As promised here as some of the readings/research made in West Norfolk for the Scars of War project in the autumn of 2018: The research for this piece was undertaken by Lindsey Bavin, manager at the True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum.
At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the means of transporting the sick and wounded had advanced little since the Boer War some twelve years previous. They were still using horse drawn ambulance wagons and nurses were sent on horseback to tend to the wounded when the ambulance was too slow.
The earliest weeks of the war shattered any illusion this could continue and motorised ambulances quickly replaced the horse drawn wagon across the Western Front. Ambulance drivers like Violet Tillson and Mem Custance were on the front lines of the Western Front helping wounded soldiers at Ypres, The Somme and Verdun.
Perhaps the most famous nurse of the First World War was Edith Cavell.
Originally from Swardeston, Norfolk, Edith Cavell trained as a nurse at the London Hospital. She worked at hospitals in Shoreditch, Kings Cross and Manchester before in 1907 she was recruited to work at the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels. It was the first of its kind in the country with the aim of producing world-class nurses.
Cavell’s pioneering work as Matron at the Berkendael Medical Institute led to her being considered the founder of modern medical nursing education in Belgium.
She was visiting her mother when the First World War broke out and returned to Belgium to help.
After Brussels was occupied by the German forces in August 1914, the Berkendael Medical Institute became a Red Cross Hospital treating soldiers from both sides.
In September 1914, Cavell was asked to help two British Soldiers trapped behind enemy lines after the Battle of Mons. She treated the men at her hospital and then arranged their escape. She would go on to use her resources to shelter hundreds of British, French and Belgian soldiers and help them escape to the Netherlands.
On 5th August Edith Cavell was betrayed by a collaborator and taken to St Giles Prison in Brussel. She was charged with treason and found guilty.
On 12th October,1915, Edith Cavell was executed by firing squad. Her last recorded words were:
“I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me… I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end…Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. 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 any one. Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”
Edith Cavell’s execution, though legal caused outrage in Britain and its allies. She became a symbol of the Allied cause. After the war her body was exhumed and a memorial service held in Westminster Abbey. She was then reburied in Norwich Cathedral.