Monday, 27 July 2009

Reality of War 2

Nurse Edith Cavell was shot by the Germans in 1915 for helping a number of Allied prisoners to escape from German-occupied Belgium. According to Wikipedia, countless newspaper articles, pamphlets, images and books publicised her story. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britian to help increase favourable AQmerican sentiment towards the Allies. Cavell was a popular icon due to her sex, her nursing profession and her apprarently heroic approach to death. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity. The many biographies that surfaced of the late Cavell, in reality, were only fictional accounts.

Yesterday, I found an envelope with some three dozen postcards concerning her death. I am posting a small number here to show the propaganda aspect and then the reality of death.

Nurse Edith Cavell is pictured with here dogs in her garden in Brussels in 1915. Thousands of Britons purchased this souvenir postcard at the time.

Cavell's grave was covered in floral tributes. The photographer has captioned the postcard with the date of her death as 12 August 1915. She actually died on 12 October.

News reports of her execution were discovered to be true only in part. The American Journal of Nursing, at the time, repeated the fictional account of Cavell's execution in which she fainted and fell due to her refusal to wear a blindfold in from of the firing squad. Supposedly, while she lay unconscious, the German commanding officer shot her dead with a revolver. A printed account on the reverse of this propaganda card records: "The fiend takes his revolver and, leaning upon his victim, deliberately blows her brains out." I leave you to guess how many patriotic Britons rushed to the recruiting office to enlist for service at the Front . . .

After the war, many troops visited her grave. Here, two American doughboys pay homage.

After the war, her remains were recovered and transported back to England for reburial in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral. Here British troops load the coffin on to a gun carriage during the removal of her body from the Tir National. The Union Flag, the wooden cross from her grave and a host of other material is preserved at the Royal London Hospital. More details of the collection can be found here

Her simple grave, pictured here, is in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral.

So, here is her grave before exhumation. The reality is quite different.

Here is the exhumed body of Rammler, a German soldier shot (without trial -the card records) at the same time as Philip Baucq (who assisted Cavell) and Miss Cavell, for refusing to fire on this nurse. His coffin was found between these two patriots.

Many of you will remember my so-called 'ability' to spot things that are often unnoticed. Probably from my picture editing days. Please note the well-preserved uniform and the buttons on his right sleeve. Take a look at Rammler's left boot. The shape of it seems to indicate that his boots are on the wrong feet. I presume this must have happened when his body was prepared for burial? Perhaps the undertaker was in a hurry?

This final image records the scene shortly after officials carried out the exhumation of Edith Cavell. Thankfully, she appears to have been buried in a shroud. It provides a grim contrast to some of the sanitised photographs published elsewhere in this post.


  1. The elementary school my daughter attended in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada was named after Edith Cavell. It's very interesting to learn more of her story here as I was really quite ignorant of it.

  2. That is totally fascinating. I seem to recall seeing the postcard of her with the dogs but hever any of the others. Thank you for posting.

  3. This is absolutely fascinating, as is your last post. My father in law fought in the first world war and was badly injured. He would never talk about his experiences but managed to continue his wood carving career despite the injury to his arm and hand.

  4. louciao, thanks for mentioning your daughter's school being named after Cavell. Her fame travelled far.

    Josephine, glad you liked the photographs.

    Thank you, Ann. I am glad he could continue carving wood. In the 1950s, I can remember being impressed by a one-legged near neighbour. Every year, Mr Bennelick would sound the Last Post on Remembrance Sunday. Years later, I bought a set of newspaper supplements - Berkshire at War - which recorded the war service and deaths of Berkshire soldiers, sailors and airmen. His picture was in one of them, recording that Sgt Bennelick of the Royal Berkshire Regiment had had a leg blown off during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

    I also remember my Primary School music teacher, a spinster called Miss Rich. The same supplement recorded the death of her brother, an infantry officer. This might explain the sadness she exuded [except when singing] which was obvious to us children, despit our young age!


  5. Fascinating, where did you find the postcards? There is an Edith Cavell Home Hospital and Village here in Christchurch, her fame is certainly wide spread.(Not that we're in the backwaters or anything....)

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  7. Another fascinating and revealing story, Laurie. I wonder if yellow journalism played a part in the romanticizing of this case, or was it military propaganda?

  8. Hi Laurie, thanks so much for this incredible story, I admit I'd never come across Edith Cavell prior to this... so much gratitude for expanding my horizon. And an incredible set of images to go with the story; you really are something else, the way you find these things! In French the expression is : Chapeau ! Excellent travail...

  9. My Dad was a prisoner of war in WW2. He remembers the Nazi who poked him in the backside as he and his buddies dug a long and deep trench in the frozen ground. People were brought to stand beside this trench--they were shot and thrown into the trench.

    Dad remembers being crushed into railway cars so tightly that when men died they stayed standing.

    I had never heard of Edith Cavell. Her story is so sad. Your powers of observation are amazing--indeed, that man's shoes are on the wrong feet. What a strange mistake to make. Wow.

    Thank you for sharing this brave woman's story.

  10. I've really enjoyed visiting again and catching up with your thouroughly interesting posts. The pictures of the convalescing soldiers and nurses were so thought provoking, you can't help but wonder what they must have witnessed, what they had been through, how did they end up, how did they do for the rest of their lives?... and propaganda!.. It makes you wonder what propaganda we're being sold in this day and age doesn't it? I'd never heard the story of Cavell before, thank you for sending on something new!