This medal by French engraver Georges-Henri Prud’homme (1873-1947) honors English nurse Edith Cavell who was executed for treason by the Germans in World War I.
107 years ago this month, in the early morning hours of 12 October 1915, English nurse Edith Cavell faced a firing squad for her efforts in aiding French, English, and Belgian fighters to cross enemy lines. Cavell was born in 1872 in Swardeston, Norfolk, England, the eldest child of Rev. Frederick and Louisa Sophia Warming Cavell. She began her nursing studies at the age of 21 and in 1906, became the first directress of a Belgian nursing school. Cavell was at home in England when World War I broke out, but raced back to Belgium, knowing her services would be badly needed. Her nursing school was converted into a hospital where Cavell and her team treated Belgian, French, and English soldiers and their German foes alike.
Cavell’s troubles began on 5 August 1915 when she was arrested by the Germans on charges of conspiracy and sent to St. Gilles prison in Brussels, where she was detained until 7 October when her trial took place. At trial, Cavell readily admitted her guilt leaving her captors no choice (or so they would maintain) but to impose the penalty of death. They considered Cavell’s actions part of “a well thought-out, world-wide conspiracy which succeeded for nine months in rendering the most valuable service to the enemy to the disadvantage of our Army … only the utmost severity can bring relief.” Her execution would also serve to “frighten those who may presume on their sex to take part in enterprises punishable with death.” Despite eleventh-hour pleas by American and Spanish diplomats, Cavell was executed at about 2 o’clock in the morning, “perfectly calm and resigned,” having told the British chaplain to inform her friends and family that she had willingly given up her life for her country.
On 11 December 1915, the citizens of Boston held a memorial service for Nurse Cavell in Steinert Hall. They announced a fundraising campaign to create the position of “Edith Cavell Nurse from Massachusetts,” a professional nurse who would be sent to serve with the British Expeditionary Forces for the duration of the war. Given the abhorrence of Americans for the sentence imposed on Cavell, the position was quickly funded and Alice Fitzgerald, a nurse working at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass., was selected, arriving in Europe in March of 1916. In 1917, excerpts from her letters home were published as The Edith Cavell Nurse from Massachusetts: A Record of One Year’s Personal Service with the British Expeditionary Force in France, Boulougne, the Somme 1916-1917.
Alice Fitzgerald was not a Massachusetts native—she was born in Florence, Italy, to Charles H. Fitzgerald and Alice Riggs Lawrdson of Baltimore, raised in Europe, and graduated from the nursing school at Johns Hopkins in the Class of 1906. However, she took her responsibility as the representative of Massachusetts very seriously, continually corresponding with her backers in the state, and advocating for supplies, treats for the prisoners, and, particularly, a gramophone for the entertainment of her patients. She astutely realized that for soldiers recovering from injury, medical care was only part of the solution. Fluent in several languages, Fitzgerald also interpreted for French and German patients, and like Cavell before her, did not waver in her commitment to serving ally and enemy alike. After serving in a casualty clearing station near the front in the fall and early winter of 1916, Fitzgerald reassigned to the hospital in Boulogne where she wrote
What an excitement over U.S.A. affairs! I am being greeted as a “half ally” now, waiting for the declaration of war to become a “full one.” Things are getting very tense. The air is full of electricity or rather of activity: What? When? Where? Who knows?
For her part, Fitzgerald survived the war, going on to have a varied and illustrious career in nursing, establishing nursing schools in Europe and Asia, and directing nursing programs in New York and Maryland. She died at the age of 87 in New York City.
Alice Fitzgerald’s papers are held by Johns Hopkins and the Maryland Historical Society, but the Massachusetts Historical Society holds manuscript collections of some of the many other American women who served in World War I including: the Marian Lawrence Peabody papers, Loring-Jackson-Noble papers, Hilda Chase Foster papers, Elizabeth Sherman Cameron letters, Eleanor Saltonstall papers, and Margaret Hall’s Letters and photographs from the Battle Country.
Fitzgerald, Alice. The Edith Cavell Nurse from Massachusetts: A Record of One Year’s Personal Service with the British Expeditionary Force in France, Boulougne, the Somme 1916-1917. With an Account of the Imprisonment, Trial, and Death of Edith Cavell. Boston: W. A. Butterfield, 1917.