Remembering wartime heroine Edith Cavell 100 years after her death

A CENTURY after an execution that shocked Britain and her allies, a relative of the nurse shot by a German firing squad is to talk at rare screening of a silent film about her story.

Princess Anne Belgium's Princess Astrid, right, unveil a bust of nurse Edith Cavell during a commemoration service in Brussels. Later this month a relative of Cavell's is to speak at an event in Leeds.
Princess Anne Belgium's Princess Astrid, right, unveil a bust of nurse Edith Cavell during a commemoration service in Brussels. Later this month a relative of Cavell's is to speak at an event in Leeds.

British nurse Edith Cavell was court-martialled and executed in German-occupied Brussels on 12 October 1915 after aiding the escape of hundreds of Allied soldiers.

Her death provoked international outrage and seriously damaged Germany’s reputation in neutral countries.

Today a wreath has been laid in her old parish to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her death.

And in Belgium the Princess Royal has unveiled a bust of Cavell, in Brussels, close to a hospital which bears her name

Nurse Edith Cavell was shot at dawn a century ago today for helping British soldiers escape occupied Belgium during World War One.

Cavell, aged 49 when she was executed, worked for a time in Manchester and today the Royal College of Nursing’s history society held a memorial event to mark her death.

Later this month Leeds will host its own tribute.

Dr Emma Cavell, who until 2013 was a medieval historian based at Leeds University, will return to the city later this month to speak at Edith Cavell in the Cinema, a series of short talks and screening of Dawn, the 1928 film about Nurse Cavell that raised diplomatic tensions between Britain and Weimar Germany.

Dr Cavell, who now works at Swansea University, will speak about her family and the enduring legacy of her famous relative.

She said: “I’m very proud that Edith’s bravery and courage is being recognised across the world at this time and am pleased to be returning to Leeds to talk about her life.

“I am also looking forward to a rare chance to see Dawn on the big screen.

“My branch of the family is descended from Edith’s uncle, George Cavell. We have been in Australia since at least Nurse Cavell’s time but, growing up, we have always known about her.

“My grandfather used to talk about her all the time and had memories of a postcard from Edith to his father, my great grandfather, in Australia.”

The event, organised by the University’s Legacies of War centenary project and supported by the Gateways to the First World War public engagement centre, takes place at Hyde Park Picture House at 3pm on Saturday October 24.

Other speakers at the event are Professor Alison Fell, who leads Legacies of War and will talk about the nurse’s role in the resistance networks that sprang up in occupied France and Belgium, while colleague Dr Claudia Sternberg will describe the Cavell story in popular culture and provide background to the film and how it was received.

Musician Darius Battiwalla, an alumnus of Leeds University’s School of Music, will accompany Dawn, a silent film, and talk about musical improvisation and silent film – one of his areas of expertise.

Dr Sternberg, who leads Legacies of War’s Culture and Arts strand, said: “The Cavell case featured in a number of films between 1915 and 1939, but Dawn is the most remarkable. The film emphasised that the conditions of war determined people’s actions, and Sybil Thorndike’s performance as Cavell moved away from earlier clichés. As critics observed at the time, it was ironic that this production triggered diplomatic discord and the threat of censorship. Ollie Jenkins, Hyde Park Picture House’s administrator, said: “We’re delighted to be hosting this event, which brings together film, history and music in a truly unique and wonderful way.

“The archive 35mm print we’ll be projecting is one of very few remaining today, and we can’t wait to see it brought to life by Darius’ piano accompaniment, as well as the wealth of knowledge that all of the speakers will bring to it.”

Today marks 100 years since her death and has seen a series of events held to mark the occasion.

The Princess Royal unveiled a contemporary bust of the British nurse in Montjoie park in the Brussels suburb of Uccle.

Anne and her husband Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence attended the ceremony, joined by Belgium’s Princess Astrid, with the two royal women unveiling the artwork designed by Belgian sculptor Natalie Lambert.

Before the war Cavell worked with Belgian doctor Antoine Depage to establish the first nursing school in Belgium and she was instrumental in modernising the nursing profession in the country.

In England Rev Canon Andy Salmon spoke at the brief commemoration at the war memorial outside Sacred Trinity Church in Salford, repeating some of the last words Cavell said before her execution: “I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often it is not strange or fearful to me.”

A two-minute silence was held before Professor Christine Hallett spoke about Cavell’s life and legacy as a nurse and humanitarian, at the event attended by local schoolchildren and civic dignitaries.

David Winston, parishioner at the church, said: “I thought it was a very fitting memorial to Edith. She was a woman of incredible courage and great humility and those two things are always worth thinking about.”

Cavell was training nurses in Brussels when war broke out, then worked for the Red Cross treating injured British and German soldiers in Belgium, after it was occupied by the Germans.

But the vicar’s daughter from Swardeston, Norfolk, became a resistance worker.

Instead of handing over British soldiers to the Germans when they were better, she became part of a secret network helping at least 200 soldiers escape to neutral Holland.

German spies uncovered her activities and she was arrested and imprisoned.

After a trial for treason she was summarily executed, learning of her fate only the day before without time to mount any appeal.

She was taken from her cell at 7am on October 12 1915, tied to a post, blindfolded and shot by a German firing squad.

Her last words were: “I die for God and my country.”

But her execution caused worldwide revulsion, handing the British a propaganda coup, doubling the numbers of men joining up to 10,000 a week and precipitating the US’s involvement in the war.

Cavell was given a state funeral, a statue of her erected close to Trafalgar Square and her remains were buried at Norwich Cathedral.

Commemoration of centenary events of the 1914 to 1918 conflict has revived the memory of her life with the Royal Mint issuing a commemorative £5 coin.

Mr Winston added: “I think its fair to say she was forgotten for a while. I think people have become more aware and I hope she becomes more widely known. She is a heroine.”