Monday, October 12, 2015

The brave Edith Cavell

Edith Cavell, a British war and nursing heroine, second only perhaps to Florence Nightingale, was executed 100 years ago today. She revolutionised the training of nurses in Belgium, but, when the Germans over-ran the country, she also played a very significant part in helping nearly 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers escape to Holland. She kept a detailed diary from the start of the war but then destroyed it for fear of incriminating herself and others. Nevertheless, a fragment - a page or two - survived by being sewn into a cushion!

Cavell was born near Norfolk in 1865, the eldest of four children in a religious family - her father was the local vicar. She was taught at home until her early teens, after which she went to a series schools, and then worked as a governess. She receive a small legacy, and was able to travel abroad. In 1889, she took a position in Brussels, and stayed until 1895. That year she returned home to look after her ill father, and decided to train as a nurse, first at Fountains Fever Hospital and then at London Hospital in 1896. She worked at other hospitals, including Shoreditch Infirmary (where she was matron) until 1906, when she took a trip to the Continent.

The following year Cavell moved back to Brussels to become director of a new kind of clinic and nurses’ training school - L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées. This was set up, and largely led, by Dr Antoine De Page at his Berkendael Institute. Having been impressed by the training of British nurses and the care of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean and Balkan wars, he was keen on similar methods in Belgium, and, in particular, diminishing the influence of religious orders on the care of the sick. Although Cavell struggled to recruit laywomen, and convince them that nursing was a respectable profession that needed professional training, her reputation, and that of the school, soon spread. By 1912, plans were being drawn up for a new building, but construction was halted in 1914 by the German occupation.

Though her clinic remained open, Clavell also used it to shelter British, French and Belgian soldiers, and thus help them escape to the neutral Netherlands. The escape network involved Prince Reginald de Croy’s château of Bellignies near Mons, and used guides organised by Philippe Baucq. She, and others, were arrested by the Germans in August 1915, and held in Saint-Gilles prison. She confessed her part in helping nearly 200 soldiers escape, was sentenced to death for treasonous acts, and executed, alongside Baucq, by firing squad on 12 October. Internationally, her execution caused widespread outrage.

Subsequently, Cavell’s life and death received huge amounts of publicity: she became an icon for military recruitment in Britain, and her death was considered an example of German barbarism and moral depravity. Many memorials were constructed, around the world in fact, to commemorate her life, the most famous of which is the sculpture by George Frampton near Trafalgar Square (see also London Cross, my online book of a walk across London). Further information about Cavell can be found at Wikipedia, Belgian Edith Cavell Commemoration Group’s website, or the website based on a booklet written by Rev Phillip McFadyen. In addition, there are several early biographies, now out of copyright, which can be found at Internet Archive.

There seems to be no evidence that Cavell kept a diary through her life, however, she did start one during the war. Diana Souhami, in her biography - Edith Cavell (Quercus, 2010) - states that as early as August 1914, Cavell wrote to her mother to say she was keeping a war diary. However, as the net closed around her and her fellow workers, she burned all evidence that might incriminate or endanger. ‘All that survived of her diary,’ Souhami goes on to say, ‘was a fragment for a few days in April 1915. It was sewn into a cushion. Perhaps she hid it there and had left more of it, never recovered, in other secret places. Perhaps it was all that escaped the burning, and a nurse - Sister Wilkins was keen at sewing - stitched it into a cushion. After the war Edith’s sister Lillian took the cushion as a keepsake. Thirty years later she gave it to her housekeeper, Mrs Mead, whose husband wondered at its lumpiness. They opened it, and found the diary fragment. It was for two days in April 1915. It showed what a detailed record Edith Cavell must have kept of her work, and how wide was the network of resistance.’ (In commemoration of the anniversary of her death, Quercus has brought out a centenary edition of Souhami’s biography - it can previewed at Amazon).

Here are extracts from those diary fragments (incidentally, held by 
the Imperial War Museum) as reproduced in Souhami’s book.

‘People are wonderfully generous with their loyal help - I went to a new house & there secure the services of a man who comes up to take our guests to safe houses where they can abide till it is time for departure. A little widow with a big house gives shelter to some & does all the work without a servant, waiting on and cooking for them with the best courage & good will in the world’

27 April 1915
‘Yesterday a letter from Monsieur Capiau who has gone to Germany voluntarily to inquire at Essen! with some other Belgian engineers. The letter came thro a young Frenchman who with 7 others had come from N. France to escape and hopes to get over the Dutch frontier in a day or two. The frontier has been absolutely impassable the last few days. Germany and Holland have been on the verge of war over the sinking of the Catwyk. The Dutch refused to allow anyone to cross and had massed their troops & laid mines all along from Maastricht to Antwerp. A sentinel on the Dutch side was posted very 15 metres & all the young men who had left to try & cross were stuck or came back - 5 of ours were heard of at Herrenthall yesterday & the guide left to bring them back.’

[Cavell gives a description of one of her guides and carriers of information - a boy, as she called him, of 23, Charles Vanderlinden, one of a family of nine brothers, ‘all strong and fighters’.] ‘This fellow is a fine type - about 5ft 6 or 7, slightly made but very strong and muscular. He amused himself when small with boxing a great sack of sand or corn which swung forward and butted him in the face if he failed to hit in the right place. He afterwards got some lessons in boxing & obliged me with a description of the right way to catch a man’s head under the arm & ‘crack’ his neck or to give him a back-handed blow and destroy the trachea or larynx. He is also a poacher in time of peace & sets lassoes in rows so that hares racing to their feeding grounds are bound to be caught in one of them. [. . .] He will be caught one day & if so will be shot but he will make a first class bid for freedom.’

Katie Pickles, also refers to the diary fragments in her biography, Transnational Outrage (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and provides one quotation, as follows.

31 April 1915
‘Friday glorious and warm. E: wind. 2 guides left this morning. Charles Vanderlinden with 3 Fx and 2 Be. (1F Cw!). Last two paying 60 frs each. Charles says he will take them if it becomes easier.’

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