ANAVETS Shoulder to Shoulder

March 2017

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SHOULDER TO SHOULDER 27 when the infamy of the deed had spread around the world, some of the riflemen claimed that they had deliberately fired wide. Edith Cavell was born in 1865 in the village of Swardeston in Norfolk where her father was the Vicar. His wife schooled Edith, her brother and two sisters at home. Edith excelled at sketching wildflowers and at sixteen moved on to Norwich High School and then to Laurel Court in Peterborough, where, while still receiving lessons herself, she taught the younger children. After completing her own formal education she worked as a governess in Essex and Norfolk, finally taking up a post with the Francois family in Belgium, where she stayed for five years. In 1895 she returned home to help nurse her seriously ill father back to health. And it was this success that inspired her to become a professional nurse. In 1896 she was accepted into training at the London Hospital in the East End of London, where conditions were less than ideal, many of the patients being elderly, frail and poor. But the harsh conditions and pitiful suffering she encountered there did not deter her. The next year she was one of six nurses chosen to travel to Maidstone in Kent to fight a serious outbreak of typhoid fever. After working day and night for three months she was given a medal. The year after that she received her hospital certificate. And now fully-qualified she accepted several different nursing positions, but never found one that satisfied her ambitions, till in 1907, Dr. Antoine Depage, hearing of her from the Francois family and knowing of her command of the French language, offered her the post of Matron of Belgium's first nurse-training school in Brussels. She happily accepted and travelled to Belgium that August. But in Brussels she was soon disappointed by the unprofessional standards, nurses in Belgium being up to that time largely untrained and not respected in good society. Dr. Depage, however had been inspired by the standard he'd seen in England and wanted to establish a prestigious centre of learning in Belgium. Almost singlehandedly Edith achieved just that, in Brussels. She was a stern and correct teacher but loved her nurses and procedures, setting very high standards, working hard herself with an unbending sense of dedication and duty and though thought by some nurses to be a solitary and lonely cold fish, they found her to be fiercely loyal and protective to them in times of difficulty. Her unstinting drive and exemplary achievements brought respect, even admiration, for nursing in Belgium in just a few years. By 1912 the school had graduated sixty nurses and money was being raised to build and equip a new teaching facility to continue and expand the work. Unfortunately Edith was not to see this accomplished. In 1914 she went home to visit her mother, now living in Norwich. It was while living in Norfolk that she heard of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. And on the second of August the German army marched into Belgium. Edith dashed back to Brussels, certain there would be much for her and her nurses to do. On 20 August the Germans entered Brussels and then the fighting moved further south and life at the clinic stayed normal, except very busy. On 1 November 1914 three men appeared at the clinic to speak to Edith. One left while the other two, members of the Cheshire Regiment, stayed. Edith had to make a snap decision: whether to send them away to almost certain capture and perhaps death, or to risk helping them and incurring the risk of death herself. Her decision, to help them, led to her involvement with the Resistence Movement. No one knows definitely how many British soldiers she helped to escape. One source claims it was 400 or more. Edith showed great courage and stayed calm throughout.Thus whatever the actual number might have been her risky activities right under the noses of the Germans, called for serenity of mind and a dogged determination to triumph at whatever she did. And she was sure she was always right. The secret work involved hiding and guiding soldiers, making false passports and smuggling maps and plans, all the time earning for herself a violent death if she were caught. For the Germans had announced that any British soldiers caught escaping and those helping them would be shot.

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