Nurse Edith Cavell

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memorial with statue of nurse and inscription Memorial statue to Nurse Edith Cavell in London’s Trafalgar Square © Lee Karen Stow

Photographer Lee Karen Stow tells the story of one of the women featured in her exhibition Poppies: Women and War at the Museum of Liverpool:

"The exhibition Poppies: Women and War honours one of the bravest women in the history of the First World War who was executed one hundred years ago this coming October 12.

Edith Louisa Cavell was a British nurse. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without discrimination and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. She was executed by German Army firing squad at dawn on October 12, 1915 aged 50. 

A series of events this weekend will be held in the UK and in Brussels to mark the centenary of Edith’s execution. Princess Anne is expected to join Belgium's Princess Astrid for a ceremony honouring Edith at the Belgian Senate. A special remembrance service will be held this Sunday at Norwich Cathedral (where Edith was reburied after the war) including a commemoration at her graveside and BBC radio broadcasts. In London, nurses of today will lay wreaths at Edith Cavell's memorial statue near Trafalgar Square.

The Poppies: Women and War exhibition at the Museum of Liverpool shows a photograph of the prayer book belonging to Edith Cavell, used by her during solitary confinement in a cell at St Giles Prison in Brussels. I was kindly allowed to photograph the prayer book, and other items related to Edith on show at the Royal London Museum near St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.

inscription with the date of Nurse Cavell's execution and her 'patriotism is not enough' quotation The inscription on the memorial to Nurse Edith Cavell © Lee Karen Stow

Born in 1865 the daughter of a vicar in Norfolk, Cavell trained as a nurse and later was asked to become matron of the first training school for nurses in Brussels. When Germany invaded Belgium in 1914, Edith and her nursing staff tended to wounded Belgians, French and Germans.

She and her fellow nurses cared for the soldiers, hid them in the hospital, and helped around 200 escape across the Dutch border. She was arrested by the German occupiers and in a mockery of a trial accused of being a spy and head of a large resistance network. She was imprisoned in solitary confinement before being executed. The Germans used her death as a warning to others, while the British government used her murder as propaganda for the war effort with the result that thousands more men enlisted to fight.

On the eve of her death she wrote:

"I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

crowd looking at the memorial Memorial statue to Nurse Edith Cavell in London’s Trafalgar Square © Lee Karen Stow

Edith’s execution provoked outrage around the world, especially from America which joined the war soon after. Edith Cavell became a heroine, immortalised in sculptures, plaques, street names and pub names, when all she was doing was her duty as a nurse."

Join Lee Karen Stow for a free photography workshop and tour of the exhibition on Saturdays 10 October and 14 November as part of our Poppies events programme. Please note that you need to book your workshop place in advance as places are limited, see the workshop page for full details.