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Edith Cavell: the nurse who inspired Britain

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Edith Cavell became an unlikely heroine of the First World War when she helped hundreds of wounded British and French soldiers to leave occupied Belgium and reach the neutral Netherlands.

Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell

The nurse settled in Belgium where she was a Red Cross hospital matron by the time hostilities broke out in 1914.

The Germans warned of the dire consequences facing anyone caught sheltering English and French troops and grew suspicious when the number of soldiers entering the hospital didn’t tally with the number of deaths or discharges.

Edith treated German and Allied soldiers but saw it as her duty to shelter and aid the escape of British troops. The secret police arrested and charged her with assisting the enemy and, after a hurried two day trial, she was sentenced to death by firing squad.

The news was met with widespread condemnation and frantic deputations by the British Government asking for her sentence to be commuted to jail.

The Germans refused and Edith was stoically resigned to her fate saying: “I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have seen death so often that it is not strange nor fearful to me”. The attending priest later praised her for ”being brave and bright to the last” and noted she chose to wear her nursing uniform.

The British Government seized on her death to launch a prolonged propaganda campaign and Edith’s story was told and retold in newspapers and periodicals around the world as well as her image appearing on billboards, posters and stamps.

She became one of the most highly publicised casualties in a war that claimed 37 million lives by the time the guns were finally silenced in 1918.

Her name lives on in numerous memorials, street names, parks, nursing homes and hospital wards.

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