Nurse Edith Cavell was executed on 12th October 1915, during World War I, for assisting over 200 allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium. There is an annual public wreath laying ceremony that takes place at her memorial, in London, on the anniversary of her death, which is organised by the Cavell Nurses' Trust. The next wreath laying service will be held on Wednesday 12th October 2016 at 10.30am and is free to attend.
This blog is about Edith and the photos are from the ceremony in 2014, which I was very honoured to attend as a guest of the Trust.
Edith Louise Cavell (1865 – 1915) was born in the village of Swardeston, Norfolk. She started her working life as a governess but later decided to become a nurse, after looking after her father during a period of sickness. Edith undertook her nurses training at the London Hospital (now the Royal London) in Whitechapel before becoming the matron at the L'École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées, a nursing school in Brussels, where she worked to improve standards in the nursing profession.
In 1914 Germany invade Belgium which resulted in Britain joining World War I. At the top of the memorial, the figure of a woman is sheltering a child and this is intended to symbolise the protection of smaller nations, such as Belgium, by larger countries.
During the war, Edith remained in Brussels cared for injured soldiers and assisted some of them to escape occupied Belgium. For this she was arrested and executed by firing squad on 12th October 1915. Edith’s death caused an international outrage and lead to an increase in the numbers of people enlisting in the war effort.
Soon after her death there was call for a memorial to Edith in London and Westminster Council offered the site in St Marin’s Place. George Frampton agreed to create the memorial as a labour of love. However due to the difficulty in obtaining materials during the war Frampton could not start work on the memorial until 1919. On 17th March 1920 Queen Alexandra unveiled the statute.
The memorial topped with a cross is made in Cornish grey granite and the statute of Edith, wearing her nurse’s uniform, is in white marble. Above her head is the word HUMANITY and on the other sides going clockwise, west side DEVOTION, north side FORTITUDE and east side SACRIFICE.
The memorial was not without controversy as at the top of the memorial was the commonplace patriotic slogan For King and Country. Originally below the statue were the words: Edith Cavell, Brussels, Dawn, October 12th, 1915.
The National Council of Women campaigned to have Edith’s own words, which she spoke the priest the night before her execution, to be added to the memorial.
Edith’s own word “Patriotism is not enough I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone” were finally added to the memorial in 1924.
The wreath laying ceremony is attended by dignitaries and members of the army. However the most poignant part of the ceremony, for me, was when the two nurses from the Royal London, dressed in period nursing costume dating from Edith's time, lay the first wreath.
While we remember Edith today primarily for her involvement in World War I, she was on par to with Florence Nightingale, helping to create the modern nursing profession. The Cavell Trust, named in memory of her, provides financial support for nurses, midwives, student and retired nurses. It is nice to see that people who are so used to giving are able to get support when they need help and if you would like to give them a donation you can do via their Make a donation page.
Wreaths are then laid by members of the armed forces.
The Red Cross are represented as the hospital Edith worked in became a Red Cross Hospital during WWI.
The Belgium Ambassador in the UK, laid a wreath which had the colours of the Belgium flag.
After the ceremony there was time for photos before invited guest attended a receiption.
I am looking forward to attending the ceremony and receiption again this year and in the afternoon I am leading a raising tour for the Cavell Nurses' Trust walk round the grounds of Royal London Hospital, East London, where Edith Cavell trained and worked as a nurse.
The walk details are: Wednesday 12th October 2016 at 14:30 I am leading I am leading a 45 minute walk. The meeting point is outside the entrance of Whitechapel Station (District, Hammersmith & City and East London Lines, Zone 2). If you would like to join the walk I request a £5 donation to Cavell Nurses’ Trust which is payable either through my Just Giving Page or payable on the day. I will keep a list of those who have donated and please note places will be limited to 25 people.
The public wreath laying ceremony will take place on Wednesday 12th October 2016 at 10.30am.
Nearest Tube Station: Charing Cross or Leicester Square, both are in Travelcard Zone 1. It is then 5 minute easy walk from either station.
For information about the wreath laying ceremony please see https://www.cavellnursestrust.org/fundraising-events/410/centenary
If you liked this blog you might enjoy reading my other blogs about Edith Cavell.
The author of this blog is a qualified City of London and City of Westminster Tour Guide who leads guided walks combining world famous landmarks with hidden treasures often missed by the crowds.