Did Norfolk’s First World War heroine Edith Cavell help your ancestor to freedom?

Edith Cavell (1865-1915), the Norfolk clergymans daughter who was executed by firing squad on October 12, 1915 after helping as many as 900 servicemen and civilians evade the Germans. Edith Cavell (1865-1915), the Norfolk clergymans daughter who was executed by firing squad on October 12, 1915 after helping as many as 900 servicemen and civilians evade the Germans.

Monday, March 24, 2014
3:03 PM

Edith Cavell gave her life trying to help allied servicemen escape German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. As efforts are made to trace the descendants of the men she helped, Steve Snelling tells the story of her Norfolk evaders.

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An early postcard of Edith Cavell's grave at Life's Green, Norwich Cathedral. Crowds lined the streets in May 1919 to see her body brought home from Belgium for burial.An early postcard of Edith Cavell's grave at Life's Green, Norwich Cathedral. Crowds lined the streets in May 1919 to see her body brought home from Belgium for burial.

It was, as near as he could remember, about five days before Christmas, in the bleakest of mid-winters, that the tram clanked into Mons, its soot-blackened streets swarming with German soldiers.

Jesse Tunmore was back where it all began. Just four months had passed since he had marched through the dreary clutter of pit heads and slag heaps to do battle with the might of the Kaiser’s army.

His first action, a few miles south of Mons, had been his last contribution to the British Expeditionary Force’s unequal struggle. Part of a rearguard, cut-off and eventually overwhelmed trying to hold back the German tide pouring through Belgium and into northern France, he had limped into captivity before making his break for freedom with a group of prisoners of war.

He had been on the run for about two months, roaming from village to village before he heard tell of a potential escape route leading through enemy-occupied Belgium into neutral Holland. He had little more to go on beyond an address in Brussels and a contact: Nurse Cavell.

Edith Cavell (1865-1915).Edith Cavell (1865-1915).

Three days later, Tunmore and a fellow escaper arrived at the clinique in the Rue de la Culture. Ushered into the matron’s office, the 22-year-old sergeant from the Norfolk Regiment found himself looking at a tiny, frail-looking woman. She seemed an unlikely saviour and, for a while, a deeply suspicious one.

How, she asked, could she be sure he was an English soldier. The answer, which would become part of the Cavell legend, came through an astonishing coincidence. On the wall was a picture that Tunmore straightaway recognised as Norwich Cathedral. “You know Norwich, do you?” she said. “Well, I know Norwich too.”

Almost a century on, the story of that strange meeting, the first link in a chain of remarkable events that would forever bind them together, has particular resonance for Robert Tunmore.

A nursing officer at the Department of Health and a distant relative of the young soldier who was among the first in a long list of Allied evaders helped to freedom by the Norfolk-born nurse, he is part of an extraordinary effort to celebrate the life of Britain’s greatest war heroine whose clandestine work ended in her execution in October 1915.

David Jesse Tunmore (left) with his younger brother Fred in 1911. Jesse joined the 1st Norfolks in 1906 and enjoyed a long and distinguished military career. During the Second World War, he was commissioned and served as a captain in the Royal Army Service Corps. He died in 1974.David Jesse Tunmore (left) with his younger brother Fred in 1911. Jesse joined the 1st Norfolks in 1906 and enjoyed a long and distinguished military career. During the Second World War, he was commissioned and served as a captain in the Royal Army Service Corps. He died in 1974.

Together with the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, he is appealing for descendants of the men she guided to safety - the so-called ‘Cavell 200’ - to come forward so that they can share in a range of commemorative events being planned for next year.

“There are lots of families whose forbears’ lives were touched in some way or other by Edith Cavell,” says Robert, “and it would be wonderful if they could take part in at least some of the events which will be taking place.”

He acknowledges that the quest will not be an easy one and, along with the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, is hopeful that a specialist researcher can be recruited to assist in tracking people down.

Discussions are already taking place with the Western Front Association, a worldwide organisation aimed at promoting greater understanding of the First World War, to help with the project.

