ADVERTISER 150: Commemorating a world at war and the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell
PUBLISHED: 19:40 03 December 2016 | UPDATED: 12:39 13 December 2016
Our nightly look at the past in the East London Advertiser's 150th anniversary has arrived at the Great War and an incident that shocked the nation and the world, the execution of a nurse who had qualified at the London Hospital working in Belgium when the Germans invade. Nurse Edith Cavell had helped Allies soldiers trapped behind enemy to escape, but was caught. It costs her life...
1915: Nurse Edith Cavell is martyred after being executed by a German firing squad in Occupied Belgium.
The nurse who had qualified at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, had trained at Tredegar House in Bow and had also served at the Shoreditch Infirmary (St Leonard’s Hospital).
She went overseas to train nurses in Belgium, having set up a nursing college, when war broke out in 1914. Neutral Belgium is invaded by Germany in a move to swing behind the Allied lines in northern France.
Cavell, trapped in Brussels, helps British and Allied soldiers reach Holland through Occupied territory—but is eventually discovered by the German authorities.
Wounded British and French soldiers as well as Belgian and French civilians are hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers and money to reach the Dutch frontier. This places Cavell in violation of German military law.
She is arrested on August 3, 1915, and charged with harbouring Allied soldiers, held in St Gilles prison for 10 weeks after admitting she had helped 60 British and 15 French soldiers as well as 100 civilians get to the frontier, having sheltering many in her house.
She is condemned to death and executed six days later by military firing squad.
The chief medical officer of Brussels describes her “in every respect the heroine the country has made of her”.
Cavell’s execution is used by the Allies for propaganda, drawing worldwide condemnation against Germany.
Newspaper cartoons shown at the moment of death are used in the propaganda war. Iconography reconstructs Cavell as a victim, martyr and figurehead for the Allies’ moral crusade, pitting civilisation against German Kultur, with the aim of delegitimising her court martial.
Nurse Cavell had been convicted of high treason, not spying—yet in the eyes of the Allies she was not guilty of “treason” as she was a British national, not German.
The night before her execution, she tells the Rev Stirling Gahan, an Anglican chaplain allowed to give her Holy Communion: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books around the world publicise her story in the months and years following Cavell’s death. She becomes an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain, because of her sex, her nursing profession and her heroic approach to death.
Cavell is buried in Brussels, but her remains are returned to Britain after the war in 1919. A full peal of bells rings out as the ship bearing the coffin arrives at Dover. The coffin is conveyed to London and a state funeral is held at Westminster Abbey, before reburial at Norwich Cathedral.
1917: Two years on from the execution, the Edith Cavell Fund for Nurses is set up in her memory to look after nurses when they needed help.
The charity continues its work 100 years on as Cavell Nurses’ Trust which provides financial help to nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants in Britain today, both retired or working, who are facing hardship through illness, disability, older age or domestic abuse.
It organises the 2015 centenary commemoration service in Trafalgar Square to mark the 100th anniversary of Edith Cavell’s sacrifice.
Cavell Street in Whitechapel, next to the London Hospital where she qualified as a nurse in the 1890s, is also named in her memory.