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Edith Cavell, harmony in turbulence

Picture of Edith CavellThe Belgian Film Board commissioned Robert Fripp to research and write four 50-minutes screenplays, creating the 4-part television mini-series, Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell, a year of turbulence

On August 4th, 1914, the German army invaded neutral Belgium to get to France. Resistance checked the German advance, permitting some people to reach Brussels from the west. Among these was Edith Cavell, a British nurse with fluent French and good Flemish, who had served seven years as the Director of Nursing Education at the Berkendael Institute, Belgium’s first academic training school for nurses. On holiday at her parents’ home in Norwich when she heard the news, Cavell had rushed to board one of the last ships to leave England, bound for Ostend, back to her job in Brussels.

Meanwhile, a British expeditionary force of 80,000 men joined French and Belgian soldiers. This combined force held the Germans back near Mons in western Belgium. Britain’s unexpected intervention blocked the Germans’ path to Paris. Hundreds of Allied soldiers found themselves stranded behind German lines.

Resistance groups set up escape networks to lead these men across occupied Belgium, via Brussels, to neutral Holland. Two networks directed men to Cavell at her Berkendael Institute. An organizational genius, she found money, food (during a famine), extra Red Cross rations, and guides to lead men to the Dutch border. With her help, at least 200 British and French soldiers crossed that border before she was arrested, tried and shot by a German firing squad. Edith Cavell shares with Lord Nelson the privilege of a plinth. Hers is just off London’s Trafalgar Square. Her plinth reads:


Paris’s Tuileries Gardens, and a medical centre in Brussels, commemorate her name. Cavell’s original nursing school occupied four contiguous, knocked-together, row houses. L’Institute Edith Cavell-Marie Depage is now a major medical centre. Marie Depage also features in our drama. Married to Cavell’s employer, she lost her life in May 1915, on the torpedoed Lusitania. She was returning from New York, where she had been raising funds to set up field hospitals behind Allied lines.

Edith Cavell, in television screenplays

Edith Cavell’s story-on-film begins in Brussels after World War I, when we find Brand Whitlock recalling the frenzied time leading to Cavell’s execution four years earlier. Whitlock had been the American Ambassador in wartime Belgium. He had served as a neutral diplomat representing British interests in German-occupied Belgium during the war.

Episode 1 cuts from Ambassador Whitlock writing his memoirs to the scene of Cavell’s final walk, followed by priests, German troops and officers, through the Tir National (Brussels’ National Rifle Range). As she walks, intercuts recall Cavell’s childhood and significant events in her life.

After this introductory flashback in Episode 1, the action of EDITH CAVELL plunges forward from the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 to Cavell’s execution in October 1915. After the German invasion, two resistance groups help trapped British and French soldiers escape from behind German lines after the Battle of Mons. The  resistance also guides young Belgians out of the country to join Allied armies. By October 1914 Cavell has taken in her first fleeing British soldiers. Within months she is dedicated to helping escaping soldiers.

Cavell, a Briton from Norwich, is the Director of Education at Belgium’s first nurses’ training school. She is well-positioned to shelter Allied troops, with beds and Red Cross rations, before moving them to neutral Holland. By May 1915 much of Brussels seems to know what goes on at the nurses’ teaching clinic. Scores of Belgians are involved in resistance ventures. Guides help British and French soldiers reach Brussels through occupied Belgium from Mons. A chemist makes ink for documents. Princess Marie de Cröy forges photo ID cards. Everyone, from miners to the Prince de Cröy, seems to be guiding soldiers to Cavell’s Berkendael Institute. Meanwhile, escapees evade dogs, mines, and German patrols along the Dutch border.

German police begin to investigate, but clumsily. Two German raids on Princess de Cröy’s chateau fail to find concealed soldiers. On one occasion the princess even hides troops in the wall behind her bed. Eventually Cavell is arrested and put on trial, the trial itself moving from the Senate Chamber to the Chamber of Deputies. Cavell is sentenced to be shot. Now American minister Whitlock becomes involved, with other diplomats and lawyers. A frenzy of diplomatic activity takes place as diplomats try, but fail, to gain a stay of execution.

A firing squad executes Cavell and a co-defendant. But this is not the end: the aftermath counts.

The shockwave in public opinion

The Germans had already used poison gas for the first time, against Canadian troops (22nd April, 1915). They had sunk the R.M.S. Lusitania (7th May, 1915) with much loss of life. Edith Cavell’s execution five months later (12th October, 1915), was seen as a third proof of Prussian callousness. This incident played a major role in boosting British voluntary recruiting, Allied morale, and British propaganda. The death of Edith Cavell was the ‘strike three’ alienating the support of  German immigrants to the United States. Her execution cost their support for the German cause. In so doing, it shifted American public opinion, and made possible the entry of the United States into WW1.