Escaper Billy Mapes.  Nurse Cavell told him: ‘I would do anything to help a Norfolk-man.’ He returned home to Hethersett to find he had been posted ‘missing believed killed’.Escaper Billy Mapes. Nurse Cavell told him: ‘I would do anything to help a Norfolk-man.’ He returned home to Hethersett to find he had been posted ‘missing believed killed’.

“So far,” says Robert, “we have a list of about 50 men who were known to have been helped by Edith Cavell, but we know there were many more than that and it requires time, money and expert knowledge to seek out where their descendants are now.”

Details concerning those who were assisted by the Brussels network, the greatest and most successful escape line of the First World War, are far from comprehensive.

When questioned at her trial about the number of people she had “sent” to the frontier, Edith Cavell replied, “About 200”. In her three alleged depositions, the total given of those hidden at the clinique ranged between 250 and 275 with a further hundred or so boarded out in ‘safe houses’.

But according to research undertaken by Cavell’s Norfolk-based biographer Rowland Ryder in the 1960s and 1970s, the actual figure may have been as high as a thousand with an estimated 630 ‘guests’ coming and going from the clinique and a further 300 sheltered elsewhere.

Edith Cavell: Honouring a Norfolk heroine

Events are being planned around the world to mark the centenary of Edith Cavell’s death in October 2015 with Norfolk being a focal point for commemoration.

Kate Tompkins, chief executive of the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, a welfare and educational charity born in the wake of the Norfolk heroine’s execution, spoke 
of an international campaign to honour the memory of the Swardeston-born nurse.

As well as events taking place in Belgium, plans are being made for acts of remembrance in Canada, where a mountain is named after her, and in Australia.

Closer to home, discussions are under way to feature Edith Cavell’s sacrifice in the Royal British Legion’s annual festival of remembrance. Church services will be held in London and, on the 100th anniversary of her death, in Norwich Cathedral.

Here in Norfolk commemorations and exhibitions will be held in the village where she was born and the city in which she was finally laid to rest in 1919.

A display planned for The Forum may also feature the restored railway ‘van’ which was used to transport both her body and that of the Unknown Warrior for ceremonial burial.

Other commemorative plans include a bid to develop a Norfolk education project that could see the story of Edith Cavell eventually become a part of the national curriculum, special screenings of films made about her life and even an attempt to have her sacrifice honoured by a posthumous award.

“It’s strange to think that while the French and Belgians both recognised her gallantry, the British government did not,” says Kate.

Meanwhile, the Trust is supporting efforts to have Cavell commemorated on a new £2 coin. “Over 50,000 people have signed an online petition calling for it to happen,” says Kate, “and we’re just waiting to hear when it will be presented to the Prime Minister.”

Of these, at least five were soldiers from Cavell’s home county regiment, who, like Tunmore, had been wounded and left behind during the ‘Great Retreat’ from Mons in the summer of 1914.

They included two men, Lance-Corporal Frank Holmes and Private Charlie Scott, who reached England two days apart in April 1915. Holmes, who lived in Norwich, brought with him a bible and letter for Cavell’s widowed mother, while Scott, who had grown up near Wroxham, returned home with an incredible story to tell.

Severely wounded in the leg and chest during the August fighting, he had spent months hidden by Belgian families, first in a wardrobe and then in a hole dug beneath the floorboards. Passed on to the clinique, he was mostly bed-bound with illness during his stay, but recalled one night being shaken awake by Cavell.

“I may be in trouble,” she told him, “and if so you will have to get up, and I shall have to hide you.” Moments later, as Germans began searching the clinique, she returned and smuggled him into a backyard where he lay buried inside a barrel full of apples until the soldiers left. With good reason, Scott referred to Cavell as “an angel”.

A third Norfolk escaper, Private Billy Mapes, arrived home in Hethersett in June 1915 having been reported ‘missing believed killed’. Mapes, who had reached Brussels the previous month, recalled how Cavell had recognised his accent and had spoken warmly about “dear old Norfolk”.

According to Mapes, she was visibly affected by memories of her home county. “I would do anything to help a Norfolk-man,” she told him.

That was something which Jesse Tunmore could attest to. One of four brothers who followed in their father’s military footsteps, he was a boy soldier who had become the youngest sergeant in the British army at the age of just 19.

