When World War I erupted in August 1914, Edith Cavell was in her seventh year as the head matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute, a nurse training school in Brussels, Belgium. The grey-haired nurse was visiting family in England on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, but she immediately packed her bags and rushed back to her students. “At a time like this I am more needed than ever,” she told her worried mother. Cavell’s school was converted into a Red Cross hospital, and as the wounded began pouring in from the front, she treated all soldiers regardless of nationality. “Each man is a father, husband or son,” she reminded her nurses. “The profession of nursing knows no frontiers.”
Brussels fell to the Germans in late August, but the stern-faced Cavell ignored a call to return to England and remained at her post. That same month, the 150,000-strong British Expeditionary Force retreated from Belgium following the Battle of Mons, leaving scores of wounded Englishmen stranded behind enemy lines. Many were reduced to hiding out in the countryside to avoid being captured or shot as spies. Some even donned disguises or pretended to be deaf-mutes to cover up their nationality.
Cavell knew the penalties for helping Allied troops could be severe—the Germans had papered Brussels with warning posters—but when a pair of refugee British soldiers showed up at Berkendael in November 1914, her conscience wouldn’t allow her to turn them away. She took the two men in, nursed them back to health and sheltered them in her hospital until a guide was found to lead them out of occupied territory. The act of defiance marked the beginning of Cavell’s transformation from strait-laced nurse to resistance member. When word of her actions reached Prince Reginald de Croy, himself a resistance member and cousin of the Belgian king, she was enlisted into a clandestine group of Allied patriots. Her hospital soon became a vital way station on an underground network used to shepherd British, French and Belgian soldiers to the neutral Netherlands. Cavell carried out her role in secret, determined not to incriminate her fellow nurses.
As the months passed, the stoic matron became adept in the cloak and dagger tactics needed to avoid detection by the German secret police. Most of the men she sheltered were signed in as fake patients and provided with phony identity cards. If the Germans arrived to conduct inspections of her hospital, she would usher the soldiers out the back door or cover them up in sickbeds. During one surprise search, Cavell hid a British private in a barrel and covered him with apples. When the time came to hand her refugees over to their border guides, she would personally lead them to the drop-off point by pretending to take her dog on a walk through the city—all the while watching for spies in the reflections of shop windows. Her soldiers would trail behind at a safe distance, often disguised as beggars or even monks.
Despite Cavell’s precautions, her British nationality made her an obvious target for the Germans. By the summer of 1915, she began to notice suspicious men conducting surveillance on Berkendael, and searches by the secret police became more frequent. Even more troubling were the potential spies who started showing up at her door posing as Allied troops. Most were turned away for not knowing the password (“yorc”), yet unbeknownst to Cavell, a French collaborator got through and began funneling information to the Germans.
It was clear that the enemy was closing in, but rather than flee the country, Cavell stayed put and continued aiding Allied soldiers as best she could. “We shall be punished in any case, whether we have done much or little,” she told her accomplices. “So let us go ahead and save as many as possible of these unfortunate men.” She managed to assist several more refugees before August 5, when she was finally arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Brussels’ St. Gilles prison. The German secret police also rounded up dozens of other members of the escape organization, including many of Cavell’s closest allies. Nearly all of them were charged with “conducting soldiers to the enemy”—an offense that carried the death penalty under German martial law.
Cavell had told countless lies to protect her soldiers from being discovered, but when it came to her own fate she adopted a policy of unflinching honesty. During a group trial in October 1915, she admitted to her role in the resistance ring, and estimated that she had assisted as many as 200 soldiers in their escape from occupied Belgium. “My aim was not to help your enemy but to help those men who asked for my help to reach the frontier,” she said during her testimony. “Once across the frontier they were free.” The argument fell on deaf ears. When the Germans issued their verdict, Cavell and four others were found guilty of aiding the Allies and sentenced to death. Diplomats from the neutral United States and Spain immediately scrambled to win her a stay of execution, to no avail. Brussels’ German governor ordered that Cavell and a fellow resistance member named Philippe Baucq would face the firing squad on the morning of October 12.
Cavell spent the night before her execution writing goodbye letters in her cell. Shortly before 10 p.m. she was visited by the Reverend Stirling Gahan, who was astonished to find her looking “calm and resigned.” Cavell told Gahan that she hoped to be remembered as a nurse who had done her duty. “They have all been very kind to me here,” she said. “But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
The following morning, Cavell and Baucq were driven to a rifle range and shot by a German firing squad. A chaplain who witnessed the execution later said the nurse “was brave and bright to the last. She professed her Christian faith and that she was glad to die for her country. She died like a heroine.”
The Germans had intended for Cavell’s execution to deter others from aiding the enemy, but it proved to be a massive misstep. The British press condemned the killing as an act of barbarism and held Cavell up as a martyr to the Allied cause. “Let Cavell be the battle cry,” wrote one newspaper. Seizing on the public outrage, the British government issued reams of propaganda incorporating her story. Cavell’s name and picture were used to win other nations over to the Allied cause, sell war bonds and convince young men to enlist. By all accounts, the media blitz worked. Anti-German sentiment soared to new heights in the neutral United States, and in the eight weeks after Cavell’s death was made public, the British army experienced an astonishing 50 percent spike in new recruits. “Emperor Wilhelm would have done better to lose an entire army corps than to butcher Miss Cavell,” novelist Rider Haggard observed.
Tributes to Edith Cavell’s heroism continued after World War I came to a close. In 1919, her body was exhumed and returned to England. Before it was reburied at Norwich Cathedral, it made a brief stopover in London, where thousands attended a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. A statue of Cavell was later unveiled near Trafalgar Square in 1920, and dozens of landmarks have since been named after her including streets, hospitals, schools and even a mountain in Canada. The most recent tribute came earlier this year, when the U.K.’s Royal Mint struck a special five pound coin to honor the centennial of her death.