The nursing profession was only a generation or two old when the First World War broke out. Until then nursing was dominated by nuns, who had little training, or by ‘dressers’ who often had no training. Britain led the way in proper training for nurses, and for many women nursing was their first taste of women’s liberation. Edith Cavell became part of an international movement to improve the standards of nursing when she was recruited as matron of a nursing school at Ixelles in Brussels in 1907 - the same year that the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was founded in Britain.
After 1914 there was a rapid increase in the demand for nurses, with the British and French Red Cross leading the way. But there were many other nursing movements including the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), which Mary Lindell joined. The age limit for service overseas was 23 years, but Mary wanted to do more and by going to France she was able to join the Société de Secours aux Blessés Militaires when only aged 19. Before she was 23, Mary was practising as an anaesthetist in a French field hospital close to the front line. She was in northern France when she heard of the murder of Edith Cavell.
At the start of the war, Edith had nursed Allied wounded, but when Belgium was overrun by the Germans she nursed Germans too. In defiance of German martial law, Edith began to shelter wounded British and French soldiers who had evaded capture, and young Belgians of military age. She joined the Belgian Resistance and helped these men escape into neutral Holland. Edith was arrested in August 1915 and, within a very short space of time, was court martialed and sentenced to death. Despite an international outcry which included strong representations by the neutral US government, she was executed by firing squad on 12 October 1915. One newspaper, describing it as ‘foul murder’, said, ‘the hearts of the nation will be stirred to the depths at this brave woman’s martyrdom at the hands of the arch-Hun who has fouled Europe with blood’. The same newspaper recorded that ‘a service at St Paul’s cathedral in memory of the martyred nurse Edith Cavell was one of the most striking and impressive tributes that the nation has ever paid within the walls of the national sanctuary’.
The death of a woman under such circumstances caused a wave of revulsion throughout the civilised world. Besides the memorial service in St Paul’s, Edith Cavell was the first female commoner to be given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, an honour she shares with Princess Diana and ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The bodies of Edith Cavell, Captain Charles Fryatt and of the Unknown Warrior, were each brought to London in the same railway van, No. 132, which is now preserved by the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
There are dozens of memorials to Edith Cavell - in Belgium, in France and throughout the English-speaking world including hospitals and schools and there is even a mountain named after her! Edith's life is also celebrated in music, from a Catholic mass to recent folk music. The Church of England, which does not make saints, created the unusual honour of an Edith Cavell Day, 12 October, which she shares with the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry (d. 1845) and the missionary Bishop Wilfrid of Ripon (d. 709).
A short Belgian film of her funeral in 1915 achieved worldwide distribution, and a silent movie was made in Australia in 1916 about her. The Woman the Germans Shot was a 1918 American silent movie based on the life and career of Nurse Edith Cavell.
Herbert Wilcox made two films about Edith Cavell. The first was Dawn, a 1928 silent movie which starred one of the leading actresses of her day, Sybil Thorndike, as Edith. It became one of the most controversial British films of the 1920s: pressure was exerted by the German ambassador in London and the British Foreign Secretary to prevent the film being passed for exhibition and it was censored because of its ‘brutal depiction’ of warfare and anti-German sentiments.
Wilcox returned to the subject in 1939, this time in a ‘talkie’, Nurse Edith Cavell, with the beautiful Anna Neagle as the protagonist and made in association with RKO Radio Pictures in the USA. This highly-acclaimed film was nominated at the 1939 Oscars for Best Original Score, and its release in America and in Europe on the eve of the Second War World had a significant impact on audiences.
In October 1940, two stragglers from the British army’s defeat at St Valery-en-Caux in Normandy reached Paris. They were Captain D. B. Lang, Adjutant 4th Battalion, Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, 51st (Highland) Division and Second Lieutenant John Buckingham. They sought help at the American embassy but were told that they ‘could no longer help us, financially or otherwise. The Germans were tightening things up and they [the Americans] dare not run any risks’. Lang went away ‘almost in despair … but returned the next day in the hopes of something’. Lang was lucky and he was introduced to Kitty Bonnefous, who, along with Etta Shiber was running an escape-line and who he reported ‘was very willing to help us, she was another Edith Cavell who would stop at nothing to help the British reach unoccupied France’.
Mary-Helen Young trained as a nurse in London and worked in a hospital in France during the First World War. She became a private nurse and was in Paris when the Germans took the city. As a Briton, she was interned during the general round-up of aliens in 1940 but released about six months later, presumably on grounds of her age (she was nearly 60). In the interwar years, Mary-Helen had visited her hometown in Scotland, the last time being for three months in 1938, and now she had an opportunity to leave France altogether. However, for whatever reason, she never applied for the necessary exit papers. She did send cryptic postcards to her sister in Scotland. One dated November 1943 simply read, ‘From Marie-Hélène who is well and sends her love’. This card was probably sent when she was already under arrest for a second time, accused of helping downed airman to evade capture by the Germans. Mary-Helen died in the notorious Jugendlager at Ravensbrück sometime in early 1945. After the Second World War the Aberdeen Press and Journal learned that Mary-Helen had ‘died as she lived, a brave Scotswoman’. The newspaper proudly acclaimed her as Scotland’s very own Edith Cavell - ‘Right up to the very end nothing could break her. She would smile, even in this hell that the Germans had made for us, she was a brave woman, the bravest of the brave’.
Edith’s hospital in Brussels had been overrun by the Germans in the First World War, when Mary was a 20-year old nurse at a French Red Cross hospital in northern France. Mary’s Paris fell under German occupation in 1940 when Mary was nearly the same age as Edith had been when she was executed. Mary – whose girlhood memory of Edith’s martyrdom was reinforced by the release of Wilcox’s 1939 film – frequently summoned the image of the martyred nurse. When setting up her escape-line Mary claimed: ‘What gave me the idea that something was to be done was what Edith Cavell had done in the last war, was necessary and had to be done in this war. Who? There was nobody in Paris, or nobody who could do it, so I said there you are, darling, you are to do it’.
By Peter Hore