Tribute to Edith Cavell

22 July 2020

In this International Year of the Nurse and Midwife, we look at the heroic achievements of wartime nurse Edith Cavell.

Continuing our series paying tribute to nursing greats, this issue we look at the life and work of Edith Cavell. The British nurse, born in 1865, is best known for saving the lives of soldiers from all sides, without distinction, during World War One.

Courage and compassion

Edith began her training at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.

She worked in a number of British hospitals before being asked back to Brussels, where she’d previously worked as a governess, to nurse asick child. There, she was invitedto be matron of the first nursing school in Belgium.

She was visiting her family in Norfolk when World War One broke out, and saw it as her duty to return to Belgium to help. Edith cared for all the wounded there, regardless of which side they were fighting on.

Edith also worked with others to smuggle Allied soldiers out of the hospital in German-occupied Belgium and across the border. She is believed to have saved the lives of more than 200 men.  

When the Germans discovered what Edith was doing, she was arrested, along with others. She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by firing squad. Despite international pressure, Edith was executed on 12 October 1915. Her death received worldwide condemnation, and her story was widely used in propaganda and to recruit soldiers to fight.

In her name

As well as being remembered for her bravery, Edith is recognised as a pioneer of modern nursing.

After her death, the British press launched an appeal for funds in her memory to help nurses ‘shattered mentally and physically, who have sought the health of others at the expense of their own’. Established in 1917, the fund was known as Edith Cavell Homes of Rest for Nurses, and later became the Nation’s Fund for Nurses. In 2012, as NurseAid, the fund decided to re-establish its link with Edith and renamed itself Cavell Nurses’ Trust. In this way, Edith continues to help others in need today.

Today the trust supports UK nurses, midwives (MWs) and healthcare assistants (HCAs), including retirees, when facing a personal or financial hardship. These are often due to illness, disability, age, domestic abuse – and now the impact of Covid-19.

At the start of the pandemic, the trust’s chief executive John Orchard, said: ‘As a society we rely on nurses, MWs and HCAs to be there for us, and we should support them in return, especially in this the Year of the Nurse and Midwife. More than three-quarters of the nurses we support tell us we helped them get back to or stay in work.’ 


Picture Credit | Getty Images

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