Edith Cavell  'Patriotism is not enough...'

Rachel Duffield, February 2018

How many of us have always thought that Edith Cavell was French? And what little do many of us know about the forty-nine years of her life other than the last few seconds when violently she died?  Questions posed by Rachel Duffield when she presented one of her Remarkable Women talks to our first meeting of the New Year. Here is Rachel in a replica of the Matron’s uniform worn by Edith in the later years of her life – accurate except for the jaunty angle of the cap which would not have been approved of at the time, we were told.

Not an attempt to be Edith Cavell, but a presentation like no other we have experienced. It was based on biographies, diaries and letters, and set against a background of turbulent historical events. Letters were read, there was poetry, Edith’s favourite hymn and contemporary popular music – not just played but sung, and sung beautifully: “Oh Jesus I have promised”, “Just a song at twilight”, and a little more down to earth one about what the Belgians did to the German army. Applause was spontaneous and there were lumps in throats at the end.

Edith Cavell (pronounced as in travel) was born in 1865 in a village 4 miles south of Norwich. Yes, a Norfolk girl - from Swardeston, where, she wrote, “life was fresh and beautiful and the country so sweet.” She, and her siblings, were the result of the marriage of a vicar and his housekeeper’s daughter. Not an ideal coupling at the time, so before the union the reverend gentleman sent the daughter off to a finishing school –“and when she was finished, he married her!”

We heard how the family led a comfortable life: croquet on the lawn, ponies, skating on the village pond, supplemented by considerable support to the poor and to inmates of the workhouse. Eventually sent off to a genteel school she proved talented at languages, French in particular, and was prepared for life as a governess. This profession took her to Belgium for the first time, where her charges described her as “very fair but very moral.” But what she really wanted was to be a nurse, following the example of Florence Nightingale, whose work had suddenly made nursing an acceptable profession for an educated, middle-class girl.

So, at the late age of 30, she began training at the Royal London Hospital and progressed rapidly. Awards won and Matron by age 40 she became the ideal candidate to be selected, in 1907, to set up a hospital in Brussels – a fateful move. She was enormously successful in horrific conditions – workaholic, indefatigable, compassionate - but politics and war overtook her.

In 1914 the German plan to invade France through Belgium was put into effect and the country was submerged in the First World War with death, injury and brutality all around. She believing that “the profession of nursing knows no frontiers” Edith Cavell’s hospital treated Belgians, French, British and Germans, soldiers and civilians alike. A level of humanity that was, in due course, ignored by the invading military authorities.

Edith became involved with the resistance movement, helping isolated allied soldiers get back to Britain. She and eleven others were arrested. Solitary confinement, interrogation and rushed court cases followed. Tricked into a confession, as, Rachel suggested, helping injured allied soldiers was interpreted as raising troops to fight the Germans, an act of treason, she was sentenced to immediate execution. She and her friend Phillipe, were shot together on 19th October 1915.


(Above: Edith Cavell)
(Below: Edith Cavell memorial, Norwich Cathedral)

Rachel Duffield dressed as nurse of the periodMemorial to Edith Cavell. Norwich Cathedral
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Photograph of Edith Cavell taken before she left for Belgium) (top)
Rachel Duffield as a nurse of the period (above,left)

Memorial to Edith Cavell, Norwich Cathedral (above, right)