Manchester Historian

Student newspaper for the University of Manchester's History Department

Sunday 28th May 2017 | Manchester, UK

Edith Cavell – An insight into the nurse executed by the Germans

2017 will mark the 102nd anniversary of Edith Louisa Cavell’s death. Born on the 4 December 1872 in a small Norfolk town, Cavell began training to become a nurse at the age of 21 and finally qualified in 1896. After moving to Belgium, her career went from strength to strength; she became matron of The Berkendael Medical Institute and even launched a professional journal, L’infirmiére. Cavell’s life is celebrated for her work saving the lives of soldiers from both sides during the First World War. In 1915, Cavell stated, ‘I realise patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone’; a quality which led to her own demise.

 

In August 1915, Cavell was arrested by the German authorities for treason when she was charged with helping British and French soldiers escape Belgium for neutral Holland, sheltering many of them in her own home. Cavell was held in Saint-Gilles prison for ten weeks, with two spent in solitary confinement. Cavell subsequently pleaded guilty to the offences with which she had been charged and was sentenced to death. Although many of her admirers had suggested that she wear her official uniform to help her case, Cavell chose to wear civilian clothing for she did not want to dishonour the nurses’ uniform. Despite pleas to commute her sentence from the neutral governments of the United States and Spain, Cavell was executed by a German firing squad on 12 October, 1915.

 

Cavell’s death became notorious; she was celebrated as a martyr and treated as a heroine across the world, but most notably in the British media. Her death cemented her as an iconic character in propaganda campaigns for military recruitment and helped to increase auspicious attitudes towards the Allies in the United States. The British media publicised her death and execution, presenting her as valiant figure in the face of German barbarism and moral depravity. Britain used Cavell’s story to fuel enthusiasm and heighten morale, both of which were integral factors to the war effort. However, Cavell’s biographer Diana Souhami argued that the media portrayed her as an innocent victim and distorted her image. Souhami was keen for Cavell to be remembered for her work rescuing soldiers, her great courage and her career as a hospital matron; the biography thereby moved away from the patronising views that were projected onto her by British wartime media. Today, Edith Cavell is commemorated all around the globe and she has become the most renowned female casualty of the First World War.

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