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The story of Edith Cavell: a nurse who did her duty


Edith Cavell is seen by many as one of the most inspiring figures in nursing.

It is now 100 years since the First World War, and this year many stories and memories have been told and revived.

The story of Edith Cavell is one of them.

Many people have never heard her story of bravery and action in Belgium, but it is a story that is both inspirational and fascinating.

Edith Cavell was born in Norfolk in 1865, and grew up in the village of Swardeston where her father was the vicar for 46 years. The Reverend Frederick Cavell instilled high standards of helping others and honesty into his family.

Edith and her sisters, Florence and Lillian and her brother Jack, had a happy childhood and were an active lot, playing tennis, dancing and skating on nearby frozen streams in the winter. Edith in particular loved the country and became an accomplished artist, using her love of nature to draw and paint excellent pictures of flowers.

When she was older she was bequeathed a legacy from an aunt, and used the money to travel in Europe.

Aged 25 she became a governess to a family in Brussels, but returned each summer for a holiday in Swardeston.

She had a romance with a second cousin, named Eddie, but he suffered from a ‘nervous condition’ and felt it unfair to marry.

Edith never forgot him.

In 1895, aged 30, she returned to find her father ill, and her experience of nursing him back to health inspired her to commence a career in nursing. She trained at the London Hospital under Matron Luckes, who said “Edith had plenty of capacity for her work when she chose to exert herself” and that she was “not at all punctual”. The nurses worked from 7am to 9pm for £10 a year.

Edith was seconded to Maidstone in Kent due to a typhoid outbreak affecting 1,700 patients, of whom 132 died.

Her career was varied: she worked in private nursing where she cared for patients with pleurisy, pneumonia and appendicitis, and at the Manchester and Salford Sick and Poor and Private Nursing Institute. She was a night superintendent at St Pancras hospital, and an assistant matron at Shoreditch, where she pioneered home follow-ups, the predecessor of the District Nursing Service.

In 1907, in her early 40s, and now an experienced nurse, she returned to Belgium to work with Dr Antoine Depage, a pioneer of nursing in Belgium. Together they opened a nurse training school.

At this time it was unusual for women to work and the venture was frowned upon, until the Queen of the Belgians broke her arm and sent to the school for help and advice. The status of the school was ensured.

In 1924 she was visiting Norfolk when the Germans invaded Belgium and Flanders became the Western Front where Allied soldiers and Germans fought.

Edith is quoted saying: “I must return. At a time like this I am more needed than ever”.

Edith cared for wounded and shell shocked soldiers, including many Germans at a Red Cross hospital.

The German advance was successful and the British and French were driven back. There were many stranded soldiers and an underground lifeline and escape route was established by Philippe Baucq, through which Edith helped more than 200 allied soldiers escape.

But, in 1915 she was betrayed by a collaborator, arrested and interrogated.

She was told other members of the organisation had confessed, so naïve and unable to lie, she told everything. She trusted her captors and thought she was protecting her compatriots.

Others were arrested, and they were all found guilty and sentenced to be shot. They were held captive for 10 weeks of appeals from British, American and Spanish embassies.

Edith Cavell and Phillipe Baucq were executed together on October 12th 1915 in the early hours by firing squad. 

Edith is quoted saying: “I am thankful to have had these 10 weeks of quiet to get ready.

“Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it is just. 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”.

She forgave her enemies and left behind her Bible dedicated to Eddie.

There are stories that one man refused to shoot and was himself shot by a senior officer. It is said that other members of the shooting squad fired wide, Edith fainted and was despatched by an officer with a pistol shot.

The Germans had made a serious blunder as there was a huge outcry against them for shooting a woman. The event helped bring the USA into the war and had the effect of doubling recruitment.

Edith Cavell wanted to be remembered as “a nurse who did her duty”.

She received no medals as she had unwittingly given away names of her compatriots.

Following a service at Westminster Abbey she was laid to rest at “Life’s Green”, Norwich Cathedral where there is a statue and memorial garden where ceremonies are held to remember this brave nurse.


Jackie Burns is now retired having worked as a nurse for 43 years, latterly as a practice nurse specialist, clinical manager and community educator



Readers' comments (5)

  • She's a fantastic example in her commitment to advancing nursing. In New South Wales - Edith Cavell scholarships are available to help nurses today to build their knowledge and become more qualified in nursing.

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  • apologies no time to read at present but note some recommended biographies following the article would have been helpful.

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  • 1924 should read 1914

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  • There seems to be quite a lot of conflicting information surrounding Edith Cavell whether she confessed and named others during her imprisonment or not.

    We should remember that this extraordinary nurse helped to save the lives of 200 Allied soldiers and she paid the ultimate sacrifice.

    The Independent published this account of Ms Cavell....
    In the event, she was accused of sending enemy soldiers back to their lines. Taking her oath seriously, she said nothing to save herself, though she was careful to incriminate nobody else. She was tried in German, which she didn't understand, sentenced one afternoon and executed the next morning. During that last night, she read a book she had always loved, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. She marked several passages. One reads: "Vanity it is, to wish to live long, and to be careless to live well." Her compassion was profound and her integrity inviolable.

    Her statue is close to Trafalgar Square, simple but very poignant.

    Her memory should be cherished along with all of those who made sacrifices and gave their lives for both world wars.

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  • I understand that the communion cup that Edith Cavell took her last communion from prior to her execution, ended up in a church in Southborough, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent. This is where my mother grew up and her father, my late grandfather, produced some interesting research on it and on Edith herself.

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