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Inspiration for The Nightingale: Edith Cavell

Isabelle Rosignol, The Nightingale, is inspired by the heroic World War I nurse Edith Cavell. Who was she? A nurse? A martyr? A patriot? A spy?

Edith Cavell was guilty of not only nursing and providing refuge for wounded soldiers, whether German, Austrian, or Allied, but also helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape occupied Belgium for Holland and rejoin the forces. Nick Miller, the chair of the Norfolk Cavell 2015 Partnership said: “To me she seems to embody the Good Samaritan. Edith risked her own life over nine months to help men who came to her with no way home.”

Though arrested on August 15, 1915, Cavell was denied a conference with her defense lawyer until October 7. In her two-day trial, Edith confessed to helping 200 men escape so they could return to fight the Germans. During the three days before her judgement, American, Spanish and Belgian officials desperately pleaded for her life. But on October 11, 1915, Cavell told the prison chaplain, “I want my friends to know that I willingly give my life for my country. I have no fear nor shirking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.” At dawn she was shot by a German firing squad in Brussels.

“Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. And yet in death, her legacy lived on as protests about her execution resulted in Germany sparing the lives of some 33 other prisoners and spurred thousands from around the world to volunteer to fight.

Though the British government denied she was a spy, Dame Stella Rimington, Former director-general M15 states Cavell’s network smuggled intelligence as well as soldiers through fabric sewn into clothes. After researching Belgium’s military archives, Dame Stella stated she may have had a dual mission: “Her main objective was to get hidden Allied soldiers back to Britain but, contrary to the common perception of her, we have uncovered clear evidence that her organisation was involved in sending back secret intelligence to the Allies."

Edith Cavell, a patriot, knew she was needed for such a time as this. A nurse with a heart, conscience and sense of duty, she said, “Patriotism is not enough. I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.”

Resources: (Photo courtesy of Charles S. P. Jenkins)


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