Self-sacrifice was the hallmark of Nurse Edith Cavell’s life. Edith was executed on 12 October 1915 for enabling around 200 Allied soldiers to escape to neutral territory, but her care had extended to German and Allied soldiers alike.
Edith understood that Jesus’ greater love commands us to love our enemies as well as our neighbours and friends. As she took communion for the last time, the minister with her said, ‘We shall remember you as a heroine and a martyr.’ She replied, ‘Don’t think of me like that. Think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.’
Edith Cavell was born near Norwich in 1865, the daughter of a Norfolk vicar. She trained at the London Hospital and, as a devout Christian, was often seen praying at patients’ bedsides.
Edith spoke French fluently and her skills came to the attention of Dr Antoine Depage, who invited her to pioneering the training of nurses in Belgium along the lines of Florence Nightingale. By 1912, Edith was providing nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. When Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914, she was visiting her mother in Norfolk, but decided to return to her work: ‘At a time like this,’ she said, ‘I am more needed than ever.’
Her clinic became a Red Cross hospital with German and Belgian soldiers receiving the same attention. When Brussels fell, 60 English nurses were sent home but Edith remained. In the autumn of 1914, two stranded British soldiers found their way to the training school and she sheltered them for two weeks. Others followed and Edith helped them to escape to neutral territory in Holland. She was trained to protect life: ‘Had I not helped,’ she said, ‘they would have been shot.’
By August 1915 a Belgian 'collaborator' had passed through Edith's hands and the school was searched. Two members of the escape team were arrested on 31 July, 1915. Five days later, Nurse Cavell was interned, and was tried and sentenced to death for treason ten weeks later.
A German Lutheran prison chaplain gained permission for an English Chaplain to visit her on the night before she died. They repeated the words of 'Abide with me' and Edith received Communion.
She said, ‘I am thankful to have had these ten weeks of quiet to get ready. Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’
She was executed by firing squad the next morning.