Britain’s Second Most Famous Nurse

Susan Pedersen

  • Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami
    Quercus, 417 pp, £25.00, September 2010, ISBN 978 1 84916 359 0

Nurses are tough subjects for biography. Their ethos of compassion and, sometimes, self-sacrifice can lead to hagiography or – when times change – invite satire. It’s hard to forget Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale, her health broken by her exertions in the Crimea, issuing breathless directives on sanitary reform to the secretary of war, Sidney Herbert, and harrying him into an early grave. To save her poor soldiers, Nightingale had not spared herself; how, then, could she ask less of those enlisted in her cause? ‘If Miss Nightingale had been less ruthless, Sidney Herbert would not have perished,’ Strachey wrote, ‘but then, she would not have been Miss Nightingale.’

Strachey’s contemporaries were shocked, but his portrait said important things about the psychology of goodness. Strachey assumed, as we post-Freudians do, that self-sacrifice can have a complex etiology; that it can cloak ambition and drive; that it can be deployed (as Nightingale demonstrated) to galvanise the indolent and defeat the backsliding. Armed with their ethic of service and with the example of Nightingale bearding the generals in Scutari before them, nurses could and often did face down anyone – whether family members or army personnel – who challenged their authority over the patients in their care. In a world intolerant of ambition in women, nursing was the road to power.

Edith Cavell is Britain’s second most famous nurse. The 49-year-old matron of a Belgian nursing school, she was shot at dawn as a spy by the German occupation authorities on 12 October 1915. Her statue still surveys the pedestrians and taxis streaming down from St Martin’s Lane to Trafalgar Square; across the former empire (and beyond), streets, monuments, parks and a mountain – in the Canadian Rockies – bear her name. Her famous last words, ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough,’ spare her the opprobrium that settled on those who exploited her death to send more men to the killing fields.

Diana Souhami would like to rescue Cavell from the mountain of tosh said about her after her death, which ignored her values, exploited her execution and discounted the mature deliberation with which she made her choices. (The Bishop of London, for example, called this middle-aged professional administrator a ‘poor, defenceless English girl’.) In this respect she has written a revisionist book, but in all others Edith Cavell is an anti-Strachey, or perhaps a pre-Strachey, biography – a Victorian doorstopper, an irony-free zone. Souhami paints Cavell as a woman who was genuinely ‘good’, whose work rescuing stranded soldiers was an extension of her long-standing commitment to saving lives.

This is persuasive, up to a point, and if you can check your 21st-century sensibility at the door (who wants to be the cynic laughing at the death of Little Nell?), you will find this a rewarding, even moving, book. But Souhami is so keen to portray Cavell as ethically consistent that she explains away much that remains puzzling about her behaviour. The sheer narrative force of the story sweeps forward, as strutting cardboard Germans capture, interrogate, seek to intimidate but fail to break a woman motivated only by altruism. It is an engrossing tale, and in its persistent discounting of patriotism one for our time, but I would have liked more caution and more context, more acknowledgment of the ways in which we – like those who eulogised Cavell after her death – impose our own interpretation on her sketchily documented life.

There is quite a lot we can’t know. The family papers of the well-born and rich usually survive; those of provincial vicars often do not. From public records and a few letters, we learn that Cavell was born in 1865 in the parsonage in Swardeston, Norfolk, the first of the four children of Rev. Frederick Cavell and the housekeeper’s daughter whom he first sent to a finishing school and then made his wife. It suited him, Souhami writes, to have a wife who was entirely dependent and in no way his equal, but there are hints that Edith, who was taught at home and showed an early gift for drawing and languages, was not so easily dominated. She complained to her cousin of the length and tedium of her father’s sermons, and at 16 was caught smoking – an almost unimaginably rebellious act for a girl of the 1880s. Dispatched soon afterwards to the sort of boarding school that catered for clergymen’s daughters, she fell almost inevitably four years later into governessing, working first for another clergyman with four children and a frail wife, and then, while living at home, as a day governess for a well-to-do local family.

Clearly, she wasn’t satisfied. There is no evidence that she either expected or attracted offers of marriage, but the prospect of spending her life teaching the children of the Norfolk gentry must have been unappealing: in 1890, at the age of 25, she let the headmistress of her old school know that she was interested in finding a position abroad. For the next five years, Cavell was governess to the children of Paul François, a well-off Brussels lawyer. The children remembered her as a kind and imaginative teacher, but also as very proper and very English: the self-repression that would strike later acquaintances had already marked her character. To her cousin, however, she made clear that ‘being a governess is only temporary.’ She wanted ‘someday, somehow … to do something useful … I don’t know what it will be. I only know it will be something for people.’

