The life and death of EDITH CAVELL

Mary Der­ri­man traces the story of Nor­folk hero­ine Edith Cavell

EDP Norfolk - - County Life -

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

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