny – only just found your message posted February 2008!!

    Wow,amazing to find yet another Cavell link.

    My gt gt grandfather was John Cavell of Mecklenburgh Sq in Holborn and his father was Corry Cavell of Bawdsey in Suffolk- ring any bells?

    Edith’s father Frederick and my gt.grandfather Edward were brothers.

    Hope you get this.J.B

  5. trying again!

    My gt gt grandfather was John Cavell of Mecklenburgh Sq London.His father was Corry Cavell of Bawdsey Suffolk.

    Edith’s father Frederick and my gt grandfather Edward were brothers.
    Hope you get this.
    J.B.

  6. hi jenny b, my gggrandfather was george cavell,brother of john,son of corry and mary(strutt) cavell of bawdsey hall. please contact. j g

    • Hello Jenny,
      Just picked up your message!I’m descended from John.
      Please send me your address and I’ll let you have as much info as you like.We are surely cousins somewhere/
      Jenny Bowman.

  7. patricia hammond on

    Edith was NOT born in Suffolk – she was b. in Swardeston, nr. Norwich, Norfolk and her Father was the Reverent Fredeirck Cavell – not Corry!!

  8. Jacki Parkinson on

    My grandfather was Edith Cavells cousin.I don’t think they were first cousins but my great grandfather(George) had a brother Frederick and am persuing that route. Any more info greatfully received

    • Hello Jacki,

      Where do we start.As I said in a previous message I have been doing Cavell reseach since the 1970’s and I am now 72 and still discovering extended family!

      I live in England.Where are you and what would you like to know?
      e address might be easier than this site.

      Jenny Bowman

      • Good afternoon Jenny. I don’t know if you can help me in my own research. I am looking for a photo of Henri Pinkhoff, Lietenant Bergen, Baron Von Lancken and Georges Gaston Quien. Also, I understand that Jack (the dog) is stuffed and preserved at the Imperioal war museum. I am giving a talk to a groupof interested (I hope) people Saturday week and these matters are missing in my research. ,aybe you can help?

  9. Rebecca Cavill on

    Edith is my great great great aunt my name last name was changed from cavell to cavill when coming to America…. I have a family tree too.

  10. Hello Robert

    Sorry but I don’t know of any photos but there is mention of all four men in Edith Cavell’s biography by Diana Souhami.

    Interesting – where are you giving your talk?

    Jenny B.

    • Jennie,
      THis site has just mucked me around. Did you receive my belated reply (to your posting of June) ?

    • Jenny,
      lookes like my long reply never got sent. I gave the talk at the London Branch of the Angkoi german Familiy History Society. The talk was supported by copious illustrations and went very well. A military chap at the back told me afterwards that I had moved him to tears. I dont know about that! I took along an autograph I own of Edith. People came up to look at it, and to stand and think about the story I had given. It lasted about 35 minutes. The first talk ever! My next one will be on the song Lillie Marlene. Do you suppose Edith knew that song. I would imagine so?? My interest stemmed from when I worked in the Edith Cavell Building, Hackney. She had roots in the East End having worked at the London and Shoreditch.Working this site is terrible!!

      • jenny bowman on

        Hello Robert – just picked this up.No I didn’t get your previous letter but am glad to read your talk went well and that Edith’s memory is preserved in so many ways and places still.
        Regards.Jenny B.

  11. I been doing a family tree for 18 years My Family are Cavil’s yes it is spelled driffrent alot I have John & Mariah Cavill there son Frank born abount 1848 on the marriage certificate it says Francis Cavill he is white born Wythe Co,Virginia he married Ellen Jones January 14 1869 I call my Frank he is my 3x Grandfather I think he was a Mulatto I’am also light skin or call me Black. Can You or somebody hepl me Please My E-Mail is [email protected] Please Help Me

  12. Hello.

    I’m looking for some information for my daughters homework. She needs to know how tal E.C. was, does any of her relatives here know?

