British Nurse Edith Cavell Executed by German Firing Squad
“I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”
British nurse Edith Cavell was working in occupied Belgium when she was executed by the Germans on October 12, 1915. Cavell admitted to harboring and helping Allied soldiers and men of military age to escape German forces. She was signing her death warrant. The American and Spanish Ambassadors made frantic attempts to save Edith, but they were not successful.
Edith Cavell was born on December 4, 1865, in Norwich, Norfolk, England. After returning to England from a stint as a governess in Brussels, Edith took up nursing after caring for her seriously ill father. She held several positions at home before being offered a job as head matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels in 1907.
When she was home in England visiting her mother during the summer of 1914, Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. Her family begged her to remain at home, but Edith believed her duty was to return to the hospital in Brussels.
She would never see her loved ones again.
The Berkendael Medical Institute became a Red Cross Hospital, treating wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict. In case anyone took it upon themselves to forgo neutrality or, worse yet, fraternize with the enemy, there were posters all over Brussels warning that “Any male or female who hides an English or French soldier in his house shall be severely punished.”
This did not stop Edith from helping Allied soldiers escape from the clutches of the Germans. She would harbor them in the hospital and help them flee to safety. Edith had 35 escapees hidden in the hospital at one time, handling most of the logistics herself as she didn’t want to endanger the other nurses by involving them.
The Germans entered Brussels in August 1914 and began to supervise Cavell’s work at the hospital. She provided the same top-notch nursing care whatever her patient’s nationality. Despite Edith’s outward neutrality, by 1915 the Germans began to suspect someone was helping Allied escapees avoid capture. They were also tipped off about Nurse Cavell’s sympathies.
Edith’s friends warned her that she was under suspicion, but she felt she was doing her patriotic duty. Almost inevitably, Cavell was arrested on August 5, 1915, by the German Secret Police. They questioned her for 72 hours with no luck until they told her that she could save her friends from execution if she made a full confession (a lie, of course.)
Cavell naturally confessed, pretty much signing her death warrant. Her lawyer pled her case eloquently, stating she had only acted out of compassion for her fellow man and politics had never swayed her actions. Whether this was true or not (recent evidence suggests the soldiers Edith helped actually were carrying intelligence), the Germans were not to be swayed. Cavell was to be executed for treason.
On October 11, the day before her execution, the prison chaplain visited Edith and found her at peace. She said, “I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.”
The next morning at dawn, October 12, 1915, Edith Cavell was taken to the National Rifle Range outside of Brussels and executed by firing squad. Although it was technically acceptable by the rules of war, killing the British nurse turned out to be a huge PR mistake for the Germans.
After the war, Cavell’s body was exhumed and buried in her hometown of Norwich. A statue in her honor was erected in London’s Trafalgar Square bearing her memorable quote from her final hours: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”