Edith Cavell has been called many things: A patriot, a spy, a hero.
Whether she was all or none of those, she was, above all, a humanist who believed all life – Allied or Axis – had value.
To become a nurse is to choose a life of service, a commitment to saving lives. The Florence Nightingale Pledge for nurses ends with the following sentence:
“With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.”
A difficult oath to honor in wartime; words like these have consequences when the wounded are from both sides of the battle lines. The dilemma becomes one between patriotism and humanity: which lives to save, and at what cost? Cavell faced it, torn between her duty as a nurse and impulse as a patriot.
She was a British nurse who founded and headed Belgium’s first training hospital and school for nurses.
When World War I broke out, she was visiting her family in England. She could have remained safely there. Instead, she returned to Brussels.
The hospital became a Red Cross center under German occupation. Cavell treated soldiers from both sides of the conflict there impartially.
“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.”
Her Christian faith served as her moral compass; all human life has value. She devoted herself entirely to her mission as a nurse:
“I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”
Yet, it was this very devotion to saving lives that eventually cost her own.
In September of 1914, Edith encountered two wounded British soldiers in the hospital in Brussels. They had been transferred there, in German territory, after the Battle of Mons. Upon recovery, they would be imprisoned, possibly killed.
Edith cared for them, then, when they were able to travel, arranged to have them smuggled to the safety of neighboring, neutral Netherlands.
That action marked a turning point in Edith Cavell’s life; from that moment on she was part of a secret network of people who helped Allied soldiers, and Belgian citizens seeking to flee conscription, escape from Belgium. In one year, she sheltered and smuggled around 200 British, French, and Belgian soldiers, saving them from certain death.
Cavell goes home Photo credit: The Western Front Association
Wounded British and French soldiers, as well as Belgian and French civilians of military age, would hide in Cavell’s house in Brussels while the network secured false identification documents for them. Then, Cavell would provide them with money and guides to reach the Dutch frontier. These actions would cost her her life.
On the 12th of October, 1915, she was discovered, arrested, placed in solitary confinement, and executed by firing squad. Her legacy remains contested, and the motivation behind her actions hotly debated. To some, it was espionage. To others, patriotism. But neither explanation stands alone:
She pledged to save lives; she honored her oath of devoting herself to the welfare of those in her care, whoever they were and however she could. She acted, lived, and died in a way that was consistent with her values. Her story is a challenge to each and every one of ours:
Do we live by what we believe?
Edith Cavell Mountain in Jaspar Park (renamed to honor her in 1916)