The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Cavell, Edith

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CAVELL, Edith, an English nurse: b. Norfolk 1872; executed in Brussels during the German occupation of Belgium on 12 Oct. 1915. She was the daughter of a clergyman; entered London Hospital for training as nurse, 1896; invited to Belgium in 1900 by Dr. Depage, a distinguished medical man who had established a training school for Belgian nurses in a suburb of Brussels, and desired to modernize the nursing system of the country. Belgian nurses up to that time had been recruited chiefly from the ranks of nuns and domestic servants — the former attending mainly to Catholics and the latter to non-Catholic patients. Miss Cavell accepted the invitation and threw herself whole-heartedly into the task. In 1906 she became head of the institution, from which developed a large nursing organization throughout Belgium. At the outbreak of the European War in 1914, she was in England on a visit, but returned at once to Belgium and converted her institute into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Dr. Depage was called into military service and placed in charge of another Belgian hospital, while Miss Cavell continued her work in Brussels. During the German occupation of the city — from 20 Aug. 1914 — she was permitted to remain in control of the hospital. For the first year of the war she nursed without discrimination Belgians, French, British and Germans. During this time, with the aid of friends in Brussels, she was instrumental in conveying many of the wounded Allied soldiers — upon their recovery — across the frontier into Holland, whence they were able to rejoin their armies. She also assisted Belgians of military age to escape capture by the Germans. Her activities were discovered by the German authorities through the agency of a Belgian traitor (who was found murdered in the street nearly a year later), and on 5 Aug. 1915 she was arrested and lodged in the military prison of Saint Gilles. She was kept in solitary confinement for three weeks before the fact of her arrest became known. At the request of the British government the American Minister at Brussels, Mr. Brand Whitlock, took up the case and addressed an inquiry (31 Aug. 1915) to Baron von der Lancken, the chief of the political department of the German military government in Belgium. No reply being forthcoming for 10 days, Mr. Whitlock wrote again and was informed (12 September) that Miss Cavell's defense was in the hands of a Belgian advocate, and that no interview could be permitted. The legal adviser to the American legation, M. de Leval, then endeavored to communicate with the prisoner and her alleged advocates, but in vain. On 4 October he was informed that the trial would be held on the 7th — nine weeks after the arrest. The defence was kept in the dark as regards documentary evidence in possession of the prosecution. By frankly admitting the charge brought against her, Miss Cavell had given the prosecution evidence that would otherwise have been unobtainable. According to the German Military Code the offense was treason and punishable by death. The trial ended on the following day (8 October) and judgment was reserved. The officials of the American legation made the most strenuous efforts to obtain information regarding Miss Cavell's fate; at 6.20 P.M. on the 11th, Mr. Hugh Gibson, the secretary, was officially informed that the decision had not yet been given. At 8 P.M. M. de Leval heard by accident that sentence of death had been passed at 5 P.M., and that Miss Cavell was to be shot at 2 in the following morning. Mr. Brand Whitlock was ill in bed at the time, but he wrote a personal letter to von Bissing, the military governor, while Mr. Gibson, M. de Leval and the Spanish Ambassador formed a deputation of appeal for mercy or at least postponement of sentence. They were dismissed about midnight and two hours later Edith Cavell fearlessly faced the firing squad. During an interview with a British chaplain she remarked, “I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.” Consult Gibson, H., ‘A Journal from our Legation in Belgium’ (New York 1917).

Henri F. Klein.