Introducing order and cleanlinessWhen Edith Cavell was young, the number of occupations thought respectable for a reasonably well educated girl of her social class was limited. Basically, if she did not marry, she could become a governess, alternatively she could enter nursing.
Edith's Early Life
Edith Cavell was the daughter of a country vicar. Her family was not well off but the vicar had an important role in the community and there was a need to keep up appearances. They employed a few poorly paid servants to help around the house; this was not because they were mean but just that the finances would not stretch any further. Edith was educated at home until she was around 15 or 16 years old, when she attended local schools followed by boarding schools in Kensington, Bristol and lastly Peterborough, where they taught French, a language for which Edith had a natural flare.
Learning to CareWhy Choose Nursing?
Edith and her younger brothers and sisters were brought up to take seriously the Christian gospel's messages to care for others. The Sunday meal was always divided and half shared with the poor villagers. Edith and her mother visited the poor in the district and Edith became a Sunday School teacher and also Godmother to some of the poorer children. Her belief in humanity and the need to care for others had a big influence on her life.
At first Edith worked as a governess in England, proving popular and well-liked by the families she worked for. Her interest in nursing was aroused on a continental holiday in the late 1890s. Edith had been left a small legacy and spent some weeks in Austria and Bavaria. She was deeply impressed with a free hospital run by a Dr Wolfenberg. She endowed the hospital with some of her legacy. After a further period as a governess in Brussels, Edith returned to Swardeston to nurse her sick father. It was this experience that convinced her nursing was the career she wished to follow.
A Respectable Profession for a Woman
Edith took up her career in nursing in 1896, when she was around 30 years old. Nursing was a relatively recent career choice as only a few years earlier; it had not been regarded as a proper profession for young gentlewomen in Britain. Florence Nightingale had been largely responsible for this change in opinion.
Learning on the Job
Although nursing was a very old and necessary occupation, it was not until the mid 19th century that there had been any professional training for nurses. From medieval times, nuns were the main source of nurses but they were never trained professionally and they learned any skills they had 'on the job'.
The First Schools for Nurses
One of the very first notable training schools in Europe was the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserworth in Germany, which was where Florence Nightingale trained, once she had persuaded her reluctant parents to let her nurse. As is well known, she introduced a strict regime of cleanliness into her field-hospital in the Crimea and, once she returned, she used her own training and the knowledge she had gained in the field to set up a school for nursing in 1860.
Theory and PracticeMatrons versus Examinations
Others soon followed, using the 'Nightingale' method. The matron, Eva Luckes, at the institute where Edith herself trained in Nightingale methodology, introduced many reforms into the London Hospital. She introduced a two-year training course, with the first year including a lot more theory, and an examination at the end of the two years. She also ensured that her nurses had decent accommodation and food.
Gradually it became accepted by the authorities that nurses did need proper training - although there was an argument against setting up a council to oversee this. Eva Luckes and Florence Nightingale believed that nursing was a vocation rather than a profession, and also that only the matrons in the hospitals could properly pass or fail student nurses, as they saw them at their work and a council would only see an exam paper.
Long Hours and Poor PayNursing in Belgium
At the time when Edith was nursing the work was hard and the pay was bad: around £10 a year. The hours were very long (7 am - 9 pm, with just half an hour for lunch.) Edith's tutor was very strict; she said of her pupil, "Edith Louisa Cavell had plenty of capacity for her work, when she chose to exert herself ...She is not at all punctual". Nevertheless Edith, along with others, was awarded the Maidstone Medal for her work during a typhoid outbreak in Kent: just one of the many contagious diseases that nurses had to cope with (others included TB and smallpox).
By the turn of the century (1900) nursing had definitely become a respectable profession for young women in Britain. However, some other countries, like Belgium, were not so far advanced; it was still not seen as a suitable profession for young women and so the nurses were still mainly untrained nuns.
L'École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées
Dr Depage wanted to change this situation and set up a new training school and clinic, L'École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées, which he asked Edith to run. Edith took her own high standards and strict discipline with her, insisting on punctuality and cleanliness, producing high quality nurses in Belgium. The nursing school was given the seal of respectability when the Queen, Elisabeth, asked for one of Edith's nurses when she broke her arm.
