I’ve heard of Edith Cavell. I was aware of her execution just before the US entered WWI and of some of its effect on the latter. She has come up a couple of times in my reading lately.
I’m not enamored of the style of the book. The writing is very earnest and straightforward, and I expect that the point of going back to the beginning of Edith’s nursing career, and spending a great deal of time following her through her training and postings into Belgium, was to demonstrate her character, to help indicate that what eventually happened was inevitable.
But it wasn’t, really. What happened was that Edith Cavell was contacted by a friend in Belgium to come and help create a school of nursing there to renovate the way the profession was both viewed and taught. Then war came – the Great War – and Germany moved in to Belgium early, and, unsurprisingly, the occupation was brutal. And Miss Cavell became involved with a network of people who worked to locate English and French and Australian soldiers who had been separated from their units, treat any injuries, and then get them away to a neutral country. Miss Cavell – and, in my opinion, far too many other people in her school – hid anywhere from two to twenty men at a time in their basement before passing them on to someone else to move them.
What amazed me was the sheer carelessness of the whole operation. It may have been in the writing rather than the actual execution, but it was all so sloppy – it only seemed remarkable that the whole operation wasn’t uncovered long before. And Miss Cavell’s compulsion to keep records made my hair stand on end. She kept a “Hotel Register” of all the soldiers she helped. She gave them postcards to send back to her when they got safe (which they were to sign “Cousin Lucy”, but whose identity they explained as “my niece who lives in Amsterdam”). It was horrifying. It was terrifying.
And to follow the whole story knowing Miss Cavell’s deep religious conviction, her powerful calling to heal and help … and knowing the result of her execution … “I heard that enlistments increased three times because of her.” Her death was a large part of what brought the United States into the War. I can’t believe that would have caused her anything but horror and guilt. The influx of men meant that Germany was defeated – but it also meant that thousands – millions – of men died who might otherwise never have been involved.
The writing was not what it might have been. “They are clever, these Belgian fools.” (Erm) It was earnest and well-meant – written by an American Red Cross nurse – but it was a struggle at times.
Was Edith Cavell a hero? Absolutely. She selflessly and single-mindedly provided excellent care where few others were willing, and she was astonishingly courageous in her work with the Underground. But the end result was just so painfully ironic. But she was not made for espionage, and her testimony at the trial came as close to anything in the book to making me cry.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.