Heroine in white: Remembering fearless First World War nurse Edith Howell

For the nursing profession, Edith Cavell is an inspiration. But Ranjit Jhuboo says her story has meaning for everyone

Edith Cavell (pronounced to rhyme with travel) is the name of a main street in my native Mauritius. Being a nurse I have been fascinated by her amazing life story and feel that nurses and others need to be acquainted with it too, especially her selfless dedication to her fellow beings.

March 15 marked the centenary of the repatriation of her remains to Britain from Belgium to be given a proper burial, one deserving of a war heroine.

Edith Cavell was born in the village of Swardeston near Norwich on December 4 1865. She was the eldest of four siblings – three sisters and a brother. Their father Frederick Cavell was the vicar of the local parish church. He also ministered to the inmates of a nearby workhouse.

He taught his children to live by the basic tenets of Christianity, principally the concern for the welfare of others ahead of their own. For instance, every Sunday before lunch the children would be sent out with bowls of food to be given to some of the most destitute in the village. This ingrained precept would come into its own more prominently later towards the end of her life.

Edith was educated at home until she was 15 (free education was still years away), after which she attended boarding schools. She then worked as governess for several families, including one in Belgium. Aged 30 she started work as an assistant nurse in Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting, South London. Many areas were highly infectious and contagious with all kinds of air and waterborne diseases, the likes of whooping cough, diphtheria, cholera, measles and tuberculosis. After a few months she enrolled as a student nurse at the flagship London Hospital in Whitechapel. Hospitals were funded by charity then.

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Work was hard and the hours extremely long. She stayed on and successfully completed her training, despite not being a favourite of Matron Eva Lückes; however, Matron, a moderniser herself and a friend and disciple of Florence Nightingale, would later provide Edith with invaluable continual support when she set up her own nursing schools.

Totally devoted to her work, she trained nurses, gave public lectures and assisted doctors in surgery.

Edith left to take charge of infirmaries which were the precursors of modern day state-run hospitals. She also worked temporarily as acting matron. In June 1907 she was invited to Brussels by a Doctor Antoine Depage to open and run a nursing school, modelling that of The London Hospital. She successfully opened what soon became a much-emulated state-of-the-art nursing school in Brussels. Matron continually supplied her with staff upon request. Totally devoted to her work, she trained nurses, gave public lectures and assisted doctors in surgery. Furthermore, she personally cared for two vulnerable girls and two dogs, Don and Jack. (Although Don disappeared soon after, Jack remained till the end. His embalmed body is at the Imperial War Museum.)

Edith Cavell
Memorial to Edith Cavell outside Norwich Cathedral. Image: Robert Scarth

Another new school was being prepared for opening when the First World War broke out. When casualties, friendly or enemy soldiers, came into the hospital Edith nursed them all alike, and taught her nurses to do the same. However, she feared that Allied soldiers trapped behind enemy lines would be caught and shot; so, working with an underground resistance movement she used her school and hospital to hide and
then help them escape to neutral Holland, even though she knew it was a perilous operation, punishable by death. Inevitably, the school attracted the attention of spies and the secret police.

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Among those involved in this operation was a Belgian man named Philippe Baucq who distributed a subversive newspaper called La Libre Belgique. He was the first to be arrested and imprisoned. Occasional raids were made in the hospital and nursing school. In August 1915 Edith was arrested and incarcerated in Saint-Gilles prison in Belgium. Three times she was interrogated by German police, always without a lawyer present. Language differences made comprehension difficult and interpretations questionable.

Edith went on trial on October 7 1915. There she was indicted on charges of releasing Allied soldiers to attack the German army, which she denied, but admitted to having helped about 200 soldiers escape. Along with Baucq and three others she was sentenced to death. The others were either given long prison sentences with hard labour or freed. But for Cavell and Baucq immediate next-day executions were ordered. Last-minute diplomatic attempts to save her life failed. And so at dawn of October 12 they were both driven to a firing range and executed by a German firing squad. Edith’s body was buried in an unmarked grave. Then on May 15 1919 it was returned to England, accompanied by full military honours. A ceremony followed at Westminster Abbey, after which her body was transported to be laid to rest in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.

Every September 12 nurses from the Royal London Hospital lay wreaths at Edith’s memorial statue at St Martin’s Place in Trafalgar Square. An annual remembrance ceremony is also held at the parish church in Swardeston on the day.

The Legend of Edith Cavell: Heroic Nurse in Heroic Verse by Ranjit Jhuboo is out now (Authorhouse, £11.95)