Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami
A recent visit to Peterborough Cathedral reminded me that the memory of Edith Cavell was being celebrated this year……in fact, just three weeks ago, on October 12th. Following in those famous traditions established by the ‘lady of the lamp’, Florence Nightingale, she entered nursing (still regarded as an unseemly profession for ladies of her background in the mid-19th century) at the age of 30 (the same age as her pioneering predecessor). Having been largely unfulfilled by a series of posts as governess to rich families, she decided she wanted to devote herself to something ‘for the good of humanity’, and began her training in what was a rapidly evolving profession.
Though ambitious, with a strong desire to rise in the profession, her personality frequently got in the way. Quiet, self-effacing and not given to self-promotion, she lagged behind in scaling the ladder of promotion but, eventually, she was offered the post of Matron in a new nurses’ training school in Brussels. Her previous 5 years as governess to a rich Belgian family stood her in very good stead from a linguistic point of view, and she took on the post with great energy and vision in 1907.
Just 7 years later, while she was on holiday at home in Norfolk, she was caught by the outbreak of the Great War and, instead of staying put in the relative safety of rural East Anglia, she sped back to Brussels to resume charge of the rapid changes taking place to her school’s provision. But the day that wounded British soldiers started turning up on her doorstep proved to be a dramatic, and ultimately fatal, change in the direction of her life. In effect, she joined the underground resistance movement in Belgium and helped stranded allied soldiers escape from the occupied zone.
She, along with dozens of others, was arrested, seven were sentenced to death, but only two of them were eventually executed. Her execution, and the haste with which it was carried out, scandalised not only the whole of the allied world, but also caused much shame amongst the axis powers. Like Florence Nightingale before her, heroine of the Crimea War, Edith Cavell became a war heroine of the Great War…..so much so, that not only were statues erected in her honour and streets and hospitals named after her, but even a mountain in Canada came to bear her name, as did a feature on the planet Venus, the Cavell Corona.
A remarkable person whose right to sit comfortably side-by-side with the greatest heroes of this country is well deserved.