The Story of Edith Cavell
Perhaps one of the most successful pieces of propaganda utilised during the Great War was linked to the fate of a woman who had been born and bred in Norfolk. Edith Cavell, a nurse who came from Swardeston, had been training student nurses at the L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées in Brussels and although she was treating her sick Father when war broke out she returned to Belgium. Edith continued to treat wounded soldiers when Brussels fell and, as a result of the rapid retreat of the BEF, many British soldiers became trapped behind enemy lines.
It is estimated that Edith helped at least five men from the 1/Norfolks to escape after Mons. This included Charlie Scott, who had been seriously wounded and was carefully hidden by a succession of Belgian families. He eventually ended up in Edith’s care but, with the Germans conducting house searches for escapees, nowhere was safe. One night, when German soldiers were approaching nearby houses, Edith told him,
‘I may be in trouble and if so you will have to get up, and I shall have to hide you.’
He was hidden in a barrel full of apples and luckily the Germans did not find him.
Another Norfolk soldier who was helped by Edith was Sergeant 7343 David ‘Jesse’ Tunmore of the 1st Battalion Norfolk Regiment. Jesse had been caught behind the lines during the Retreat from Mons and had been under the care of her since he had arrived in Brussels two months after he had been split up from his battalion. His first introduction to Edith is interesting because having been ushered into her office Edith is alleged to have asked Jesse how could she trust he was a British solder. Luckily Jesse saw a picture of Norwich Cathedral on her wall and Edith said,
‘You know Norwich do you? Well I know Norwich too.’
After spending Christmas in the care of Edith, she personally led Jesses to safety with a fellow escaper where she took them on a route via Louvain, Diest and Overpelt. They evaded German patrols, were shot at by one, and eventually reached a canal where they bribed a barge owner to let them use his rowing boat to cross safely. Eventually they managed to cross the border into neutral Holland where four days later they boarded a ferry named SS Cromer which was bound for Harwich.
On his return to England he stated,
‘I cannot express enough thanks for all she done for me…’
However, two members of the escape cell were eventually arrested and, as a result, Edith was detained and admitted that she had been involved in the harbouring of Allied soldiers. She was sentenced to death along with four others and, despite intervention from America and Spain, this sentence was carried out on 12 October 1915 at the National Rifle Range (the Tir Nationale). A German Lutheran prison chaplain obtained permission for the English chaplain, Stirling Gahan, to visit her on the night before she died.
‘We partook of the Holy Communion together, and she received the Gospel message of consolation with all her heart. At the close of the little service I began to repeat the words, “Abide with me,” and she joined softly in the end.’
It is during this time that Edith is believed to have said the famous words:
‘Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’
A witness to her execution – Pastor Le Seur who was the chaplain appointed by the Germans to minister to the prisoners – described the exact moment she was killed, stating,
‘Immediately the sharp commands were given, two salvoes crashed at the same time, each of eight men at a distance of six paces, and the two condemned persons sank to the ground without a sound.’
The execution was used as a propaganda coup by the Allies, who acclaimed Nurse Cavell as a martyr and those responsible for her execution as murderous monsters. Her death became a national sensation with the Home Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, noting:
‘News of the execution of this noble Englishwoman will be received with horror and disgust, not only in the Allied States, but throughout the civilised world. Miss Cavell was not even charged with espionage, and the fact that she had nursed numbers of German soldiers might have been regarded as a complete reason in itself for treating her with leniency.’
Her execution by the Germans was still a very raw subject and Rider Haggard noted in his war diary on 14 October 1918:
‘ is now reported, on what seems excellent authority, that the evidence against Edith Cavell was extracted from a sister nurse of sonnambulic tendencies by mesmerism.’
This, of course, is not true, but it is not surprising that such misinformation was reported at a time when her execution was being globally criticised.
After her execution Edith was buried at the Tir Nationale and a simple cross was erected on her grave. Part of that cross is now in a glass case in Swardeston church.
Recently it has been alleged that Edith was also involved in the espionage side of the group she was part of where it is alleged she smuggled intelligence back to the Allies. The former head of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, has recently stated,
‘We may never know how much Edith Cavell knew of the espionage carried out by her network. She was known to use secret messages, and we know that key members of her network were in touch with Allied intelligence agencies. Her main objective was to get hidden Allied soldiers back to Britain but, contrary to the common perception of her, we have uncovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies.’
Furthermore the German military governor of Belgium who signed the warrant for Cavell’s execution, General Moritz Von Bissing, stated that her execution was justified by stating,
‘ Cavell woman… had guilty knowledge of much of their work. Such a system of spying assails our very safety and we proceeded to stamp it out.’
My own opinion of this is that Edith must have known the risks involved in the smuggling of stranded British soldiers. What she said to Charlie Scott shows that she knew the risks involved in harbouring Allied soldiers. Her own faith dictated the way this would be dealt with because as a Christian it meant she would tell the truth of what she had done. This helped to seal her fate in the eyes of the Germans.
Spy, martyr or heroine her death could not have come at a better time for the Allies who were always looking at ways of dealing out propaganda towards the dastardly Hun. So whatever Edith’s motives her death is now remembered as one of sacrifice, patriotism and faith.
Edith’s body would eventually be repatriated to England but that is another story to be told in May 2019!