Final Days of English Nurse Edith Cavell

About the final days of English nurse Edith Cavell, biography and history.


EDITH CAVELL, English nurse

Died: Tir National, Brussels, Oct. 12, 1915, shortly after 6:00 A.M.

Ten weeks after her arrest for using her Brussels clinic to help about 200 Allied soldiers escape German-occupied Belgium, 49-year-old Edith Cavell heard her death sentence pronounced on the afternoon of Oct. 11. "How long will they give me?" the diminutive nurse asked German Lutheran prison chaplain Paul le Seur in St. Gilles Prison. "Unfortunately only until the morning," he replied. Urged to appeal for mercy, she placidly answered, "No, I am English. It is useless. They want my life." The extremely harsh penalty for her readily confessed "treason" was, however, kept secret from all outside the prison, and Allied diplomatic officials who had followed the trial proceedings met with repeated German denials that the sentence had been handed down. Her own Anglican pastor in Brussels, Stirling Gahan, arrived at 8:30 P.M. and found the prisoner "her bright, gentle, cheerful self, as always, quietly smiling, calm and collected." Cavell told him that the sentence was what she had expected under the circumstances, and that she was grateful for the weeks of rest that her imprisonment had provided. "I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me . . . in view of God and Eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough," said this daughter of a country vicar. She then added, "I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." After taking communion in her cell, she softly repeated with Pastor Gahan the words of "Abide with Me." Word of her impending death leaked out on the eve of the execution.

A concerted diplomatic effort to secure a reprieve--involving American ambassador Brand Whitlock, Spanish ambassador Marquis de Villalobar, and others--continued unavailing into the night. Prime responsibility for the execution lay with German military governor General von Sauberzweig, who angrily dismissed all frantic appeals for clemency. By midnight it was evident that all hope was lost. The prisoner in cell 23 wrote last letters to her nursing staff, friends, and her mother in England. Her last visitor that night was probably a friend, Ada Bodart, who had bribed a guard with 10 francs for a few minutes of farewell. At about 6:00 A.M. an army car carried Cavell and Brussels architect Philippe Baucq, also condemned for aiding the enemy, to the Tir National, the Brussels rifle range. The officer commanding the two eight-man firing squads reassured his men that they need not hesitate to shoot a woman whose crimes had been so heinous. "I am glad to die for my country," she told Pastor le Seur, who led her to the execution post, where her tear-filled eyes were bandaged. From six paces, the shots rang out on command, and Edith Cavell sank to the ground, made several reflex movements as if to rise, then lay bloody and still. Her execution, a gratuitous act of hatred toward England, raised an Allied furor and greatly increased English enlistment rates.

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