Edith Cavell: Resistance Fighter Nurse
By Marylou Morano Kjelle
Edith Cavell was born on December 4, 1865 in Swardeston, England. She was the daughter of a stern clergyman, the Rev. Frederick Cavell and a loving mother, Lousia. As a child she showed an artistic ability to draw plants, birds and animals. After working as a governess for over 10 years, Edith entered nursing school at age 30. In England in the late 1800’s, nursing was not considered a respectable profession, and a woman who pursued a nursing career was, in essence, giving up any chance of being married.
Edith studied nursing at the London Fever Hospital. Her first assignment was at a charity hospital that cared for any patient who came to the door. Soon she was visiting patients in their homes. Horrified by the overcrowded and unhealthy conditions and the number of ill and undernourished children, Edith began using her time off to teach mothers how to keep their children and homes clean and how to cook nourishing food for their families. She approached the wealthy of London for donations to send slum children to the seashore or county to get fresh air. When contributions didn’t equal the amount needed, Edith paid for as many children as she could out of her own money.
Because of the negative view of nursing at the turn of the century, there were few schools where a woman could learn to be a good nurse. Some European countries had none – Belgium was one of them. News of Edith’s extraordinary nursing capability and her sense of compassion led to a position as a teacher and administrator of a newly formed nursing school clinic called l’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees in Brussels. The year was 1907 and Edith was 42 years old.
As director of nursing at l’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees, Edith developed a five-year diploma curriculum for nurses. Her first nursing class had four students and the second, seven. As word Edith’s excellent nursing school spread, hospitals from other countries began requesting Edith’s well-trained nurses. Before long, Edith was running l’Ecole Belge d’ Infirmieres Diplomees, as well as a new hospital, St. Gilles, and at the same time training women for private duty nursing
As World War I raged around Belgium, German troops, at war with France, used a “shortcut” through Belgium to meet the enemy. Soon the entire country of Belgium had fallen to the Germans. Edith and her nurses were offered safe passage to Holland, which they refused. Some joined the Red Cross in France, but Edith remained in Belgium. When her nurses refused to care for hospitalized Germans, Edith set an example of caring for all sick, regardless of nationality.
According to German decree, as soon as a Belgian soldier recovered, he was to immediately report to police headquarters. The men who did so were never seen or heard from again. Edith began informing her recovered patients that they were required to report to police headquarters, but at the same time she also provided an alternative location for them to go, letting the men choose for themselves whether they would report to the Germans or take a chance at safety. Edith became part of an underground resistance network working in Brussels to help men escape. She protected hospitalized men by keeping them longer than they needed. When there were no beds available, Edith sheltered men in the hospital’s attic and cellar. In this way, she helped approximately 200 men escape the Germans.
On August 4, 1915, after months of observation, the Germans arrested Edith and others sheltering Belgian soldiers. On October 7, 1915, Edith Cavell, along with others in the underground network were found guilty of resistance activities and sentenced to death by firing squad. Despite American, French and Spanish intercession, Edith’s sentence was not commuted. On October 12, 1915, Edith was executed by German firing squad. After World War I, her body was brought home to England. In Brussels, Belgium. the Edith lavell-Marcel De Page Institute is named in her honor.
Marylou Morano Kjelle is a freelance writer who lives and works in Central New Jersey. She is the author of “Handmaid of the Lord: Prayers for Newly Single Christian Mothers”