October 26, 1915 – Edith Cavell and the horror of the frontline nurses

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The execution in October 1915 of British nurse Edith Cavell accused of ‘treason’ by the Germans for treating Allied soldiers in Brussels and helping them escape is well remembered even a century later.

Miss Cavell’s death was at the time used as part of the Government’s propaganda campaign to encourage more young men to answer the call the arms and during the past hundred years she has also been the subject of films, books, plays, memorials and it is even planned for her to be featured on a new £5 coin.

But for the readers of Market Harborough Advertiser in October 26, 1915, there was no mention of Miss Cavell but there was a graphic portrayal of what life was like for other nurses serving on the frontline.

In a letter to the Rev Frank Hall, rector of Dingley, a nursing friend provides a warts-and-all insight into how they worked and the terrible consequences of the First World War’s technological achievements in industrial slaughter.

She describes how they are told to prepare for 200 casualties and in the dead of night they wait at a railway station for two hours. “It was awfully cold and they eventually arrived at a quarter to three. And never did you see such a crowd of mud-stained, staggering helpless men straight from the trenches.

“We washed everyone and got them to bed, came for coffee and back to work at 7.30. Gradually dressings began and we worked till 7 at night and heard another batch nearly all on stretchers were coming Sunday morning.”

They eventually arrived – again in the dead of night, this time in pouring rain. “It was simply awful,” says the nurse. “We washed them as best we could, and went straight on with dressings.

“Remember, we have to boil every drop of water, cut every bit of cotton wool and that morning I shall never forget. We practically worked without ceasing two days and two nights.”

She concludes her nightmare experience by saying: “It’s not nursing at all, it’s simply dressing wounds and making shift, no nurse would believe it. And the creepy clothes lay in heaps with no one to move them for cleaning and disinfecting.”

She adds: “Sometimes I feel I have been here years, sometimes only a month.”

The painful, personal account is in stark contrast to the way the national newspapers covered the execution of Miss Cavell. Fleet Street publishes the ‘big picture’ stories but fails to provide the intimate detail that allows the reader a vivid insight into what is really happening.

The Daily Telegraph story of Miss Cavell is sourced from the Government’s Press Bureau and says: “The Foreign Office are informed by the United States Ambassador that Miss Edith Cavell, lately of a large training school for nurses in Brussels, who was arrested on Aug 5 last by the German authorities at that place, was executed on the 13th inst after sentence of death had been passed on her.

“It is understood that the charge against Miss Cavell was that she harboured fugitive British and French soldiers and Belgians of military age, and assisted them to escape from Belgium in order to join the colours.”

A later story provides a long and detailed biography, but in true Fleet Street style, is prim and very proper.

“She was an exceedingly nice woman and … a very capable member of her profession.”

  • Check out this week’s Harborough Mail for current news from the Market Harborough area.
  • My fellow researcher and De Montfort University colleague David Penman is conducting a similar real-time project with the Ashbourne Telegraph. Check out his Great War Reports.
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