From the scant records which survive, he and his fellow escaper were the fourth and fifth British soldiers to be helped by Cavell. When they arrived at the clinique, two days before Christmas 1914 the English nurse in charge of Belgium’s first teaching hospital was just getting into her stride.

The previous month, in a letter to her mother in Norwich, she had written cryptically of “some interesting work”. And, in a reference to the first two British evaders to come through her hands, she added: “Our people who left last week must have arrived safely as they have not returned.”

The danger was clear. The Germans had tightened their grip on the country. “All English men of a certain age have been taken prisoner,” she wrote, “and we are very closely surrounded.”

Yet, despite the risk and perhaps even because of it, she was determined to do all she could to help her countrymen and their allies in their hour of need.

By the time Tunmore arrived with tales of her beloved Norfolk she had already helped 10 Frenchmen and another Englishman to escape.

Tunmore spent Christmas at the clinique, where he was treated to a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding at Cavell’s expense. They chatted cheerfully of home and not long after she used her old box Kodak to take photographs of her latest ‘guests’ for the fake passports they would need to cross the border into Holland.

The first attempt a few days later ended in failure: the passports were out of date. Not suspecting anything untoward, the Germans allowed them to return to Brussels.

Once more, Cavell provided food and shelter. One of her assistants, another English nurse, Elisabeth Wilkins, went further. Years later, she recalled: “I thought he (Tunmore) was a bit bored, cooped up at the back of the house, so I took him for a tram ride through Brussels after cautioning him not to open his mouth.”

A few days later, Cavell herself led Tunmore and his fellow escaper away before dawn on a route that took them via Louvain, Diest and Overpelt. Evading enemy cavalry patrols, they travelled across country. On one occasion they were shot at, but managed to escape, another time they were forced to make a dash for some nearby woods.

Eventually, they reached a canal, where they used money given them by Cavell to bribe a barge owner to let them use a rowing boat to get across the closely-guarded stretch of water.

From there they made their way to a house on the edge of a wood. “We managed to get some food,” wrote Tunmore, “and waited for the dark.”

They were a little more than four miles from the frontier, the boundary being marked by a flag and sentry box. Slipping past it, they managed to pass “safely” into Holland from where they were able to look back at the main German guard post from the Dutch side.

Four days later, having been supplied with tickets by the British consul in Rotterdam, they boarded a ferry, the aptly-named SS Cromer, bound for Harwich.

Suspected of being either deserters or spies, they were initially held prisoner by the military authorities until word reached them from Rotterdam confirming their stories. A few days later, Jesse Tunmore, the first of Nurse Cavell’s Norfolk escapers, was back home in King’s Lynn, having already sent a letter to her mother in Norwich.

“I cannot express enough thanks for all she done for me” he wrote.

Tunmore returned to active service in October, the same month that Edith Cavell, who had been arrested in August, was tried, found guilty and executed by a German firing squad.

The bond forged in adversity a few days before Christmas 1914, however, remained unbroken. In May, 1919, when her body was exhumed and brought back to England for burial beside Norwich Cathedral, Company Sergeant Major Jesse Tunmore was among the pall-bearers carrying the martyred nurse on her last journey.

And, till the end of his life, his most precious possession remained the photograph that Cavell had taken of him at the clinique, a treasured reminder of a daring escape and the kindest and bravest woman he had ever known.

If you are related to any of the escapers mentioned in this article or any of the other people helped by Nurse Cavell, please write to Steve Snelling, Eastern Daily Press Weekend supplement, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email him on sjsnelling@sky.com

For more details about on-going plans of commemoration for next year visit: www.edithcavell.org.uk or www.cavellnursestrust.orgdith Cavell gave her life trying to help allied servicemen escape German-occupied Belgium during the First World War. As efforts are made to trace the descendants of the men she helped, Steve Snelling tells the story of her Norfolk evaders.

It was, as near as he could remember, about five days before Christmas, in the bleakest of mid-winters, that the tram clanked into Mons, its soot-blackened streets swarming with German soldiers.