    I would much appreciate your assistance.

    Regards.
    Michael & Grace.

  13. Maureen Renfrew formally Lancaster on

    Hi I have always been told that Edith Cavel was my grandmothers cousin although I do not know my grandmothers maiden name her married name was Garland, I would be interested to fine more information of the Cavel family
    thank you
    Maureen Renfrew

  14. Kaitlin Cavell on

    I’m doing a report on Edith Cavell for school, and when going through my grandparents attic my dad found some paper work on family trees. As I’m looking at one of them I am Edith Cavell’s 5th cousin. Her first cousin was William James Cavell. He is my great great grandfather.

    ***Tree line goes down like this by males***:
    John Cavell( married to Margaret Scott 1819, had 5 children, Ellen Phoebe, Edward, George, John, and Fredrick who is Edith Cavell’s father.)–>

    John Scott Cavell( born 1820, son was James Cavell)–>

    William James Cavell(born 1866, wen to Australia as sheep farmer then Brooklyn/ Married Mary Francis Siebe/ 1st cousins with Edith)–>

    William Eugene Cavell(or Eugene William Cavell, that’s a whole other story/ born 1892 died 1956/Married Flora Ann Roe)–>

    Charles McCarthy Cavell(born around 1923 died 2009/3 kids, Kevin, Marita, and William( named after his grandfather/ Married Jeanne Romanoff)–>

    Kevin- 2 kids
    Marita- 2 kids
    William-2 kids

    any Q’s or want more info, I have a lot more, email me at [email protected]

  15. Patricia Thomas on

    Hi Kaitlin!
    I was just trying to find information on my mother’s family and which of her brothers and sisters might have served during WW2 and ran across your messages. William and Edith Cavell had 10 children, Ruth Cavell (who married Eugene Lyman) is my mother. I’m cousins with Kevin, Marita and Billy.
    :)

  16. Kaitlin Cavell on

    Hi Patricia,

    I just asked my dad, your cousin Billy, if you were related and he said that yes, we are related. He says hi to you and your family and told me that your around the same age, he is currently 56 and we live in upstate New York. I remember my grandfather Poppy, your Uncle Charles or Charlie or Buddy, talking about his sister Ruth. If you have any questions, just ask :)

  17. Kathleen Cavell (Pecora) Ellis on

    I am fascinated to read all the information/communication from extended family members of the remarkable woman after whom I am indirectly named. :) My grandmother, Edith Cavell Long, was born on October 15, 1918 and, unfortunately, I don’t know where. I’m told she’s of English/Irish decent. She had three daughters (and one son), the oldest of which is my mother. To her second daughter she gave the name Judith Cavell. My mother was the first to get married & have the first grandchild – me – and I, too, inherited the Cavell middle name. The other two daughters followed suit and when each of them had a daughter, she received the middle name Cavell as well (Catherine Cavell & Kathryn Cavell respectively). And we’ve all agreed to continue the tradition of passing down the middle name; I’ve been the first to have a daughter, Katelyn Cavell, and I’m looking forward to sharing this valuable history with her! Thank you for sharing your beloved family with us!

  18. Kathleen Cavell (Pecora) Ellis on

    I stand corrected – Grandma was born three days (October 15, 1915) after Edith was executed, not three years as I previously had written.

  19. David Gardiner-Hill on

    Hi Guys

    This is fascinating, I am trying to relate Cavell’s to their business partners in the Stock Exchange

    Cavell & Strachan founded about 1830
    and Cavell Strachan & Lardelli

    The Strachan is my Great Grandfather and Lardelli closely related

    George Cavell 1822-1886 definitely involved as is his son Percy and probably his father John Strutt Cavell

    I am therfore researching Cavells in London/Surrey/Suffolk in the 19th Century

    Anybody with a good tree or info about Cavell’s on the London Stock Exchange please contact [email protected]

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