At dawn on this day in 1915, 49-year-old British nurse Edith Cavell is executed by a German firing squad in Brussels, Belgium.
Before World War I began in 1914, Cavell served for a number of years as the matron of a nurse’s training school in Brussels. After the city was captured and occupied by the Germans in the first month of war, Cavell chose to remain at her post, tending to German soldiers and Belgians alike.
In August 1915, German authorities arrested her and accused her of helping British and French prisoners-of-war, as well as Belgians hoping to serve with the Allied armies, to escape Belgium for neutral Holland.
During her trial, Cavell admitted that she was guilty of the offenses with which she had been charged. She was sentenced to death. Though diplomats from the neutral governments of the United States and Spain fought to commute her sentence, their efforts were ultimately in vain.
The night before her execution on October 12, 1915, Cavell confided in Reverend Horace Graham, a chaplain from the American Legation, that “They have all been very kind to me here. But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Cavell’s execution led to a rise in anti-German feeling in the United States as well as in Britain, where she was idealized as a heroic martyr to the cause and was honored with a statue in St. Martin’s Place, just off London’s Trafalagar Square. “What Jeanne d’Arc has been for centuries to France,” wrote one Allied journalist, “that will Edith Cavell become to the future generations of Britons.”