What was open to a late Victorian young woman eager for service? By the 1890s girls of good family were volunteering in settlement houses and acting as charitable visitors, but most work of this kind was unpaid, and Cavell had to earn her keep. Her younger sisters had avoided the governess trap and trained as nurses, and in 1895, just back from Belgium and just short of her 30th birthday, Cavell too applied to the Metropolitan Asylums Board in London for work. She was readily taken on in a fever hospital as an assistant nurse – a job that essentially involved fetching and carrying, and endless, endless cleaning. Capable, intelligent and undeterred by hard work, Cavell took to the routines and values of nursing and applied six months later to train at the London Hospital in the East End. By doing so, she found her calling and also, fortunately for the biographer, placed herself under the gimlet eye of someone dedicated in equal measure to character assessment and obsessive record-keeping: Eva Lückes, the hospital’s matron. Not until Cavell fell foul of the German occupation authorities would anyone scrutinise her so carefully.

Lückes is a great Victorian figure, who overshadows the self-effacing Cavell and threatens to run off with the book. Appointed matron of the London Hospital when she was 24, she spent the next 40 years battling to make the hospital a model for nurses’ training and patient care. The London treated tens of thousands of patients each year and trained hundreds of nurses. The training included lectures in physiology and hygiene, but much of it was arduously practical: once the probationary year of skivvying was over, nurses learned how to prepare patients for operations, dress wounds, alleviate pain, stem bleeding, give enemas, do tracheotomies, bring down fevers, handle convulsions, lay out the dead. Lückes urged them to remember at all times the high ideals of their profession, to combine solicitude with strength, obedience, skill and absolute self-control: ‘A want of self-control is selfish, showing you do not put your patient first.’ They worked like navvies, but in their free hours had use of a small garden in which to recuperate. Every aspect of their training and performance was dictated and commented on by Lückes.

Cavell appears to have been an intelligent student and a considerate bedside nurse, but Lückes’s comments about her, written in her own ledger and not for other eyes, were notably cool. Cavell was late for meals and not entirely reliable; Lückes, who ‘liked a bit of flamboyance and theatre in her nurses’, thought she ‘had a self-sufficient manner which was very apt to prejudice people against her’. Souhami rushes to Cavell’s defence, suggesting that she may have been late to meals because she was with patients, and insisting that her ‘self-sufficiency’ was really the detachment that marks true selflessness. Whatever the reason, after qualifying as a staff nurse, she was not given charge of her own ward. Instead, she was lent out as a home nurse for private patients before serving for an unhappy year in a men’s surgical ward under a temperamental ward sister before deciding to leave.

Lückes never lost sight of ‘her’ nurses, however, and her letters of recommendation carried a good deal of weight. The problem was that there were few senior jobs in nursing and hundreds of capable, ambitious women – some, no doubt, with warmer letters from Lückes – eager to fill them. Cavell held a number of demanding jobs – night superintendent at a workhouse infirmary, temporary matron at a cottage hospital, assistant matron at a second workhouse infirmary, temporary matron of an institution providing nurses to the Manchester poor – but the responsible permanent position she sought eluded her. Then, out of the blue, in May 1907 she was asked by Dr Antoine Depage, the leading surgeon in Brussels and an acquaintance of the François family (with whom Cavell must have kept in touch), to come and help him start a modern training school for nurses.

This was a job for which her unusual combination of skills – intelligence, organisational ability, excellent training, wide experience, fluent French – perfectly fitted her. Taking Lückes as her model, and often asking her advice, over the next seven years Cavell built up her nursing school along the best English lines. Now she was the one who sat at the head of a table of probationers marking down late arrivals, who would admonish nurses for levity or temper and lecture them on the need for compassion and self-control. She had to do everything: hire staff nurses and cleaners, recruit probationers (many from outside Belgium), deal with their anxious families, manage a ‘ladies’ committee’, plan and teach every part of the curriculum, supervise practical work, buy and arrange furnishings, and negotiate with the sometimes difficult Depage.

