Edith Cavell’s Story

On 12th October 1915, Norfolk Nurse Edith Cavell was executed. Her legacy lives on through the bravery and courage she demonstrated throughout the early years of the Great War by saving the lives of over 200 Allied soldiers.

The Great War

The Great War was one of countless casualties; between 1914 and 1918 almost 25 million soldiers were either killed or wounded. New types of weapons and deadly machinery took to the battlefield causing injuries that had never been seen before, with only basic treatment available in the early stage of the war, the medics had their work cut out for them. The most common injuries were leg wounds that were worsened as the victim was moved to the treatment station, tearing muscle tissue resulting in a huge loss of blood.

Although the medics in the British Army today are better equipped, they have faced similar experiences in modern wars. Explosive devices have the capacity to injure multiple victims simultaneously, causing catastrophic damage that even the very best of medics find challenging.

Passion for Nursing

Edith Cavell’s interest in medicine sparked when she spent several weeks touring Austria and Bavaria in 1888. During her visit funded by a recent inheritance, Edith came across a free hospital run by Dr. Wolfenberg; she was so impressed with the set up that she donated a portion of her inheritance for its upkeep. Edith spent another 5 years in Brussels before returning home to care for her sick father, a move that would inspire her decision to train as a nurse in London.

In 1886 Edith was accepted to train as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital and it was in 1887 when a typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone, Kent that she and five other nurses went to help. Edith was awarded the Maidstone Medal for helping to save 1568 people’s lives. Edith completed her training and in 1907 returned to Belgium when she was invited by Antoine Depage to nurse in the countries first school of nursing which by 1912 was providing nurses to schools, hospitals and nurseries across the country.

War Outbreak

When news of the outbreak of World War One reached Edith, she was tending to her mother’s garden on a visit home. As soon as she heard the news she announced to her mother “I am more needed than ever”, quickly packed her bags and headed off for the first trains and boats to take her back to her school. 

On arrival, she sent all unqualified nurses home and gathered all of the fully trained nurses in order to turn the school into a hospital for the wounded, regardless of their nationality. The Germans arrived on the 20th August and the hospital was then expected to handover injured Allied soldiers for certain execution.

Working Together

Edith along with several others began working together to smuggle Allied patients out of the hospital and into the neutral Netherlands. The operation worked for nearly a year, all the while Edith continued with her nursing duties treating soldiers from both sides of the conflict.

Betrayal

In August 1915, Edith was betrayed by her patient Gaston Quien and as a result was arrested and held for 10 weeks at St Giles Prison. Edith was convicted of ‘assisting men to the enemy’ by a German Military Court after she confessed to helping over 200 Allied troops to escape. Her bravery, kindness and courage would see her pay the ultimate price, despite great resistance from the German Foreign Ministry as she was sent for execution by firing squad on the 12th October 1915, aged only 49. Her last words were;

“Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”

Legacy

The Medical services were truly put through their paces, and it was nurses like Edith Cavell that made a significant difference. Established in 1917, The Cavell Nurses’ Trust now supports the UK’s 650,000 registered nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants.

War and Medicine

Every conflict since the Great War has seen advances in fighting technology leading to devastating injuries, but adversity often breeds creation driving improvements in medicine. Military medical units are often key to these crucial developments and in the home town of Edith Cavell, an Army reserve Medical Squadron are playing their part.

160 Squadron is a detachment of 254 Medical Regiment, providing the very highest standard of emergency medicine and healthcare of soldiers on operations. Today reservists at 254 (Medical) Regiment have served on operations in Iraq, Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan alongside their Regular counterparts, providing medical care to troops and civilians alike.

Visit our Army Reserve page for more information on joining as a Reservist.

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