Nursing in Wartime
World War 1 brought new nursing challenges: Edith Cavell's hospital was some way from the front lines, so she and her trainee nurses did not have to endure the conditions that nurses in the field-hospitals faced. The main challenge which Edith and her colleagues encountered was the sheer number of wounded soldiers who would flood into the hospital when a major action was taking place nearby. This happened frequently, as much of the fighting on the Western Front took place in Belgium.
Pressure of Work
The medical staff were under huge pressure at such times: during World War 1 a one thousand-bed hospital could be staffed by only a matron, 15 sisters and 30 nurses (compared with a modern ratio of about one staff member per bed). Although the wounded men coming to them had received some basic treatment in the field hospitals, their wounds were still fresh and need careful tending.
Nursing at the Front
Of course Edith's trainees, once qualified, might well move on to face the terrible conditions in the field-hospitals. Field-hospitals were very much in the battle zone, with shells and, later in the war, bombs landing on them, causing carnage amongst wounded and staff alike. Even when this did not happen, the awful smell caused by the mixture of blood, ether and the filthy clothes of the men, was so overpowering that new nurses had to fight to keep from being sick.
The work in the operating theatres often involved amputations and sewing up multiple wounds - literally following the surgeon around the body, sewing and tying up and putting in drains while the doctor took the next piece of shell out of another place. The medical staff could work at this for 14 hours at a time, standing ankle-deep in freezing mud, before returning exhausted to basic food, wet tents, damp beds without sheets and washing with a just cupful of water - conditions, in short, little better than those in the actual trenches.
A neutral force - looking after the wounded in wars
Before the middle of the 19th century, throughout all the wars in Europe and around the world, there had been no organised systems for nursing casualties and no safe and protected places to house and treat those who were wounded in battle.Help on the Battlefield
In June 1859, a Swiss businessman Henry Dunant travelled to Italy. He arrived in the small town of Solferino on June 24th, and witnessed a Battle there. He recorded that in one day, about 40,000 soldiers died or were left wounded on the field. He was shocked at the suffering of the wounded soldiers and at the almost total lack of medical care. He stayed on for several days and spent his time treating and caring for the wounded alongside other volunteers.
Volunteers and Treaties
When he got back home to Geneva, he wrote a write a book called ‘A memory of Solferino' in which he put forward the idea of forming national voluntary relief organisations to help nurse wounded soldiers if there were a war. He also called for international treaties to guarantee the protection of medical staff, and field-hospitals for those soldiers wounded in battle. He sent this book to important political and military people throughout Europe.
Trained Help and Neutrality
In October 1863, an international conference, organised by Dunant and four colleagues, was held in Geneva to develop ways to improve medical services on the battlefield. This historic conference agreed on the following proposals:
- The creation of national relief societies for wounded soldiers
- Neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers
- The ability to use volunteers, trained in peacetime, to help in relief work, for soldiers of either side on the battlefield in times of conflict
- The introduction of a distinctive symbol for medical people in the field - a white armband bearing a red cross
They also agreed that further conferences should take place to put these ideas into a legally binding international treaty.
The First Geneva Convention
In the first Geneva Convention, in 1864, the participating countries agreed that they would recognise the special neutral status of medical services and wounded soldiers on the battlefield. It was this neutral status that Edith Cavell would violate by helping escaping Allied soldiers, although her hospital treated all nationalities equally.
The Red Cross Arrives
Representatives of 12 states and kingdoms signed the Geneva Convention: Baden, Belgium, Denmark, France, Hesse, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Prussia, Switzerland, Spain, and Württemberg. Following this, the Red Cross was formed in these countries. It provided training for both men and women in caring for the sick and wounded, and spread new nursing techniques across the world.
A British Society
On 4th August, 1870, a public meeting was held in London and a resolution passed that "a National Society be formed in this country for aiding sick and wounded soldiers in time of war and that the said Society be formed upon the rules laid down by the Geneva Convention of 1864".The British National Society for Aid to the Sick and Wounded in War was formed. It gave aid and relief to both warring armies during wars and campaigns in the 19th century, under the protection of the Red Cross emblem.
