“I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”
This statement has been uttered from the lips of countless heroes throughout history, heroes who realized that their fellow human beings had inherent dignity, and that this dignity translated into a corresponding responsibility to reach out to their neighbour whenever circumstances allowed it. Sometimes, the situation demanded that people rise above the circumstances. And sometimes, they did.
Edith Cavell was one such hero. She was born on December 4, 1865, in Swardeston, England to an Anglican pastor, Reverend Frederick Cavell. Her family was always rather poor, but in spite of this her parents taught Edith that there were always those who were less fortunate. The Cavell parents taught their children that it was their Christian duty to reach out to those people.
Edith Cavell knew from her youth that she wanted her life to mean something to other people. She reportedly wrote to a cousin that “Some day, somehow, I am going to do something useful. I don’t know what it will be. I only know that it will be something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt, and so unhappy.”
Edith took the lessons of her upbringing and decided to apply it to the profession of nursing. She became a nurse when she was only twenty years old, and was subsequently appointed the matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, Belgium in 1907. Edith, like trailblazing nurses of the past such as Florence Nightingale, worked hard to improve the standards in hospitals and modernize the profession of nursing to insure that the quality of care provided for patients was of maximum benefit. She started her own medical journal, and her expertise was soon in demand from other hospitals and educational institutions alike.
When World War I broke out across Europe in 1914, nurses with Cavell’s skills were in high demand. She joined the Red Cross, and her hospital, the Berkendael Medical Institute, was soon converted into a military hospital where the shattered and maimed soldiers of all nationalities were brought for treatment. Cavell worked diligently to save as many as she could—but soon her Brussels hospital was part of German occupied territory.
Edith Cavell now had a dilemma. She had never discriminated against any wounded soldier, Allied or German. She had always treated human life equally, and had certainly not considered herself a martyr or a hero. In her mind, she was simply following her duty as a nurse and as a Christian whose mandate it was to care for her neighbor. She had even instructed her nurses to tend to all wounded men, regardless of what nationality they were. However, the Germans had posted notices stating that any Allied soldiers who did not give themselves up would be shot. And these Allied soldiers, often wounded and starving, were coming to Edith’s hospital for assistance.
The first two soldiers were sent to Edith from a convent where they had been hiding. She did not turn them away. Neither did she turn away the almost two hundred more soldiers who came to her hospital while fleeing the Germans and attempting to escape to the neutral Netherlands. Instead, she hid them, tended their wounds, and fed them. Eventually, she even went as far as helping them procure money and false documents. Soldiers making it back to England told glowing stories of her courage.
However, the German military soon discovered her actions. She was arrested, and confessed to having hid Allied soldiers. She was sentenced to death. From her jail cell, she wrote to her nurses: “My dear sisters, it is a very sad moment for me now that I write to you to bid you farewell. When brighter days come, our work will resume its growth, and all its power for doing good.” To her friend Grace Jemmet, she wrote, “My dear girl, how shall I write to you this last day? Nothing matters when one comes to the last hour but a clear conscience.”
On October 12, 1915, she was led out of her cell to the shooting range. She was permitted to say a prayer, and then she was blindfolded, and shot to death by a firing squad. To the end, she had not a single regret for the actions that had led her to that moment.
Edith Cavell was willing to give her all to stand up for the principles she had been taught as a child: That no matter how difficult circumstances are, there are always those who suffer more. And it is the duty of each and every one of us to alleviate the suffering of those who are less privileged. As British Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote of her, “her patriotism was not the sole motivating factor in her actions. Her aim was to help people whose lives were in immediate danger. Edith Cavell’s duty was to humanity, and her legacy is its triumph.”
History tells us of heroes like Edith Cavell so that we, too, might look at humanity and ask ourselves what we can do for others. How we answer that question will define our legacy.