The execution by German troops of the brave Edith Cavell (1865-1915), an English nurse who tended to the wounded from both sides of the Great War, caused shock and outrage globally. The German’s caught her smuggling Allied soldiers out of Belgium and across the border to neutral Holland, and at her trial accused her of being a spy, something which was vehemently denied by the British government. Her execution fuelled Allied propaganda as they encouraged men to join up to avenge her savage murder;
But recently unearthed information suggests that the spying allegations were true.
Born the daughter of a vicar, Edith spent a lot of her life in Belgium; first as a nanny, and later as a nurse, and she opened the first secular nursing school there. When World War I broke out, Edith was home in Norfolk visiting her family, but immediately returned to the continent to use her abilities for the war effort.
She was criticised by the British public for her treatment of German and Austrian soldiers, but she was soon seen as an innocent martyr when she was put to death only a year after the outbreak of war.
However, in 2015, one hundred years after her death, new information was dug up in Belgian archives by former MI5 head Dame Stella Rimington which suggest that the German allegations may well have been true after all.
It seems that while Edith was smuggling men out of Belgium she may have been smuggling secrets, too; hidden in shoes, sewn into clothing, written on pieces of cloth, the Allies gained information about the locations of trenches and planes. While it is possible that she was not directly responsible for these messages, she was certainly part of a network that were involved in espionage, and she was known for using secret messages. The recently rediscovered evidence includes the account written by one of her network in 1919, a Belgian named Herman Capiau who was arrested with her; “Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly.”
I think perhaps the spying allegations, which can’t be proven conclusively, perhaps distract from the courage and kindness of Edith. Her life was spent caring for others who suffered, and training other women to be able to help too. In this respect, the most fitting memorial to her life would be the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, a fund set up the year she died to help nurses who were ‘shattered mentally and physically.’ This fund is still in existance, and must be even more needed than ever.
Edith’s successors to the nursing profession today are under a huge strain. Many are forced to rely on foodbanks as they cannot afford food, even as they are worked to exhaustion. The budget for the NHS was decreased due to the financial crisis in 2010 and things haven’t improved enough since then: ‘the number of staff leaving the NHS for work-life balance and ill health issues has risen sharply since 2010’,* an issue exacerbated again by Brexit Britain, since there has been a ’96 per cent reduction in the number of EU nurses joining the UK register since the Brexit referendum alongside an increasing number of EU staff leaving the NHS.’ (Britain has often had to rely on migrant workers to save the NHS, and this is far from the first time we’ve treated them terribly for coming here to help us!)
Nursing continues to be a profession that is undervalued, and I hope that Edith’s legacy provides hope to modern nurses who, like her, sacrifice their own welfare in order to care for others. I’ll leave you with this quote:
‘As nurses you must take no part in the quarrel. Our work is for humanity. The profession of nursing knows no frontiers.’ Edith Cavell, 1914
*for the source of this info, click here