The Nurse Who Boosted Britain’s Recruitment Record In WWI

French soldiers attacking a German position with flame throwers in Flanders, Belgium during WWI
French soldiers attacking a German position with flame throwers in Flanders, Belgium during WWI

By 1915, WWI was not going well for the British who suffered many casualties. Although many wanted to fight, malnutrition and poor health made them unfit to serve. Others who were qualified refused to join – seeing no reason to fight for a country that gave them no voice in government. All that changed later that year – thanks to a woman. A dead one, to be precise.

Edith Louisa Cavell was born on December 4, 1865, in Swardeston, Norfolk, England. The oldest child of a pastor, she became a governess and later worked in Brussels from 1890 to 1895. Returning to Britain, she studied nursing and worked at several hospitals throughout the country.

In 1907 she returned to Brussels to become the matron of the L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées (The Berkendael Medical Institute) which taught women to become qualified nurses. Three years later, she launched the L’infirmière (The Nurse) professional journal which is still in publication today.

By 1911, she was teaching nursing at three different hospitals, twenty-four schools, and thirteen kindergartens throughout Belgium. Little wonder, then, she took a break in 1914. Her mother had been widowed, so she paid her a visit to Norfolk, and was there when the war was declared.

 Edith Louisa Cavell Photo Credit
Edith Louisa Cavell


Rather than stay where she was, Edith opted to return to Belgium despite the fact it had been invaded by Germany – making it enemy territory. The Germans had expelled many British nurses when they occupied the country but allowed Cavell back to her school in Brussels.

Cavell (seated center) with her student nurses in Brussels Photo Credit
Cavell (seated center) with her student nurses in Brussels

When she arrived, she discovered it had been commandeered by the Red Cross. Under international treaty, that organization is neutral and treats the wounded of all nationalities – regardless of which side they are fighting on.

Philippe François Victor Baucq Photo Credit
Philippe François Victor Baucq

The Germans allowed British and Commonwealth soldiers to be treated at the Berkandael and other such institutions; however, they were not all treated well. Some were incarcerated, others were tortured, and still others were executed. Despite the Geneva Convention, war has always been an ugly business.

Nor was it just British and Commonwealth troops who were vulnerable. French and Belgian nationals were also at risk – even those who were not combatants. Under German law, civilians in occupied territory had to join the German military – even if it meant fighting against their own people.

"The Murder of Edith Cavell," by George Bellows Photo Credit
“The Murder of Edith Cavell,” by George Bellows.

Especially at risk were people aged between 17 and 45 years old. To avoid such forced conscription, many fled if they could, hid, or were hidden.

Those who were lucky obtained false papers. They were conducted through a series of safe houses and guides to the neutral Netherlands – which shared a common border with Belgium to the north. It was a large underground organization, and all who were involved in it risked their lives.

Among these was Cavell who used her hospital as a safe house. Not wanting to put the rest of her staff in danger, she told none of them what she did, although she did not work alone.

The British government's offiicial denial of Cavell as a spy in 1918 Photo Credit
The British government’s official denial of Cavell as a spy in 1918

Helping her was Philippe François Victor Baucq – a Belgian architect who had studied in London. Working with various French and Belgian nobles, as well as local resistance groups, he provided many of the safe houses that ferried locals and Allied soldiers across the border to The Netherlands.

Baucq was also responsible for secretly distributing the La Libre Belgique (The Free Belgium). It was an underground newspaper that called for resistance against German occupation. In that capacity, he oversaw that mail, and other secret information got in and out of Belgium.

Thanks to him, Cavell was able to get 60 British and 15 French soldiers out of the country. Also about a hundred French and Belgian men of military age who were not at all enthusiastic about fighting for Germany.

British recruitment poster which includes Cavell's grave Photo Credit
British recruitment poster which includes Cavell’s grave

It could not last. The Germans became suspicious of her, especially when so many Allied soldiers were disappearing from her hospital.

She was betrayed by Gaston Quien – a Frenchman who was part of the underground network. Quien would later be tried for treason and collaboration.

Baucq was arrested on July 31, 1915. Shortly after, more members of his network were caught. Cavell’s turn came on August 3. She was charged with treason for harboring Allied soldiers – even though she was not a German citizen. Included in that charge was spying.

A WWI American film on Cavell called, "The Cavell Case" Photo Credit
A WWI American film on Cavell called, “The Cavell Case”

Sent to the Saint-Gilles prison for ten weeks, she confessed to helping rescue Allied soldiers and claimed to have done so for purely humanitarian purposes. On the charge of spying, she pleaded “not guilty.” They sentenced her to death.

Although the First Geneva Convention granted her protection as a nurse, it did not cover smuggling enemy combatants out of occupied territory. Britain could do nothing, although it vehemently denied she was a spy. America, neutral at the time, protested to the German government, but it did no good.

The Edith Cavell Memorial at London's St. Martin's Place Photo Credit
The Edith Cavell Memorial at London’s St. Martin’s Place. Prioryman – CC BY-SA 4.0

Twenty-seven people were put on trial, five were sentenced to death, but only Cavell and Baucq were executed.

Cavell was shot at the Tir National shooting range in Schaerbeek at 7 AM on October 12. Some say she fainted before the firing squad pulled their triggers, but many who were there deny that.

Cavell's memorial at Norwich Cathedral Photo Credit
Cavell’s memorial at Norwich Cathedral

Whatever the case, Cavell became internationally famous. British and American newspapers denounced the “barbarism of the Germans.” Cavell’s fate was among those that shaped public opinion in the US, which later joined the war in 1917. In Britain, recruitment doubled, as many people sought to avenge her death and protect women from such fate.

Her body was later brought back to Britain where she was hailed as a hero and a martyr – an innocent victim of German brutality. She received a state funeral in London’s Westminster Abbey and was interred at Norwich Cathedral.

Less well-known were the two German nurses shot by the French for helping German soldiers escape France. After the war, it was revealed that Cavell had indeed been spying for the British secret service – proving that heroes have tremendous propaganda value.

Shahan Russell

Shahan Russell is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE