November 9, 2008

Two Spies - The Nurse......

October 1915, British Nurse Edith Cavell was taken from her prison cell in Brussels, Belgium and executed by a German firing squad for assisting Allied prisoners to escape during World War One.

Born in England in 1865, Cavell had been a nurse since the age of 20. After moving to Belgium she was appointed matron (head nurse) of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels in 1907.

With the war in 1914 and the German take-over of Belgium, the Berkendael Institute became a Red Cross Hospital, and Nurse Cavell cared for wounded soldiers of all nationalities. After Brussels was conquered, the Germans sent 60 English nurses home. Edith Cavell somehow remained behind.

In the autumn of 1914, two stranded and disguised British soldiers found their way to Nurse Cavell's medical institute and were sheltered there. More fugitive soldiers arrived and received help from Cavell, who assisted all of them to secretly escape to neutral Holland. She had provided papers and false passports.

An 'underground' lifeline was soon established, masterminded by the Prince and Princess de Croy. Guides were organized and about 200 allied soldiers were helped to escape. Their password was 'Yorc' - Croy backwards.

The lifeline and Cavell's secret work lasted almost a year, despite an order from the German authorities that anyone sheltering Allied troops would be shot. Cavell wrote to her cousin, "I am helping in ways I may not describe to you till we are free."

The danger of discovery grew. Although British soldiers staying there were warned not to go out, several of them managed to get to a café and drink and talk too much. Before long, it became widely known that Cavell was harbouring British and French troops under her hospital's roof.

A Belgian 'collaborator' (double agent or spy) infiltrated Edith's hospital. While it was being searched, one last soldier slipped out through the back garden. Nurse Cavell remained calm. No incriminating papers were ever found - she sewed up her diary in a cushion. She was so thorough she even managed to keep her 'underground' activities from the other nurses so as to not incriminate them.

Two members of the escape route team were arrested on July 31st, 1915. Five days later, Nurse Cavell was arrested by local German authorities and charged with having personally aided in the escape of 200 soldiers.

After being told that the other prisoners had confessed, she innocently admitted everything. She was trained to protect life, even at the risk of her own. "Had I not helped", she said, "they would have been shot". She was guilty, so they now must shoot her.

Cavell's death sentence was carried out on 12 October 1915 and her case received worldwide press coverage, most notably in Britain where they used her death for maximum propaganda value, reinforcing the popular opinion that the German's were barbarians.

Cavell is commemorated in a statue near Trafalgar Square and has a mountain near Jasper, Alberta named for her.

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