I am writing a series of blogs to tell the story of British nurse Edith Cavell who was executed on 12th October 1915 for helping allied soldiers escape German occupied Brussels. This is her Brussels part of the story….
Edith Cavell first went to Brussels in 1890 as a 25 year old governess before she even thought of becoming a nurse. And she went because she could speak fluent french as taught at Laurel Court School situated in the precincts of Peterborough Cathedral. An important link to Peterborough without which her life may not have taken the turn that it ultimately did. It was during this time in Paris that she wrote to her cousin Eddy “Being a governess is only temporary,but someday, somehow, I am going to do something useful. I don’t know what it will be. I only know that it will be something for people”.She left Brussels in 1895 to come home and help care for her ill father while she thought about what she could do instead of being a governess.
Her 2 sisters had become nurses and 2 days after her 30th birthday she applied to become a nurse -she was the same age as Florence Nightingale had been when she became a nurse.
This part of the story as it concentrates on the Brussels story misses all the hard work training and positions in England over 11 years before she was offered a post by Brussels leading Surgeon Antoine Depage in 1907 to become Matron of the first training school for nurses in Belgium to raise standards and make nursing an acceptable profession for women of all classes of society.
RUE DE LA CULTURE TRAINING SCHOOL
The premises were 4 houses in the rue de la Culture and had been adapted for use as the training school.Years of hard work and constant challenges followed but Edith dealt with them all with her usual directness and efficiency. Every summer she came back to Norfolk to spend time with her mother, her father having died and she was in England as Germany threatened Belgium to accept thats army should be allowed to pass through or be an enemy of Germany. Belgium refused permission because it was neutral and hence Britain entered the war to defend Belgium on the 4th August 1914 as the previous day German Troops had crossed into Belgium.
Edith decided to return to Brussels as she could be of more use there.
On the 20th August the Germans entered Brussels and the harsh regime that brutalised Brussels under the occupation began. That night Edith Cavell talked to her nurses and told them that any wounded soldier must be treated. They were all a father, son or husband.The profession of nursing had no frontiers.
In the first weeks of the war many soldiers were treated at the school and another hospital in Brussels but the Germans then set up hospitals closer to the front where they were treated before being sent to hospitals in Germany.
Her work helping allied soldiers in a different manner began on 1st November 1914 when 2 English soldiers were secretly brought to the hospital, both were injured and Edith without hesitation nursed their wounds and cared for them despite the consequences of hiding them.She was used to a life abiding by the rules with the need for authority and discipline. Now she used all these qualities to defy the germans by hiding and helping both allied soldiers but also French and Belgium men evade the occupying forces and help them escape to Holland. She took care not to involve the other nurses as she hid men in the hospital rooms before sending them down the expanding network of people prepared to defy the germans and help the men to safety. This she did from November 1014 until July 1915, personally taking the men to a series of agreed meeting points throughout the city. Jack her trusted dog accompanied her and gave her the excuse to be out and about walking several times a day if needed. Suspicion was necessary to survive and this was again contrary to her usual character.It would have been a hard way to survive but she had to do what was right in her mind despite the consequences.
CINQUANTENIERE PARK A MEETING POINT FOR GUIDES
On the 31st July the Germans arrested the first of the 35 suspects in the group including Phillippe Baucq who along with Edith was one of the most active. On the 5th August Edith Cavell was amongst the last of the group arrested and on the 7th August was taken to Saint Gilles Prison where she was placed in solitary confinement for 10 weeks before the trial of all of the group began. It was over in 2 days.35 trials. No legal representatives were allowed to discuss the case against her and almost all of the others before and during the trial on the 7th and 8th October. Only Edith kept calm as the death sentence was requested for a number of the detainees for treason.
MONUMENT OUTSIDE SAINT GILLES PRISON
On the 11th October the group together were given their sentences in the main hall of the prison. 5 were sentenced to death. Edith knew it was useless to appeal saying “I am English” and later that afternoon was told that the sentence on her and Phillippe Baucq was to be carried out early next morning. Diplomatic efforts to save her were minimal-no one seemed to believe that she would be shot especially so quickly after sentencing.
Her anglican faith kept her strong in those last hours-she had been taught that the reward for virtue was eternal life.
On the 12th October Edith and Phillippe Baucq were taken from the prison to the Tir Nationale-the shooting range. The soldiers were told to have no conscience about shooting a woman-she was not a mother and her crimes were heinous. They were then taken to posts and tied to them. A soldier who bandaged her eyes said they were filled with tears before they were both then shot, hastily put into 2 yellow coffins that had been at the side and then hastily buried with no dignity or ceremony.
TIR NATIONALE-THE PLACE OF EXECUTION
Her life in Brussels was over.
Edith Cavell died because she was English, a woman, was unmarried and showed no remorse for what she had done. She died because she did what she thought was right-saving hundreds of men from brutal treatment or death. She was not a traitor. She wanted to make the world a better place.
ARTIST CHARRON PUGSLEY-HILL
If you are interested in reading more about the life of Edith Cavell the book by Diana Souhami titled Edith Cavell has been a major source of reference for me in my work on Edith-It is a great source of information.
This work is part of THE BLANKET OF POPPIES-An artwork commemorating the life, work and death of Edith Cavell that I am creating this year as part of a series of art commemorating significant people places and events from WWI.