World War I pushed people across the world to every limit imaginable. One of those people was Edith Cavell, who found herself working as the matron of a nurse’s training school in Brussels, Belgium when Germany invaded in 1914 at the start of World War I.
Instead of trying to flee, Cavell remained, saying she was needed at a time like this more than ever.
She’d go on to back up that statement, becoming a beacon of humanity for the Allied Powers and someone we should all aspire to be more like.
1. Treating the “Enemy”
In September 1914, Cavell was ordered to help two British soldiers wounded behind German lines. She treated the men in her hospital and then arranged to have them smuggled out of Belgium into neutral Holland (current day Netherlands).
This feat led her to join a network of people focused on sheltering Allied soldiers and Belgians eligible for military service to help them escape. Over the next 11 months, Cavell helped around 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers, keeping them in the hospital and arranging for guides to take them to the border.
The Germans asserted that while Cavell was aiding in the process of returning Allied soldiers to the enemy forces to fight against Germany, her network was relaying information to British intelligence.
Reports and first-hand testimonies in the Belgian archives from the end of WWI regarding Cavell’s network show that some intelligence tactics may have taken place. One account was from Herman Capiau, a Belgian engineer who had brought the first British soldiers to Cavell in 1914:
“Whenever it was possible to send interesting intelligence on military operations, this information was forwarded to the English intelligence service punctually and rapidly.”
Capiau referred to information about a German trench system, the location of munitions dumps and the whereabouts of aircraft. The details were hidden ingeniously in clothes. Messages were written on strips of fabric and sewn into clothes or concealed in shoes and boots.
2. The Trial
After nearly a year of successful transporting, Cavell was captured and accused of harboring Allied soldiers. German police were suspicious of Cavell’s activities, but a Frenchman named Gaston Quien ultimately did her in. Gaston would later be convicted by a French court for his treasonous behavior with the Germans and betrayal to Cavell.
For Cavell, after three days of meandering questioning, German authorities tricked her into talking by telling her they already had the necessary information to convict her, and the best way to save her co-conspirators would be to make a full confession. Cavell believed the interrogators and confessed with names, dates and locations.
It took the German military court just two days to convict her. When Cavel heard the death sentence pronounced, she accepted without reaction. Her, along with 33 other conspirators were sentenced to death by firing squad.
3. Firing Squad Execution
The night before her execution, Cavell met with a chaplain who recorded their conversation. With the clock on her life down to the final hours, Cavell said to the chaplain:
“I have told you that devotion will give you real happiness and the thought that you have done, before God and yourselves, your whole duty and with a good heart will be your greatest support in the hard moments of life and in the face of death.”
Cavell was found guilty on October 7, and five days later at dawn, the 49-year-old heroine was shot by firing squad in Brussels where it all began.
Her execution was legal under international law, but following worldwide demand for her release, triggered severe outrage.
Cavell’s unjust execution made her a symbol for the Allied cause, and her legacy was used in recruiting messages around the world. After the war, her body was exhumed and escorted to Britain where she was later reburied in Norwich Cathedral.
A lot of people have morals, but Edith Cavell unflinchingly followed through on hers, and in the most perilous of circumstances. Even in the waning moments of her life, Cavell stood by her actions with grace, dignity. Today’s—and any—world could use more badasses like her.