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  • Writer's picture Patricia Masters

Edith Cavell

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

For this week's wise woman biography I chose Edith Louisa Cavell, a late 19th century, early 20th century British nurse and instructor. For Edith’s full and remarkable biography click the link on the bottom of the page.

One of the things that makes Edith’s life so extraordinary was the passion and integrity with which she pursued things that were important to her. Edith was born in Norfolk, England, on December 4, 1965, to a rather poor clergyman and his wife. Always of a robust nature, Edith loved to ice skate, dance, garden and was an avid artist. Edith could be counted on to lend her enthusiasm to projects whether they be tending her younger siblings, caring for parishioners or raising money from the sales of her drawings to build a room for the parish bible school. In 1890, Edith accepted a position as a governess in Brussels, Belgium and became fluent in french while she was working there. As fate would have it, her father became seriously ill while she was in Brussels. Edith returned to England to care for him and in doing so was inspired to choose a career in nursing.

By 1895, Edith had diligently nursed her father back to health. Edith, now in her early 30’s, eagerly petitioned the London Hospital to become a nurse probationer. After her training, she worked a few private cases but most of her placements were at poor infirmaries. Edith’s hard work, adeptness and integrity allowed her to excel and she moved up the ranks in one infirmary to the position of matron. The other nurses described her as efficient, methodical, kind, strict, thoughtful, serene and sympathetic to all of her patients.

In 1907, Edith was offered a position in Brussels and she returned to the continent to nurse a child patient of Dr. Antoine Depage. Dr. Depage was among a group of physicians who were pioneering the shift from religious hospitals operated by nuns to secular hospitals with trained nurses. Dr Depage, noting Edith’s competence, passion and intelligence, put Edith in charge of a training school for nurses. During this time Edith wrote the nursing instructional journal, L’infirmiere. Over the next 7 years Edith taught nursing to students from all over Europe, lectured to physicians and became the matron of the secular hospital in St. Giles.

Edith was visiting her mother in England, in 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe. This is where we see other aspects of Edith’s character that were so significant. Conscious of the danger that lied ahead, Edith did not hesitate in going back to Brussels. She stated, “At a time like this, I am needed more than ever.”

Upon arrival in Brussels, Edith sent home all the Dutch and German nurses. Edith impressed her nurse colleagues and physicians at this time through her meticulous care of all the wounded soldiers regardless of their nationality. For Edith, her duty was to provide care for all people. Once the German's advanced and occupied Belgium, all the English nurses were sent home leaving only Edith and her assistant, Miss Wilkins. The clinic became a Red Cross hospital and was supposed to be neutral, which caused a minor crisis of conscience for Edith. Edith would have to rely on her own moral conscience and not the rules of the Geneva Convention for the situation in which she now found herself.

Edith was informed that there were British and French soldiers cut off from their regiments behind enemy lines, some of them injured. Although she should have stayed “neutral” because she was working at the Red Cross hospital, Edith made a choice to act based on her discernment of this specific ethical and moral dilemma. According to the biography linked below, “To her [Edith], the protection, the concealment, and the smuggling away of hunted men was as humanitarian an act as the tending of the sick and wounded.” Edith, with the assistance of an underground network established by the Prince and Princess de Croy, nursed the wounded and helped about 200 Allied soldiers escape to Holland. From Holland, which was neutral at the time, the soldiers were able to return to their perspective countries. She also helped Belgian men avoid imprisonment by keeping them hidden or helping them leave the country.

By August 1915, Edith’s role in helping the allied soldiers was exposed and she was arrested. Edith, believing others had already confessed, divulged the truth as to her part in the underground network while not implicating anyone else. Edith, again according to the biography below, “Was trained to protect life, even at the risk of her own.” When questioned by the Germans as to her motives for secreting the men from Brussels, she said simply, “Had I not helped, they would have been shot.”

Edith spent 10 weeks in a Brussels jail cell. She was courtmartialed and charged with “conveying troops to the enemy in wartime” which, according to German law, was treason. After Edith was convicted she was given the sentence of immediate death by firing squad. The US ambassador to Belgium and the Spanish minister made strong objections to the German court and then appealed for mercy or an extension on her behalf, but their pleas fell on deaf ears.

Edith was granted a short visit with the Anglican priest, Reverend Stirling Gahan, in the last 24 hours of her life. He reported that she was resigned to her fate, was not afraid of death after seeing so much of it in her life and that she forgave her captors. She was quoted as saying, “They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

It is believed by some that the sentenced passed down on Edith surprised her at first because she had saved so many German soldiers and she held no fixed sense of “us' vs "them” in her care. Edith expressed her gratitude for the 10 weeks she had spent in the solitude of the cell to rest and to contemplate the things that were in the forefront of her mind … her God, her religious faith, her vocation, her fears, her incarceration by the enemy and her love for her family and country. Holding these somewhat divergent things under equal tension over the weeks produced yet another thing, that she must forgive and hold in her heart-space some compassion for her captors.

Edith Louisa Cavell was shot to death on October 12th, 1915, at the age of 49.

I have read that Edith did not wish to be seen as a martyr or a heroine. She would have hated being used as a propaganda tool (as she was) to encourage men to enlist and other countries to join the war effort against the Germans. Although Edith was willing to die for her country, she had spent too many years of her life treating the wounded, nursing the ill to health and holding the hands of the dying to countenance being the poster child of any war effort. In her mind, everything she did was in service of her vocation as a nurse.

Let’s keep Edith in our hearts (especially on the 12th of October) and remember her for her ability to heal, nurture, challenge, speak her truth and offer protection to others at great risk to herself. We can also honor her fondness of dancing, drawing, ice skating and gardening by partaking in any of these activities or expressions of creative living. Or simply honor her by making some time to sit, as Edith did the last 10 weeks of her life, in contemplation and prayer.

Questions to ponder while letting Edith Cavell’s story sink into your depths…

What specifically feminine traits helped Edith carry out her vocation and, in turn, accept her fate?

How can we, like Edith, remain true to our convictions and our sense of the higher good when the forces around us are dualistic and polarized?

Can we revisit a painful part of our lives where the conclusion we made about ourselves was something other than love and forgiveness, and hold the painful feelings long enough in the warmth of our heart-space until we can refine them? (Like in the Buddhist Tonglen practice, we will start with compassion for self before moving on to others.)

For a full biography and website on Edith Cavell, please click on link below.

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