Jesse Tunmore was back where it all began. Just four months had passed since he had marched through the dreary clutter of pit heads and slag heaps to do battle with the might of the Kaiser’s army.

His first action, a few miles south of Mons, had been his last contribution to the British Expeditionary Force’s unequal struggle. Part of a rearguard, cut-off and eventually overwhelmed trying to hold back the German tide pouring through Belgium and into northern France, he had limped into captivity before making his break for freedom with a group of prisoners of war.

He had been on the run for about two months, roaming from village to village before he heard tell of a potential escape route leading through enemy-occupied Belgium into neutral Holland. He had little more to go on beyond an address in Brussels and a contact: Nurse Cavell.

Three days later, Tunmore and a fellow escaper arrived at the clinique in the Rue de la Culture. Ushered into the matron’s office, the 22-year-old sergeant from the Norfolk Regiment found himself looking at a tiny, frail-looking woman. She seemed an unlikely saviour and, for a while, a deeply suspicious one.

How, she asked, could she be sure he was an English soldier. The answer, which would become part of the Cavell legend, came through an astonishing coincidence. On the wall was a picture that Tunmore straightaway recognised as Norwich Cathedral. “You know Norwich, do you?” she said. “Well, I know Norwich too.”

Almost a century on, the story of that strange meeting, the first link in a chain of remarkable events that would forever bind them together, has particular resonance for Robert Tunmore.

A nursing officer at the Department of Health and a distant relative of the young soldier who was among the first in a long list of Allied evaders helped to freedom by the Norfolk-born nurse, he is part of an extraordinary effort to celebrate the life of Britain’s greatest war heroine whose clandestine work ended in her execution in October 1915.

Together with the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, he is appealing for descendants of the men she guided to safety - the so-called ‘Cavell 200’ - to come forward so that they can share in a range of commemorative events being planned for next year.

“There are lots of families whose forbears’ lives were touched in some way or other by Edith Cavell,” says Robert, “and it would be wonderful if they could take part in at least some of the events which will be taking place.”

He acknowledges that the quest will not be an easy one and, along with the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, is hopeful that a specialist researcher can be recruited to assist in tracking people down.

Discussions are already taking place with the Western Front Association, a worldwide organisation aimed at promoting greater understanding of the First World War, to help with the project.

“So far,” says Robert, “we have a list of about 50 men who were known to have been helped by Edith Cavell, but we know there were many more than that and it requires time, money and expert knowledge to seek out where their descendants are now.”

Details concerning those who were assisted by the Brussels network, the greatest and most successful escape line of the First World War, are far from comprehensive.

When questioned at her trial about the number of people she had “sent” to the frontier, Edith Cavell replied, “About 200”. In her three alleged depositions, the total given of those hidden at the clinique ranged between 250 and 275 with a further hundred or so boarded out in ‘safe houses’.

But according to research undertaken by Cavell’s Norfolk-based biographer Rowland Ryder in the 1960s and 1970s, the actual figure may have been as high as a thousand with an estimated 630 ‘guests’ coming and going from the clinique and a further 300 sheltered elsewhere.

Of these, at least five were soldiers from Cavell’s home county regiment, who, like Tunmore, had been wounded and left behind during the ‘Great Retreat’ from Mons in the summer of 1914.

They included two men, Lance-Corporal Frank Holmes and Private Charlie Scott, who reached England two days apart in April 1915. Holmes, who lived in Norwich, brought with him a bible and letter for Cavell’s widowed mother, while Scott, who had grown up near Wroxham, returned home with an incredible story to tell.

Severely wounded in the leg and chest during the August fighting, he had spent months hidden by Belgian families, first in a wardrobe and then in a hole dug beneath the floorboards. Passed on to the clinique, he was mostly bed-bound with illness during his stay, but recalled one night being shaken awake by Cavell.

“I may be in trouble,” she told him, “and if so you will have to get up, and I shall have to hide you.” Moments later, as Germans began searching the clinique, she returned and smuggled him into a backyard where he lay buried inside a barrel full of apples until the soldiers left. With good reason, Scott referred to Cavell as “an angel”.

