Remembering Edith Cavell
At the crack of dawn on the 12th of October 1915, a hundred years ago the most famous female casualty of World War One was marched in front of eight German soldiers and shot.
Edith Cavell was born on the fourth of December 1865 in Norfolk, and by 1909 she was a respected nurse in Belgium who was in charge of three hospitals across the country – she even had royalty as her patients. But it wasn’t until the outbreak of the war and the subsequent invasion of Belgium where she found her true calling in life where she said: ‘At a time like this, I am needed more than ever’.
As a devout Christian, she had always aspired to spend her life helping people in any way possible. Edith was famous for her unprejudiced treatment of Germans, Belgiums, French and British; if they were wounded she would help them. For this she quickly gained international attention from the burgeoning global media that would play a vital role in propelling her to fame after her death.
Although she was a devoted Christian and compassionate towards all people no matter their origin, she couldn’t let go of her nationality. What has been dubbed ‘The Rape of Belgium’ was in its full force during this time as the Germans mercilessly crushed the Belgians as they marched through the neutral country. The remnants of the Belgium army which was backed by French divisions and the British expeditionary force needed to be attended to and it was this that would cause Edith to end up looking down the barrels of a German firing squad.
Alongside her nursing responsibilities she was involved in clandestine operations involving smuggling captured British, Belgium and French soldiers across the border into neutral Netherlands. Once the Germans were in full control of Belgium she began to raise suspicion. Allied soldiers would go missing from their beds, no mention of their presence could ever be found. Men would appear out of nowhere with legitimate documents and money. These events would only happen in hospitals where Edith was in charge.
Arrested on the third of August 1915, she spent eight weeks in a cell. She confessed to everything she had done, she held back no detail. Her honesty and international popularity was a problem for the Germans as her automatic death sentence for committing treasonous activates drew international condemnation from the neutral countries. The United States and the Spanish both appealed for her release.
All of this was to no avail, to the Germans she had supplied the enemy with reinforcements, which was clearly illegal. She was tried on the 27 of September and was shot on the 12th of October. During her incarceration she made her most famous quote:
‘I have no fear nor shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me. This I would say standing as I do in view of God and eternity I realise patriotism is not enough. I have no bitterness of hatred to anyone’
Yet her statements would not carry through to the general populace. The international media – which at this time was heavily connected to the state – that had been watching created the largest outcry the world had ever seen.
Quickly the incident was seized upon by the British government and turned the murder of Cavell into a propaganda weapon and disseminated their message across the globe. It was the media that coined the term ‘Rape of Belgium’ and the people who controlled the press were quickly seeing its newfound importance in modern war. Manchester Guardian on wrote on the 22 October 1915 read: “Merciless Execution of Nurse Cavell,” while an editorial dwelled on the “callousness” and “brutality” of the German occupiers in Belgium, and the way Cavell’s execution was carried out quickly and secretly. Her face was on stamps, on billboards, on all the front pages.
Her message of love for all men was quickly lost amongst the media frenzy, but their message worked. In the first example of modern propaganda the compassionate and emotional writing espoused by the British press caused recruitment of soldiers to double from five thousand a week to ten thousand. Opinion in the neutral countries sharply turned in favour of the Allies, crucially in the still neutral United States. This was a defining moment of the war as it showed that modern war was no longer fought with just soldiers, it was fought with nations.
Massive increases in technology, literacy and population had changed the nature of war by the time of 1914 and new methods and tactics were employed. The stalemate created by Trench warfare led the opposing alliances into searching for new means of warfare: tanks, planes, poison gas, flamethrowers, machines guns, long range artillery all exploded onto the fields of Europe in humanity’s never-ending quest to murder people as quickly and efficiently as possible. On the home front the media establishment was created, civilians were bombed for the first time, rations were introduced. This was modern war and this why it should never be forgotten.
The First World War may even beat the Second in terms of how much the world was changed. Women were emancipated and liberated; democracy truly became representative in the victorious states as a direct result of the war. Socialism replaced one of the most autocratic and cruel regimes in history. However the world isn’t free of problems, in fact it is getting worse. Inequality is reaching heights never seen before; resources are running out, populations are spiralling. Yet no country is dealing with these issues. With Russia and America facing off, the Middle East in turmoil, China and Japan heating up hostilities it is important to remember the savages of war and the real issues that face humanity. But we shouldn’t remember them for the atrocities and evil inventions that were created or the lines on the map that were redrawn, we should remember it through stories like that of Edith Cavell for she was truly a heroine.
Words by Connor Parker