She made a success of it, though: by 1910 she was not only running the training school but appointing staff and supplying nurses to nursing homes, schools, kindergartens and three Brussels hospitals, including a new 250-bed facility in the suburb of St Gilles, at which Depage had been appointed chief surgeon and Cavell head matron. In 1914 Depage and Cavell were drawing up plans for a new building for the training school. She had come into her own: she had authority, responsibility and a modest international reputation. Had the war not intervened, she would probably have spent the next dozen years carrying this work forward. In August 1914, however, when the Germans invaded, Cavell hurried back to Brussels from a holiday in Norfolk, thinking her nurses would be needed. A year later she was in prison, and three months after that she was dead – and famous.

The details of what Cavell did are not really in dispute: after her arrest she largely admitted the charges against her. She concealed British and French soldiers who had been caught behind the swiftly advancing German lines, supplied them with disguises, and found guides who would smuggle them to the border. In justifying Cavell’s execution, the German authorities painted her as the head of the underground resistance, but in truth it had no head: it was, rather, a loose alliance of patriotic Belgians, its members ranging from the Prince and Princess de Croÿ, who hid men on their estate and raised the funds to pay for safe houses and guides, to Louise Thuliez, a rural schoolteacher who tramped the countryside looking for Allied soldiers hidden by villagers or sheltering in barns. Cavell was drawn in at the beginning of November 1914, when a man called Herman Capiau, encouraged by Depage’s wife, Marie, brought two wounded British soldiers to the door of the training school and asked whether Cavell could care for them. Over the next six months, she would help a great many men out of Belgium; she admitted to 200, but Souhami, drawing on earlier investigations, puts the figure at closer to 1500.

She knew this was a dangerous business. The German army, astounded when Belgium refused it free passage and determined to cut quickly through to France, resorted to hostage-taking, using human shields, shooting civilians and burning villages.[*] The occupation that followed was unrelievedly harsh, in part because the overstretched German army used terror and compulsion to compensate for its economic problems and manpower shortages. (The point is made in Isabel Hull’s Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany.) Requisitions and levies left the mass of the population unemployed and dependent on international food relief during the first winter; strict directives backed by draconian penalties limited civilian freedom of movement and expression; military tribunals were set up to try the hordes of people charged with infractions; a vast network of spies and informers – 6000 in Brussels alone by 1915 – did its best to pick out resisters.

Cavell tried to be careful, using passwords and letting only one of her nurses – the only other Englishwoman – know what she was doing in any detail. By spring 1915, though, the school was being watched; unexpected visitors came to the door claiming to be Allied soldiers and asking for help; one of her nurses was pulled in and interrogated. Realising that arrest was imminent, one evening Cavell locked herself in her study and burned a great many papers. Some six weeks later, the German occupation authorities arrested virtually the whole network. Most refused to say anything; Cavell – possibly because her interrogators pretended to have the information already – admitted the substance of the charges. Thirty-five people were tried for such crimes as conveying soldiers to the enemy or circulating seditious literature; 27 were convicted, of whom five were sentenced to death and most of the rest to terms of hard labour. General von Sauberzweig, the new military governor, insisted that Cavell and one crucial Belgian helper, Philippe Baucq, be executed immediately, and they were shot the next morning. In the end, none of the others was executed.

Souhami tells this gripping story well, introducing each character and pausing to explain how official malevolence, bad luck and the fecklessness or lethargy of those urged to intervene (above all the American consul, Brand Whitlock) reduced Cavell’s chances. Yet it is clear too that Cavell made little effort on her own behalf, refusing to plead for her life, and, crucially, limiting sympathy by wearing street clothes rather than her matron’s uniform at her trial and sentencing. The questions remain: why did Cavell run such risks, and why did she do so little to save herself after her arrest?

Whitlock (who never met her) thought that Cavell simply didn’t understand how much danger she was in, but Souhami – rightly, in my view – disagrees. Cavell, she says, exploited her organisational skill, her quiet demeanour and her authority over her nurses (who must have noticed the strange men sleeping in the school corridors) to deflect intrusive questions and keep the delivery system going. When it comes to explaining her motives, however, Souhami essentially insists that there is nothing to explain. Cavell’s ‘creed was devotion and goodness’ and so of course she assisted the men who came to her for aid. ‘The divide between nursing, helping the hungry and poor, and shielding vulnerable soldiers, was slight.’ She acted ‘not in the name of heroism, but out of compassion for those who needed help and with “sublime indifference” to the tyranny of any brutal regime’.

