The life and death of EDITH CAVELL
Mary Derriman traces the story of Norfolk heroine Edith Cavell
History is said to be what you remember and that can be varied and disconnected. Most of us have heard of Florence Nightingale and her work as a nurse in the Crimea in the 1800s. Fewer have heard of the work that Edith Cavell did before and at the beginning of the First World War, even if we know she was executed by the Germans in 1915.
Edith was born in 1865 in Swardeston, just south of Norwich. She was the eldest of the village vicar’s four children and the ethic of sharing what little they had with the less fortunate was instilled from an early age.
At that time there were few occupations open to women and she started out as a governess. She worked for a family in Brussels for five years, then trained as a nurse in London before being appointed matron of a new nursing school, back in Brussels.
In 1910 she launched a nursing journal in Belgium. When the First World War broke out Edith was visiting her widowed mother in Norfolk. She hurried back to Brussels, but must have been very worried when she heard of the naval bombardment and the Zeppelin raids on King’s Lynn and Great Yarmouth.
As early as November 1914 she began sheltering British soldiers and helping them cross the frontier into neutral Holland. Wounded British and French soldiers, and Belgian and French men of military age, were hidden and provided with false papers and then taken to Edith who sheltered them in her own home before helping them escape.
But in August 1915, she was betrayed. She was sentenced to death for treason under German military law which forbade helping a hostile power or causing harm to the troops of Germany or its allies.
This seems odd, as she was a civilian, as well as not being a German, so how could she commit treason against the Germans? Although medical personnel are normally protected, this was not the case for someone using their position to cover their actions.
While the British government seemed powerless to protest, the Americans, who had not yet joined the war, did so in no uncertain terms. The first secretary of the US legation in Brussels wrote: “We reminded the German governor of the burning of Louvain and the sinking of the Lusitania and told him that this murder would rank with those two affairs and would stir all civilised countries with horror and disgust.”
This proved to be true. Edith’s famous quote that patriotism was not enough, and her general attitude to life and death, proved an inspiration and the issue of a commemorative coin this year is a fitting tribute to this courageous woman.
ABOVE, MEMORIAL: Stained glass window in Swardeston Church, where Edith Cavell’s father was vicar BOTTOM LEFT: The memorial in Tombland, Norwich