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‘Patriotism is not enough’—why we remember Edith Cavell’s execution 100 years on

PUBLISHED: 17:02 14 October 2015 | UPDATED: 20:55 18 October 2015

Centenary commemoration, Trafalgar Square, and [inset] Nurse Edith Cavell

Centenary commemoration, Trafalgar Square, and [inset] Nurse Edith Cavell

Cavell Nurses' Trust

An emotional centenary commemoration of nurse Edith Cavell’s execution in German-occupied Belgium during the First World War has been held in London this week with hundreds of observers.

The stalwart nurse was put in front of a German firing squad after Belgium, where she was working, had been invaded and occupied. Her crime: helping Allied soldiers escape who were trapped behind enemy lines.

1915... Cavell's execution reported in Tatler magazine 1915... Cavell's execution reported in Tatler magazine

Nurse Cavell—who trained at the London Hospital in Whitechapel and was Matron at the Shoreditch Workhouse before she went on to establish a nursing college in Brussels before the Great War broke out—is remembered every year with a wreath-laying by nurses at her statue in Trafalgar Square.

Her execution on October 12, 1915, gave the British a propaganda coup which turned world opinion against Germany.

One of those at Monday’s centenary was Barts Health Trust archivist Jonathan Evans who looks after the official Cavell collection held in Whitechapel.

Jonathan Evans with an Edith Cavell commemorative bell and archive dispaly Jonathan Evans with an Edith Cavell commemorative bell and archive dispaly

“Edith Cavell should really have only been interned for ‘helping the enemy’ of the German Occupation—not shot,” he tells you. “Her execution by the German military authorities martyred her and went down badly around the world, especially in the USA which was still neutral in 1915.

“I could understand the Germans’ outrage, but Edith Cavell saw what she did as her Christian duty.

“She was, after all, a caring nurse who looked after all who needed her, including German soldiers.”

Plaster bust of Edith Cavell at London Hospital museum Plaster bust of Edith Cavell at London Hospital museum

Edith had qualified at the London Hospital 14 years before, after her probationary training at Whitechapel from 1895 to 1901, before taking up a tough job as a workhouse night superintendant in St Pancras looking after the elderly and sick.

She became Matron in 1903 at the Shoreditch Workhouse infirmary, today’s St Leonard’s Hospital.

But Edith Cavell is mostly remembered for the training college for nurses she set up in Brussels in 1907, which attracted women from across the Continent including Germany.

1919... Memorial postcard published in Brussels after the war [photo: Imperial War Museum] 1919... Memorial postcard published in Brussels after the war [photo: Imperial War Museum]

“We have always preserved her memory with wreath-laying every year at Trafalgar Square,” Jonathan adds. “She is revered as an inspiration to nurses even today.”

The Cavell collection is housed at the London Hospital’s archive museum in the crypt at St Philip’s Church, off Whitechapel’s appropriately-named Cavell Street.

It includes her last letter written in French to her students in Brussels sent 48 hours before her execution in Brussels, as well as her original application form in 1895 to become a nurse at ‘The London’, her student notes from the medical lectures she attended and even the Union Flag that covered her coffin when her remains were repatriated from Belgium in 1919.

1913... Nurse Cavell [centre] and students at her Brussels nursing college [photo: Royal London Hospital archive] 1913... Nurse Cavell [centre] and students at her Brussels nursing college [photo: Royal London Hospital archive]

“Tens-of-thousands lined the streets for her funeral procession through London,” archivist Jonathan explains.

“Her coffin was brought home by warship and carried on a gun carriage along The Mall and Embankment for the service at Westminster Abbey.

“She had become a war heroine, having met her execution bravely—and even calmly recording her expected time of death in her diary the night before.”

Nurse Cavell's execution... war propaganda from Illustrated London News, 1915 Nurse Cavell's execution... war propaganda from Illustrated London News, 1915

The collection he looks after attracts historians and researchers like broadcaster and media lecturer Allis Moss, who wrote a dissertation at Oxford University in the summer on Edith Cavell and presented a centenary documentary on BBC World Service on Monday looking at how her execution was used for Allied propaganda.

“Nurse Cavell was convicted of high treason, not spying,” Allis informs you. “The rules of war at the time didn’t allow resistance by those under foreign occupation, except at the initial stage.

“Nurse Cavell today is remembered as a heroine, speaking to us across 10 decades with a sense of selflessness, a high point of moral courage in caring for others—her own safety was secondary.”

A century on, Edith Cavell’s final words etched on her statue in Trafalgar Square echo that moral courage: Patriotism is not enough.”

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