My 12 in 12 Challenge – July – Two World Wars – Book 10

Edith Cavell by Diana Souhami is the autobiography of the British nurse shot by the Germans in 1915. It is very readable indeed and helped to fill in details about the subject’s life but also about the situation in occupied territory at the time.

Edith was a clergyman’s daughter who needed to earn a living as she had few prospects of marriage. She started as a governess but then moved into nursing as her sisters had done. This was a developing time for nursing as it was becoming a profession rather than an occupation for those who could find nothing else. Edith was always a professional and eventually she moved to running a school of nursing in Brussels to improve the profession in that country.

When Brussels was occupied by the Germans Edith carried on nursing and teaching as best she could. She became involved in hiding and caring for British soldiers who had been cut off from their units. She was part of a much larger network which smuggled the British soldiers to the coast and back to the UK with forged papers and provisions. Eventually her network became used by French and Belgian men who wanted to go to Britain to be part of the fighting to liberate their country. Edith helped those who asked for help and made no distinction.

It seems inevitable that Edith would be caught and she was sure that this would happen too and had made arrangements. What she had not prepared for was a local commander who wished to make a point. The trial was confused, interpreters were not always available, Edith was accused of treason which was inexact because she was not a citizen of Germany and nothing which she was convicted of carried the death penalty. Nevertheless she was taken and shot almost immediately after the trial and before her supporters could get a campaign organised.

This book tells the story clearly and tries to help us understand what drove Edith to do what she did. She was a religious woman who refused to deny help to anyone who needed it and she continued to do this even when it put her in personal danger. She was convicted of helping 200 people to get to the UK but the author estimates that the real number was probably ten times this amount. She was a content woman who had behind her a lifetime of helping others and saw a similar future and a quiet retirement. That was wrenched from her and she died leaving an incredible example and legacy for others. The book also examines that legacy and the memorials which were erected in her name.

This is a very readable biography of a remarkable woman.