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Edith Cavell and her furry four-legged friends


The story of Nurse Edith Cavell is one that many people are familiar with from the First World War, especially as 2015 was the centenary of her execution. Her defiance of the German authorities, even after being sentenced to death, still stands as a testament to her courage and willingness to help the wounded, regardless of their nationality. Cavell was guilty of not only treating wounded Allied soldiers (British, French and Belgian) but also of aiding their escape into neutral Holland and, as the German authorities saw it, helping those men to return to their respective armies to possibly fight against the Germans. Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad in October 1915 in Belgium, along with several other conspirators.

Edith Cavell was born near Norwich, the daughter of a reverend. She trained as a nurse at The London Hospital in Whitechapel under Matron Eva Luckes (who has recently become a well-known figure since the Casualty 1900s TV series), who had been a friend of Florence Nightingale. Cavell was extremely successful in her chosen profession, becoming a pioneer of modern nursing in Belgium, and by the outbreak of war she was working with many hospitals and schools teaching nursing. When the First World War broke out she was visiting her mother in Norwich, but she returned to Brussels to her clinic, which was being used by the Red Cross.

Brussels was under German occupation from late August 1914, and at her clinic, Cavell began sheltering wounded and trapped British, Belgian and French soldiers as well as Belgian civilians of military age. Cavell formed only part of a circle of people who helped these men to gain false papers and escape to neutral Holland; her actions were in direct violation of German military law. She was betrayed and on 3 August 1915 she was arrested. There has been a lot of debate surrounding the legality of her execution and over which offense she was ultimately charged with. Nonetheless she was executed on 12 October 1915.

In Allied propaganda she was presented as a heroine. This helped fuel the idea of the ‘beastly Hun’ who (along with other atrocities, such as the burning of the Belgian village Louvain) had killed Edith Cavell, an English rose.

Before the start of the First World War, Edith was pictured in Belgium with her two dogs. After her execution, a notebook was found with her belongings at the hospital she worked in, in which she had written about the care of dogs. The original pages are held by the Imperial War Museum, but much of the information and also her drawings were published in 1934 in association with The National Canine Defence League (now Dog’s Trust) along with a biographical introduction by Rowland Johns, a well-known dog author of the period.

Johns tells the story of Cavell’s early life, nursing and capture. Even in the lead up to her trial and subsequent execution, Cavell enquired about her beloved dog, Jack, and asked the sister of the hospital to brush him every day. Cavell’s notebook describes how to care for dogs, and included ideas on kennels, bedding, food, water, exercise and grooming, as well as a lengthy piece on the watchdog. Charming drawings by Cavell also accompany the sections relating to kennels 

It appears that Edith Cavell had two dogs, Don and Jack. Don is believed to have passed away a few years before the war, but Jack outlived his mistress by many years. Jack’s life was fairly turbulent after her death, as those who worked in the hospital said he would howl after his mistress and was clearly missing her. His temperament was not very good during this time and he would sometimes bite nurses and other staff. After many changes in ownership and various new kennels, he finally found a home with the Dowager Duchess de Croÿ, whose family had taken part in hiding fugitives alongside Edith Cavell. There Jack lived for another seven years and enjoyed life with the other dogs. He is described as being of no breed, the size of a small shepherd’s dog with grey hair on his back, a lighter coloured chest and fawn legs. He was preserved after his death and is currently looked after by the Imperial War Museum.

Extract from A History of Britain in 100 Dogs by Emma White

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