Edith Cavell (1865–1915) Reflects in Prison Before Meeting the Firing Squad

Edith Cavell relief, photo by Paul Drieghe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

At the start of World War I, Edith Cavell, a British nurse, cared for German soldiers alongside Allied, and saved their lives. She was about 50 when arrested as a traitor by the German occupiers of Belgium. In her capacity as a nurse, she had helped Allied soldiers escape from the Germans, who had ruthlessly killed Allied captives.

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At her trial she was not allowed adequate counsel, and, did not know the language or laws under which she was tried. She was forthright and open in her replies, and convicted herself by her honesty.

Had she helped only Englishmen escape to neutral Holland, she might have been spared death. But because she helped Belgians and Frenchmen, and because some of the Englishmen were able to return to England where they rejoined the war, no mercy was shown her, for all that she was a woman—and helping her own cause. Sentence of death was pronounced at 4:30 in the afternoon of October 11th, 1915, to be carried out in about ten hours, at 2 am the following morning. (She was actually executed out around 5 a.m.).

In Edith’s case, we have only one goodbye letter she wrote to her nurses from prison (all other personal letters were held by the German authorities, who feared they would be used for propaganda), and a few notes she made in her copy of The Imitation of Christ. What we do have is a chaplain’s report of her last recorded words. Rev. H. Stirling T. Gahan, rector of the English church in Brussels, was allowed to visit her on her final night. According to his account, she rose wearily and drew her gown around her thin neck.

She told him that she had been grateful for her ten-week’s imprisonment, for in a life much hurried with duties and cares, she had had little time to reflect. Her imprisonment had amounted to a rest for her; and the German chaplain had been kind. For the last few weeks she had read her Bible, prayer book, and The Imitation of Christ. Before taking the sacrement a last time, she assured the pastor that she had no hatred for anyone. “Patriotism is not enough,’she said. “I must have no hatred and no bitterness toward anyone.”

These words were highly influential in her day, and widely quoted. Her death aroused international horror, and led to lighter sentences on several prisoners who had been accused alongside her.

Many books have been written about Edith Cavell.