Could heroic Norfolk nurse Edith Cavell’s life have been spared?

Edith Cavell.; Source: Library

Edith Cavell - Credit: Archant

A new book about the forgotten women of the First World War includes one whose memory will always live on…thanks to people of Norfolk and others around the world.

She is “our heroine” the courageous nurse who was helped Allied prisoners to escape…and paid for it with her life.

In her book, We Also Served, Dr Vivian Newman (inset), writes: “If most women’s deaths are largely forgotten one still looms large in the popular imagination. The contemporary Belgian press deemed the execution of Edith Cavell, ‘the bloodiest act of the war’

“The bare facts are simple; when working with the Red Cross at the Berkendael Medical Institute in German-occupied Belgium, she helped Allied soldiers to escape, knowingly negating the neutral status bestowed on medical personal.”

The author goes on: “The German’s discovered her activities and the legally conducted court-martial pronounced the death penalty.”

Her execution on October 12, 1915 was described as an act of “Extraordinary Stupidity on Behalf of the German Government.”

Dr Newman says more recently discovered documents reveal desperate attempts by neutral American and Spanish diplomats to save Cavell’s life.

Most Read

“They also show the hand-wringing of British officials reluctant to get involved in her fate, clinging to a belief that Germany would not execute a woman who was regarded as a heroine.

Let's Talk October. Pictured: The funeral of Edith Cavell. The scene is set at Norwich station from

The funeral of Edith Cavell - rhe scene is set at Norwich station from where her body was taken to Norwich Cathedral. - Credit: Supplied

“Fortunately for Asquith’s government the press were unaware of this misplaced confidence,” she writes.

The result was a huge rise in the number of men volunteering to fight in the war and avenge the death of the Empire’s most famous war heroine.

Less than a month after her death The Times carried an advertisement for a “Portrait Model of Nurse Edith Cavell” in Madame Tussaud’s Heroes of War, Sea and Land section. Entrance cost 1 shilling.

And long before the war ended £3,000 was raised for a memorial statue to be erected in London where it stands to this day.

On May 15, 1919, the body of Edith, who said that she had “meant to do so much but somehow I have failed to do it,” was repatriated.

On the journey from Brussels to Dover her coffin was placed in a luggage van with its roof painted white so the crowds who lined the railway tracks could see where she lay.

From Victoria the coffin was transported to Westminster Abbey to “receive the nation’s tribute to her memory” and then onwards to Norwich Cathedral – her final resting place.

It was said that she lives on in the hearts of her countrymen of England, in the bosom of Belgium, and in the soul of France as none other has lived..

“Such was the adulation showed up Edith Cavell in death that it is almost impossible to find the woman behind the martyr,” says Dr Newman.

She quotes Sister Catherine Black who trained a few years after Edith at the same London hospital and describes her as a quiet, shy and retiring woman who find it hard to make friends.

Edith Cavell timeline. Pictured: Edith Cavell's coffin being carried through London. Picture: Suppli

Edith Cavell's coffin being carried through London - Credit: Supplied

But when asked to go to Belgium in 1907 to pioneer the training of nurses and increase the sense of respectability of the nursing profession and of women working in general – she accepted it was her duty.

“Despite and loneliness, Edith Cavell, was dedicated to a purpose and she achieved it, overcame obstacles and set-backs that would have daunted anyone else, fought discouragement like a tangible foe,” she says.

When Catherine, who also worked in Brussels, heard of her death, she wrote a poignant vignette of this woman whose nursing background she shared: -
“I could picture her hearing her sentence with steady resignation, putting on the green cloak of the London Hospital for the last time and walking out to face a German firing-party.”

As the author says…in those words we find Cavell the nurse as opposed to Cavell the icon.

In Norfolk we will never forget dear Edith but there are also memorials across the world… from a metro stop in Brussels to Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park, Canada, which reaches into the sky at 3,363m: snow and ice falling off the mountains create the Cavell Glacier, which then carves into a lake, the Cavell Pond.

While we know of Edith most of the other women involved in the First World War, more than  a thousand of them lost their lives as a direct result of their involvement in the conflict, are largely lost in the mists of time…this important books tells their story.

They ignored the early War Office advice  to “go home and sit still.” 

We Also Served: The Forgotten Women of the First World War by Vivian Newman is published by Pen and Sword

We Also Served by Vivien Newman

We Also Served by Vivien Newman - Credit: Archant