The British Red Cross
In 1905, it became the British Red Cross and was granted a Royal Charter in 1908 by King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, with the queen becoming its president. Following the outbreak of war in August 1914, the British Red Cross and the Order of St. John formed the Joint War Committee to pool their resources and work together under the emblem of the Red Cross.
In World War 1
During World War 1, British Red Cross volunteers worked in hospitals, convalescent homes, rest stations, packing centres, medical supply depots and work parties. The Red Cross also supplied motorised ambulances to the battlefields for the first time - much more efficient than the old horse-drawn ones. Centres for recording the names of the wounded and missing were set up in France. This work marked the start of the tracing and message service, which remains a vital part of the Red Cross' work today.
Depage and the Belgian Red Cross
Antoine Depage (the king's surgeon) had created the first Belgian medical school, l'École Belge d'Infirmières Diplômées, in Brussels, where Edith had worked. He was also the head of the Belgian Red Cross in World War 1 and had established the military hospital l'Océan at De Panne where more than 50,000 soldiers with wounds, fractures, cerebral trauma, nitrous gas intoxication and infectious diseases, among other problems, were treated. Therefore it was not suprising that the hospital where Edith worked was to become a Red Cross establishment during the war.
The German Red Cross
The Prussian (German) Red Cross was instituted in 1864 by Dr Aaron Silverman of the Charité Hospital of Berlin; the German Red Cross was a voluntary civil assistance organisation. The German Red Cross was officially acknowledged by the Geneva Convention in 1929 after WW1. During World War 1, Belgium was an occupied country; however the German Army respected the Red Cross and was responsible for establishing, along with the Belgium Red Cross, a Red Cross hospital in Brussels- the establishment where Edith worked.
In June 1914, a Serbian terrorist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, in Sarajevo. This event led very quickly to the outbreak of World War 1. Austria blamed Serbia for the killing, and threatened to attack Serbia if she did not agree to very strict conditions. Russia then got ready for war in support of Serbia, who was its ally.
Germany then declared war on Russia and France. When Germany tried to march through neutral Belgium to get to France, Britain declared war on Germany.
Let us Through or Else!
On August 2nd, 1914, the day before Germany declared war on France, the German government had written to the Belgian government demanding free passage across Belgium for its troops, so that they could invade France easily and reach Paris. The demand stated that they had knowledge that the French Army would invade Germany, using safe passage through Belgium.
Belgium's reply to this German demand (either grant free passage or be occupied as an enemy of Germany) was sent the following day; it was a refusal of free passage, maintaining Belgium's neutrality and stating that they would not allow free passage to the French either.
On the same day as the Belgian reply, Germany declared war on France. Germany then invaded Belgium the next day. Britain then declared war on Germany to defend Belgium's neutrality. Edith heard about this whilst weeding in her mother's garden, and immediately set off to travel back to her clinic. Belgium had only a small Army, but they resisted the German invasion furiously and bravely and managed to hold the huge German Army up for nearly a month. This gave time to the British and French to prepare a counter offensive.
When Belgian Army divisions could hold out no longer and withdrew from the towns they had been stationed in, the Germans took dreadful reprisals, not only on wounded soldiers but also on the population at large. The captured soldiers were often shot. Towns that the Germans marched through were razed and numbers of the townsfolk killed. It was atrocities like these, which showed the mercilessness of the Germans towards captured Allies, that helped to persuade Edith that her duty was to help wounded soldiers evade capture.
The Germans continued their bloody advance towards Brussels, meeting unexpected resistance all along their way. Consequently, they brought in a lot of heavy artillery and bombarded their way to the city. Thousands of civilians fled and, when it was no longer possible to hold out, the Belgian military 'disappeared', eventually joining allied forces in other countries to fight again and again.