A third Norfolk escaper, Private Billy Mapes, arrived home in Hethersett in June 1915 having been reported ‘missing believed killed’. Mapes, who had reached Brussels the previous month, recalled how Cavell had recognised his accent and had spoken warmly about “dear old Norfolk”.

According to Mapes, she was visibly affected by memories of her home county. “I would do anything to help a Norfolk-man,” she told him.

That was something which Jesse Tunmore could attest to. One of four brothers who followed in their father’s military footsteps, he was a boy soldier who had become the youngest sergeant in the British army at the age of just 19.

From the scant records which survive, he and his fellow escaper were the fourth and fifth British soldiers to be helped by Cavell. When they arrived at the clinique, two days before Christmas 1914 the English nurse in charge of Belgium’s first teaching hospital was just getting into her stride.

The previous month, in a letter to her mother in Norwich, she had written cryptically of “some interesting work”. And, in a reference to the first two British evaders to come through her hands, she added: “Our people who left last week must have arrived safely as they have not returned.”

The danger was clear. The Germans had tightened their grip on the country. “All English men of a certain age have been taken prisoner,” she wrote, “and we are very closely surrounded.”

Yet, despite the risk and perhaps even because of it, she was determined to do all she could to help her countrymen and their allies in their hour of need.

By the time Tunmore arrived with tales of her beloved Norfolk she had already helped 10 Frenchmen and another Englishman to escape.

Tunmore spent Christmas at the clinique, where he was treated to a dinner of roast beef and plum pudding at Cavell’s expense. They chatted cheerfully of home and not long after she used her old box Kodak to take photographs of her latest ‘guests’ for the fake passports they would need to cross the border into Holland.

The first attempt a few days later ended in failure: the passports were out of date. Not suspecting anything untoward, the Germans allowed them to return to Brussels.

Once more, Cavell provided food and shelter. One of her assistants, another English nurse, Elisabeth Wilkins, went further. Years later, she recalled: “I thought he (Tunmore) was a bit bored, cooped up at the back of the house, so I took him for a tram ride through Brussels after cautioning him not to open his mouth.”

A few days later, Cavell herself led Tunmore and his fellow escaper away before dawn on a route that took them via Louvain, Diest and Overpelt. Evading enemy cavalry patrols, they travelled across country. On one occasion they were shot at, but managed to escape, another time they were forced to make a dash for some nearby woods.

Eventually, they reached a canal, where they used money given them by Cavell to bribe a barge owner to let them use a rowing boat to get across the closely-guarded stretch of water.

From there they made their way to a house on the edge of a wood. “We managed to get some food,” wrote Tunmore, “and waited for the dark.”

They were a little more than four miles from the frontier, the boundary being marked by a flag and sentry box. Slipping past it, they managed to pass “safely” into Holland from where they were able to look back at the main German guard post from the Dutch side.

Four days later, having been supplied with tickets by the British consul in Rotterdam, they boarded a ferry, the aptly-named SS Cromer, bound for Harwich.

Suspected of being either deserters or spies, they were initially held prisoner by the military authorities until word reached them from Rotterdam confirming their stories. A few days later, Jesse Tunmore, the first of Nurse Cavell’s Norfolk escapers, was back home in King’s Lynn, having already sent a letter to her mother in Norwich.

“I cannot express enough thanks for all she done for me” he wrote.

Tunmore returned to active service in October, the same month that Edith Cavell, who had been arrested in August, was tried, found guilty and executed by a German firing squad.

The bond forged in adversity a few days before Christmas 1914, however, remained unbroken. In May, 1919, when her body was exhumed and brought back to England for burial beside Norwich Cathedral, Company Sergeant Major Jesse Tunmore was among the pall-bearers carrying the martyred nurse on her last journey.

And, till the end of his life, his most precious possession remained the photograph that Cavell had taken of him at the clinique, a treasured reminder of a daring escape and the kindest and bravest woman he had ever known.

If you are related to any of the escapers mentioned in this article or any of the other people helped by Nurse Cavell, please write to Steve Snelling, Eastern Daily Press Weekend supplement, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email him on sjsnelling@sky.com

For more details about on-going plans of commemoration for next year visit: www.edithcavell.org.uk or www.cavellnursestrust.org

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