Unravelling tales about Edith

Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell

Probably the most famous nurse in history is the Lady with the Lamp … Florence Nightingale. Tending the wounded and the dying from the Crimea War her story is known by generations of schoolchildren.

Probably the second most famous nurse, and again one involved in conflict is Edith Cavell, executed during the First World War by the German authorities. The shock and horror of this incident has reverberated down through generations of the British population. She was known to have helped save the lives of soldiers from both sides,however, she also helped more than 200 Allied soldiers escape from German occupied Belgium. It was for this that she was shot.

Edith Cavell grew up in comfortable circumstances in a small village in Norfolk where her father was the Reverend. The house she grew up in is to this day known as ‘Cavell House’.

She worked as a Governess in Belgium before the start of the war but this was cut short when she came back to England to look after her ailing father. She nursed him back to health, an act that probably inspired her to take up nursing as a profession.

After her training she was invited back to Brussels in 1907 to nurse a sick child. Her skills were soon recognised and she became the Matron of the first Nursing School in Belgium. By 1912, Edith was busy managing one nursing school, three hospitals, three private nursing homes, 24 communal schools for nurses, 13 private kindergartens, private duty cases, a clinic and was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses.

She was back in Norfolk when war came. Declaring “at a time like this, I am more needed than ever” she went back to Brussels, often caring for soldiers from the invaders from Germany and Austria, a deed for which she was heavily criticized, as well as looking after those from the Allies, trapped in Belgium.

She assisted in helping many British soldiers to be smuggled into neutral Holland. She soon came to the attention of the occupation German military authorities in the country, was duly arrested and sent to trial with 35 others. Most received sentences of hard labour. Edith admitted the charges against her and despite international calls for mercy she was executed aged 49 on October 12, 1915.

It was a monumental propaganda gaffe by the Germans. After the war her body was returned to England, and following a service in Westminster Abbey, she was buried at the side of Norwich Cathedral. Following her death many memorials were created around the world including the massive peak in a Canadian National Park, now called Mount Edith Cavell. Many nursing homes and wards, school halls and memorial plaques bear her name.

In another of our series of talks the Northumbria World War One project has invited Ian McArdle to attempt to unravel the truth from the fiction in his talk on Edith at the Low Lights pub on the North Shields Fish Quay on Tuesday, February 21, at 7.30pm.

If you have any information on any casualties of the First World War from North Tyneside, visit www.northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into our office at B9 in the Linskill Centre, Linskill Terrace, North Shields, Monday to Friday from 10am to 4pm, or me an email tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk