In February 2017 I was visiting London for research. On one of my days off, I was wandering the city and tarted walking through St. Martin’s Place. I came face to face with the Edith Cavell memorial statue. The statue, which stands tall, has poppy wreaths laid around its base, is a sign of remembrance of Nurse Cavell. Cavell was a British nurse who died over one hundred years ago in the Great War. I had known of Cavell prior to my encounter with her memorial statue, specifically how she had been a great source of propaganda for the side of the Allies. The propaganda was ignited by the nature of Cavell’s death in 1915. I had seen this propaganda, signs that showed Cavell’s face or a depiction of Cavell, being “murdered by the Huns” and having “the bravest heart of all.” I knew Cavell had been executed by a firing squad under German authority, but I never knew Cavell beyond the propaganda I had seen in the museums or in books. Of course the propaganda has played an important role in the war and how Cavell was remembered and still is remembered. And similarly, her death and execution are both too important; however, standing at her memorial statue in St. Martin’s Place, I had a newfound curiosity for Edith Cavell beyond the propaganda.
Edith Cavell was born in December of 1865 in Norwich, England to Reverend Fredrick Cavell and Louise Cavell. Edith did not strive for a vocation in nursing after her early education; instead, she served as a governess for several years in Belgium until being recalled to England to help her ailing father. Some say this is what motivated Cavell to seek a career in nursing, which is very probable because in 1896, not long after returning home, Edith went forward and began training as a nurse under Matron Eva Luckes at the Royal London Hospital.
Between 1896, when she first began training, and the start of World War I in 1914, Cavell made significant strides as a nurse. She worked in a variety of positions at a number of hospitals in England to private homes, nursing individual patients. Then, in 1907, after demonstrating her skills as a nurse, Cavell joined Dr. Antoine Depage, the founder of the Belgian Red Cross and surgeon, as a Matron at a newly opened nursing school in Brussels. As time went on, Cavell was in charge of a number of medical and nursing facilities, including a nursing school, nursing homes, clinics, and more.
In 1914, when the Great War commenced in Europe, Cavell was in England at the time, but feeling she was “more needed than ever,” returned to Brussels. By November 1914, Brussels came under the occupation of the Germans. According to Cavell biographer Diana Souhami, “from the day of her birth as the vicar’s [Cavell’s father] daughter the Christian command of love was her moral standard” (Edith Cavell, p. 7). This may be a testament to Cavell and why she not only cared for Allied soldiers, but German soldiers as well. She is known for saying, “Patriotism is not enough… I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone,” which is quoted on the memorial statue at St. Martin’s Place.
Cavell was not only nursing during the war though. She was also aiding Allied soldiers out of the occupied territory into neutral area. This is what led to Cavell’s execution; she was caught in August 1915 and found guilty of breaking German military law. Despite numerous worldwide pleas for Cavell to avoid execution, Cavell was shot by firing squads on the 12th of October in 1915.
As stated, Cavell’s execution prompted a great propaganda campaign among the Allies in opposition to the Germans. But Cavell’s death did not just prompt a propaganda campaign among the Allies. According to her family and following her death, Cavell had always wished to establish rest homes for nurses, places that nurses could recuperate from the intense work they partook in. In 1917, a fund was established in honor of Cavell, the Nation’s Fund for Nurses, which was formed to support nursing staff, including the start of the homes Cavell envisioned. The Nation’s Fund for Nurses still runs today, but now as the Cavell Nurses’ Trust.
Though I went looking beyond the propaganda, I might argue that it was because of the propaganda that was raised by Cavell’s execution, that her immense dedication to nursing, the people she nursed, and to her fellow nurses was made known and still lasts today. Her memorialization is not just limited to the statue at St. Martin’s Place, but extends beyond England into Belgium, and even mountains in Canada. But whether known due to the propaganda or not, Cavell was a devout nurse who saved many lives, and her legacy continues today, improving and helping those who have committed to nursing and healthcare.