Edith did not flee as the troops advanced. Jacqueline van Til, one of her nurses described that night, she said: "I shall never forget the evening before the Prussians entered. We went up to the roof of the clinic and saw the sky towards the east fiery red, while clouds of thick black smoke rolled in our direction. The thunder of the guns was so great that windows were broken round us. We were all trembling with fear, and Madame found me sitting weeping. She peered into my face with that powerful gaze of hers, with something mild in it, yet full of firm reproach, and bade me not to give way to my feelings, telling me that my life no longer belonged to myself alone, but also to my duty as a nurse."
A Red Cross Clinic
Edith's establishment, on the outskirts of Brussels, was taken over by the Red Cross to help the wounded of both sides. Edith was allowed to stay on in her position but as a foreign national she was watched very closely by the Germans in charge of Brussels.
Belgium was an occupied country for more than four years. One small part of Belgium west was occupied by her Army, who fought courageously. Conditions in Belgian cities were almost intolerable. The people had little food and no rights.
By the summer of 1918, the allies for so long on the defensive were now on the attack. On the 14th September Austria sent a note to all those fighting and neutrals suggesting a meeting for peace talks on neutral soil, and on 15th September, Germany made a peace offer to Belgium. The peace offer was rejected and, on 24th September, the leaders in Berlin knew that armistice talks were inevitable.
WW1 patriotism, propaganda and slaughterFrom the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28th June 1914, it took only five weeks for Europe to progress from a shaky peace to World War. When Britain, bound by treaty to aid Belgium, declared war against Germany on 4th August, British troops were far from ready.
Patriotism and Optimism
During the first months of the war in 1914, there was a great rush of patriotism, excitement and optimism across the country. Most people believed that the war would be relatively short. Fictitious tales of German atrocities saw a great desire to help the Belgians. At a time when many lived in poverty, armed service seemed to promise regular pay as well as proper food and clothing.
A Call to Arms
At the start of WW1, Britain's professional Army was small (just 450,000 and 250,000 of these were reservists) and badly equipped unlike the conscript-heavy standing armies on the continent. The idea of conscription was politically unpopular so Lord Kitchener decided to raise a volunteer Army. The first call to arms was in August a few days after war was declared and involved 100,000 volunteers, aged between 19 and 30.
It was realised that men would be more willing to join up if they could serve with people they already knew in their own area. Civic pride and community spirit prompted cities to compete with each other and attract the greatest possible number of new recruits. This saw men queuing outside enlisting posts. Brothers, cousins, friends and workmates enlisted together. Some new battalions reached full strength in only two days.
The Reality of War
What the young men found when they got to the battle front was a very different war to one that had ever been fought before. Euphoria was replaced with the stuggle to survivie in the confusion of battle. Much of Belgium and France became a battlefield in WW1. The kinds of injury that Edith and her nurses had to treat were probably worse than in any previous war.
The Fight to Survive
All injuries at this time could prove fatal if not treated properly. There were no antibiotics and many of the fighting men lived in filthy trenches. Even relatively small problems could develop into infected wounds and maybe gangrene, which would result in limb loss at least and quite often in death.
The Victorians had thought the technology they developed would help to unite the world in peace. Instead it was used to cause the most horrible deaths and injuries in World War 1. Machine guns, flamethrowers, grenades, tanks and gas were used widely for the first time, causing horrific wounds.
The use of gas, at first chlorine, then, later, mustard gas, caused blindness and lung problems. Chlorine gas produced damage to the airways, producing choking but also caused coughing, which meant a lot was often coughed out. Armies realised that phosgene was more effective than chlorine; it was often used with chlorine and it usually killed within 48 hours. Mustard gas burned people's skin and also burned their lungs, mouth, throat and eyes. It was very, very painful and there was little the doctors or nurses could do for the victims, except watch helplessly as they died an agonising death. It could also pollute the battlefield: it was heavier than air and so settled in the ground, continuing to burn any people coming into contact with it for many weeks.
Shelling, Machine Guns and Grenades
The shells used burst into huge chunks, doing terrible damage to the human body, such as tearing off of limbs. Of the several types of shells, shrapnel shells caused the most wounds. Shrapnel shells were designed to burst in the air and throw out many round balls in all directions with the sole purpose of wounding people. Machine guns firing ammunition automatically at a rate of 200 to 250 shots per minute caused carnage, as soldiers went over the top of the trenches to attack enemy lines. Grenades caused a lot of carnage, as they were often thrown into dugouts and trenches, where they would explode amongst a lot of men in a very small space.
