“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Edith Cavell was a nurse executed by a firing squad. How could that happen, and what was the drive that put her into the situation where she was deemed someone to be executed?
Edith Cavell was born into an Anglican vicar’s family in England. She trained as a nurse and went to Belgium. When the Great War broke out she was visiting her widowed mother back in England. She quickly returned to the hospital in Belgium.
The German Army overran most of Belgium in November 1914 including Brussels where Cavell served. Cavell treated the wounded of all sides. She instructed young nurses to care for the wounded irrespective of nationality.
Then Cavell began working with a network of Belgians to smuggle wounded British and French soldiers out to neutral Holland. Her work violated German military law. Cavell was reported by a collaborator, and she was arrested on August 4, 1915. She refused to defend herself and freely admitted to helping 60 British, 15 French soldiers escape as well as about 100 French and Belgians of military age. For the Germans, this was treason.
Cavell’s sentence provoked an outpouring of international concern. Though the British could do little since they were at war with Germany, the U.S. and Spanish governments plead for clemency. Many thought that she would be spared the death sentence (which happened for three of those arrested with her) because she had saved so many German as well as Allied lives. The German general overseeing the case said he would rather shoot her than see harm come to the humblest soldier.
The night before her execution, Cavell was allowed to meet with an Anglican chaplain. She told him: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” Cavell was shot by firing squad early on the morning of October 12, 1915.
Cavell’s death was used to whip up war frenzy in a way opposite to her own actions and sentiments. She had no hatred or bitterness, yet the image of the Germans executing a nurse was used by Allied propagandists to portray the beastly actions of the “barbaric Hun.” A postage stamp was even issued in Britain showing a German over the slain nurse in a white smock. Her death was used to stir up hatred to serve military recruitment in England.
There are conflicting reports about various aspects of Cavell’s life and death, often due to the distortions made by propagandists of both sides. Was she a spy? That was never made clear one way or the other. She certainly was aiding soldiers to escape under the cover of her Red Cross identity. Did she faint and get shot while lying down? Not according to eyewitnesses. She was quoted as having said before her execution, “I have no fear or shrinking; I have seen death so often it is not strange, or fearful to me!” There is also a report that one German soldier refused to fire at her and was immediately shot by an officer. Though this can’t be certified as accurate, a hastily buried body of a German soldier was found next to Covell’s grave. After the war Cavell’s body was returned to England where it is interred in Norwich Cathedral.
In an interesting footnote about the power of her story even years later: the French had raised a memorial to Edith Cavell in Paris. When the Nazis captured Paris in the Second World War, Adolf Hitler ordered two statues in Paris destroyed—one the statue of Edith Cavell.
In another footnote the French later shot two German nurses for helping German soldiers escape. The German High Command was asked why they did not protest as the British had done about Cavell. They responded, “Why complain; the French had a perfect right to shoot them.”