The Allied Martyr

Since we’re spending so much time in World War I land with Downton Abbey, I thought it might be fitting to mention this: On October 12, 1915 the Allies got themselves a brand new martyr when British nurse Edith Cavell was executed by the Germans for treason.

Cavell trained as a nurse in London before becoming the matron of a new nursing school in Belgium in 1907. After World War I broke out, her school and its clinic were taken over by the Red Cross. By late 1914, the Germans were occupying Brussels, and Cavell began secretly sheltering British soldiers and helping them escape to the Netherlands. She eventually helped 200 soldiers slip out of Belgium, which apparently was the magical number to put her on the wrong side of German military law. She was arrested in August 1915 and charged with harboring Allied soldiers.

The Germans held her for 10 weeks, two of those in solitary confinement, before court-martialing her and prosecuting her for aiding British and French soldiers, as well as young Belgian men who wanted to escape the occupation. Oddly, Cavell signed a statement admitting her guilt the day before her trial started, and during the trial itself she told the German prosecutors that the soldiers she had helped had thanked her in writing after they arrived safely in Britain. Unsurprisingly, Cavell was found guilty and sentenced to death. The British government was unable to help her, but the American government was in a position to put some pressure on the Germans to commute her sentence or release her, since nobody looks good shooting a nurse. Coming so shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania, which really pissed off a lot of Americans, this would be a terrible PR move. Even the German civil governor thought she should be pardoned, since she’d been completely honest and had saved so many lives, German as well as Allied, at her clinic. The military thought otherwise, however, and executed her quickly, so higher authorities wouldn’t have the chance to consider clemency. She was executed by firing squad at 6 a.m., apparently going to her death bravely and with dignity.

Public reaction to her death was immediate. Cavell became a sort of folk hero, with articles, pamphlets, images, and books spreading her story. The British government used her as a propaganda figure to recruit more young men to the military and to illustrate the barbarism of the Germans. She was used similarly in the United States, which, as I said, was already pretty agitated over the Lusitania.

After the war, Cavell’s body was returned to Britain and she was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey before being reburied at Norwich Cathedral. There, a graveside service is still held every October. One of the first memorials to Cavell was also placed near Norwich Cathedral and unveiled by Queen Alexandra in October 1918. A home for nurses named after her stands nearby. Memorials to Cavell can also be found near Trafalgar Square in London; in Peterborough Cathedral; near The Shrine in Melbourne, Australia; and in the garden behind the Red Cross National Headquarters in Washington, DC. She also has two hospitals, two hospital wings, and a school of nursing named after her.

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