Trench Foot and Fever
The trenches themselves were dirty, cold and waterlogged and that caused problems like trench foot, in which the feet would gradually go numb and the skin would turn red or blue. If untreated, trench foot could turn gangrenous and result in the need for amputation. As well as rats, lice were a constant problem for the soldiers. They bred in the dirty clothes, and apart from making the people itch continuously, it was realised later in the war that they caused trench fever, a very painful disease that started suddenly with severe pain followed by high fever; it took up to 12 weeks to recover.
Social and Peer Pressure
As 1915 progressed the initial euphoria had faded; as casualties rose and rumours about the conditions circulated, military service was now seen as a duty. Enthusiasm was replaced by immense social and peer pressure. In many instances men who had not enlisted were called cowards for staying a home whilst other men were fighting and dying. A number received white feathers through the post (which were meant to be a symbol of cowardice).
The Effect of The Somme
One battle that had an enormous impact on morale was The Somme in France. For many men the first day of battle on The Somme would also be their last. The preceding artillery barrage had failed to destroy the heavily fortified German trenches. In many places the barbed wire defences were still in tact. The men were instructed to walk in formation towards German lines when the attack began. Because the soldiers could not get past the defences, it was like walking into a slaughterhouse. The battle on 1st July saw the Army's greatest single loss in its history. With 20,000 dead and 40,000 injured some battalions lost half their men.
The Use of Edith as a Heroine
Edith Cavell had never wanted to be a heroine. When the pastor referred to her in this way on the eve of her execution, she requested that she not be remembered like that but rather as a nurse who did her duty. However, after the battle of the Somme, at a time when recruitment was becoming more difficult, her execution was widely publicised in both Britain and North America by the British War Propaganda Bureau.
A Successful Campaign
The British propaganda campaign surrounding Edith Cavell, the nurse who cared for all injured regardless of nationality and who faced death so bravely, became one of the most effective of World War 1. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity. The account of her death was often little more than fiction. In some accounts she fainted because of her refusal to wear a blindfold in front of the firing squad and a German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver: a version not supported by eye witnesses.
The Outcome of Edith's Death
Citizens both in Britain and North America were outraged at her shooting. In the weeks following her death recruitment doubled in Britain and her death was also thought to be instrumental in the USA entering the war in the spring of 1917; other factors were the earlier sinking of the Lusitania, a British cruise/transport ship bound for Britain from New York, killing 1,195 people, including 128 Americans.
By early 1916 around two million men had enlisted voluntarily but the heavy death toll saw the need for more soldiers. Conscription was introduced in March 1916, when the British government passed the Military Service Act. Now all single men 18 to 41 years old were liable to be called up for military service unless they were widowed with children or ministers of a religion.
A Terrible Loss of Life
Throughout this terrible war, the casualties on both sides were immense. The fighting raged for four years until armistice was declared on 11th November 1918. By the end, more than 10 million soldiers were dead and more than 20 million were wounded. Edith had been right - the Red Cross and nurses had never been more needed.
The underground 'soldiers' in civilian clothes
The Belgian Underground Resistance of WW1 was concerned mainly with two tasks, escape and espionage (spying).
The Belgians were so horrified by the ultimatum issued by the Germans, by the violation of their neutrality, by the brutal and bloody treatment of captured Belgian soldiers, by the inhumane treatment of many of the townsfolk in the north along with the razing of their homes and buildings, that a lot of people, both informally and in more formal networks, took part in resistance movements.
Crossing the Border
Belgium has a long border with Holland (which had remained neutral: it did not afford the German Army access to where they wanted to go). It was a very dangerous business trying to cross the border; between 500 and 1,000 people are believed to have been killed along the border. In the beginning, many of the people trying to escape were Belgians wanting to join their exiled Army, which had units based in France; they would travel to Holland and from there to Britain and on into France.
