The Passion of Edith Cavell

"The Passion of Edith Cavell" is a 14-panel installation of paintings by London-based artist Brian Whelan, commissioned by Norwich Cathedral in the UK, that tells the story of the World War I British heroine and nurse Edith Cavell (1865–1915); the full series will be on exhibit in St. John’s Chapel at Washington National Cathedral from July 24 through September 18. 


The paintings will then be shown briefly in Europe before coming to Norwich Cathedral for Easter 2015, to be displayed in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of her execution by firing squad in October 2015.  

So who was Edith Cavell ?

Edith was born to an English vicar. She found in high school a talent for the French language. In 1890, Edith left her homeland for Brussels where she became a governess to the adoring Francois family. Over the next five years, she became fluent in French. On a trip in Germany and developed a desire to be a nurse. In fact she nursed her father back to health.

During her time spent in Brussels, Cavell became a valued member of the Red Cross and five years later helped train other nurses to work in hospitals, schools and kindergartens across the country.

During WWI she encouraged other nurses to put the care of their patients first, regardless of the soldier’s nationality. In late 1914 a tunnell was dug under her nursing station to allow soldiers to escape to neutral Holland. Although Edith herself knew about the passage, she refused to inform other nurses of the escape route, fearing she would put their lives in jeopardy. By the summer of 1915, Edith was sure that the suspicions of the German authorities had been aroused after a Belgium collaborator passed through the tunnel, prompting her to sew her diary into a cushion.

Keen to incriminate Edith, the German authorities reportedly lied to the nurse, stating that her accomplices had confessed to building the underground passage and helping soldiers escape. Believing this to be true, Edith confessed her role within the scheme and was charged with harbouring Allied soldiers on the 5th August. The penalty was death, issued in light of the German Military Code: treason for helping the hostile power and conducting soldiers to the enemy.

Both Britain and America, not in the war at the time, attempted to intervene

The following is a selection of a letter from Brand Whitlock’s, American Minister to Belgium  Letter to Baron von der Lancken and German Military Governor Baron von Bissing: 

"Miss Cavell is the head of the Brussels Surgical Institute. She has spent her life in alleviating the sufferings of others, and her school has turned out many nurses who have watched at the bedside of the sick all the world over, in Germany as in Belgium. 

"At the beginning of the war Miss Cavell bestowed her care as freely on the German soldiers as on others. Even in default of all other reasons, her career as a servant of humanity is such as to inspire the greatest sympathy and to call for pardon. 

"If the information in my possession is correct, Miss Cavell, far from shielding herself, has, with commendable straightforwardness, admitted the truth of all the charges against her, and it is the very information which she herself has furnished, and which she alone was in a position to furnish, that has aggravated the severity of the sentence passed on her. 

"It is then with confidence, and in the hope of its favourable reception, that I beg your Excellency to submit to the Governor-General my request for pardon on Miss Cavell’s behalf."

The trial lasted only two days. Each person was accused of aiding the enemy and was told that, if found guilty, would be sentenced to death for treason. Edith’s lawyer was eloquent in her defense, saying that she had acted out of compassion for others. But Edith’s devotion to the truth condemned her she would not lie to save her life. She openly admitted that she had helped as many as 200 men to escape, whom she knew they could then be able to fight the Germans again, and that some of them had written letters of thanks for her help. This was enough to cause her to be judged guilty and the sentence to be executed. 

On 11 October the prison chaplain, the Rev. Gahan, visited Edith and found her resigned to her fate. She told him. "I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me."

After the two day trial she was executed. Her life and example has been celebrated since that time.

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