Souhami, anachronistically, speaks of Cavell’s commitment to ‘human rights’. Nursing is founded on the obligation to save life and so this is surely part of the story. It would have been impossible for Cavell to turn away the wounded soldiers who first came to her. She asked Stirling Gahan, the chaplain who came to minister to her the evening before her death, to remember her not as a heroine but simply as ‘a nurse who tried to do her duty’. But Cavell also helped many soldiers who were not wounded or were carrying information of use to the Allies, as well as Belgians trying to enlist in the British army, undertaking these risks willingly and without hesitation. She embraced, in other words, the role of the resister as well as the humanitarian. In doing so, two other impulses (Souhami notes them but does not give them equal weight) also drove her: ambition and patriotism.

Cavell’s ambition, though expressed in the idiom of service, is apparent throughout her life. Without wealth, status or connections, she had managed to become a major figure in Belgian public health. She rushed back to Brussels in 1914 not only because she felt a duty to serve but because she thought her skills and position important; had the German authorities allowed it, she would surely have tended wounded men – German as well as Allied – with devotion. But the Allies swiftly established field hospitals near the front (Depage ran one, taking some of Cavell’s nurses with him) and the Germans sent their wounded home. So Cavell’s nurses had very little to do. They sewed, studied for their exams and kept their wards ready; Cavell continued to teach them. But she found it hard, as she wrote to her cousin, to be ‘denied the great consolation of being of use in our special way’. Frustrated energy and ambition surely played a part in her actions.

As did patriotism. I realise this is a heretical claim, for Cavell has always been portrayed as a woman with ‘no hatred or bitterness towards anyone’, a reading with which Souhami concurs. Yet to claim that she was not motivated by patriotism is to argue that she didn’t share the sensibility of her time and to ignore some of the clues we have about her motives and state of mind. After 1918, many Europeans would come to see the war as an insane act of bloodletting in which the rich and powerful had devoured the young of the continent; Souhami’s moving excerpts from soldiers’ letters support that view. In 1915, however, it was still spoken of as a just war, a war of democracies against autocracies, fought to support international law and the rights of small nations. German atrocities in Belgium, and the character of the occupation regime, underwrote that interpretation.

Cavell heard the stories of atrocities, lived under the occupation and sympathised, as she put it in the Nursing Mirror, with ‘the high courage and self-control of a people enduring a long and terrible agony’. If she initially felt ‘but a looker-on’, it seems likely that her character, her experiences and, crucially, her deeply felt Englishness made her move towards more active resistance. We can’t know everything about what she did, but we do know that she circuitously warned her mother to expect messages from strange men, that the British government was aware of her involvement, and that it was deep enough for the Foreign Office to take pains to conceal it. Only Whitlock’s fanciful account of innocence betrayed was leaked to the papers after her death, since, as the FO put it, ‘the British Military Authorities consider it highly undesirable that anything implicating Miss Cavell in matters of espionage should be published until the final settlement with the Germans has been made irrevocable.’ Souhami insists that Cavell’s confession was contrived and her motives distorted, but it is also true that while her execution was obviously both harsh and, from the standpoint of public relations, extremely stupid, she was involved in resistance activities that no occupying power would tolerate. Souhami sees those actions as dictated by the imperative to save life, but if the British and Belgian cause was just, it is not clear why humanitarian relief should be more commendable than committed and partisan action. Cavell is not less admirable for aiding a just cause.

Which brings us, finally, to Cavell’s last words, which were carved on the plinth of her statue in the late 1920s, when wartime hatreds had receded, and which are often read, too simply, as a condemnation of patriotism. Read carefully and in context – that is, as a statement made before execution – their meaning seems more ambiguous. She didn’t say, ‘I am no patriot,’ or even that patriotism was not a virtue. Rather, according to Gahan, she said: ‘But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and Eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ She recognised, in other words, that patriotism was not the only thing needed, and that she was called, as a Christian, to forgive even her enemies. But should we therefore assume that, when ferrying her countrymen and their allies to the border six months earlier, she hadn’t acted as an Englishwoman and a patriot? Perhaps she declined to appeal to her captors or wear her matron’s uniform at her trial in honour of that allegiance.

[*] News of the atrocities spread quickly, becoming a mainstay of recruitment rhetoric and wartime propaganda. After 1918, the veracity of those accounts was questioned, but recent research has largely upheld the substance of the charge.