Helping the Allied Soldiers
After the battle at Mons, which the German army won, in the confusion the wounded allied soldiers, separated from their regiments and cut off behind the German lines, hid in woodland and ditches. If picked up by the Germans they were shot or sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Germany. As war raged round them, some Belgian people began helping Allied soldiers separated from their units. Nuns and villagers hid soldiers in woods, deserted houses and barns: anywhere they might escape the German watchfulness. They created networks to provide the fugitives with food, money, civilian clothes and a guide to the border into Holland.
Setting up Networks
As the Germans moved more thickly into the countryside, the resistance workers needed to recruit more helpers to hide the escaping Allied soldiers in the towns and cities. As we know, Edith Cavell was recruited to one such underground movement, organised by the aristocratic Prince and Princess of Croy.
What Edith Did
At her establishment Edith sheltered British, French and Belgian soldiers, from where they were helped to escape to Holland. Edith provided refuge for soldiers in her school whilst they waited for the necessary documents and guide to get over the border. She also provided medical care for any who were wounded. Edith's network managed to help over 200 Allied soldiers to escape and, thereby, live to fight another day. Throughout Belgium, thousands were helped by other networks in similar ways.
The Fall of the Network
Large numbers of fugitive soldiers were crossing the Belgian border into Holland. The Germans were aware of this and it was only a matter of time before the escape routes were discovered. Edith's network lasted just a year before Germans raided the home of her colleague, Philippe Baucq, and arrested him. A search found documents implicating Edith. As a foreign national and because of her outspokenness, Edith had also attracted attention. On August 5th, Otto Mayer of the German Secret Police arrived at Edith's hospital. Edith was driven to police headquarters and questioned. Nothing of importance was found in the Institute except one tattered postcard from a British soldier.
The Charge of Treason
Edith's actions had placed her in violation of German military law. Edith was not charged with espionage but with treason, a strange charge for a foreign national with no allegience to Germany. The British government, at war with Germany, could do nothing to help her. Sir Horace Rowland of the Foreign Office said, "I am afraid that it is likely to go hard with Miss Cavell; I am afraid we are powerless." It was felt that interferance would do more harm than good.
Help from the US and Spain
The United States had not yet joined the war and was in a position to apply diplomatic pressure. Hugh S. Gibson, First Secretary of the US Legation at Brussels, made clear to the German government that executing Cavell would further harm Germany's already damaged reputation. The Spanish ambassador, the Marquis de Villalobar, also pleaded on her behalf. The German civil governor, Baron von der Lancken, is known to have stated that Edith should be pardoned because of her complete honesty and because she had helped to save so many lives. Nevertheless, the German military acted quickly to execute Edith. Of the 27 put on trial, Edith and four others were condemned to death.
The other Form of Resistance - Spying
The other task of resistance, espionage, also was generally the work of networks. Like those providing escape, the people who took part were also risking death if caught, but were equally determined to help the war effort in any way they could. There were rumours that Edith had also been involved in spying for the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). One well known spy was August Succaud, a Parisian, who worked in Bruges. He had smuggled in British and French papers from Holland but, more importantly, was accused of giving information about German military installations to a British connection. These installations were indeed shelled by the Allies from the sea. He was tried and shot in Bruges. Many more such retaliations were to follow.
The White Lady
In 1916, a year after Edith had been shot, a famous spy network was created in occupied Liege and was funded by the British War Office. It was called 'La Dame Blanche': The White Lady. It had up to a thousand participants, and furnished the Allied war effort with much important information about the occupying forces, their movements and their strength.
Like many of these networks, including Edith's, women made up a lot of the ‘workers'; apart from their abilities, women were more likely to be thought innocent by the occupying forces. The White Lady network had even organised a service that could be run entirely by the women, if the men were arrested. Most of these women were independent, slightly older and from 'respectable' backgrounds, ranging from the middle classes to the aristocracy.
Whole families would join these resistance networks and work alongside each other. They considered they were doing their bit and were soldiers without a uniform. Their work was certainly dangerous and very few networks lasted more than a year, many for much shorter times, before they were infiltrated. However, the work they did was crucial to the Allied effort and, without it, this destructive war may have continued for even more years.
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