Last week’s column touched on a subject that is critical to the winning of a war, namely esprit de corps, which is an unswerving belief in the righteousness of a cause, a belief that drives the troops in battle and the people at home. This week we’ll talk about how the German General Staff lost World War I by doing things that were so blatantly dishonorable that they undermined the morale of both their troops and their entire people.
Edith Louisa Cavell, the heroine of our tale, was born in 1866 in a small country rectory near Norwich, England where her father, the Reverend Frederick Cavell, served for 40 years. Edith Cavell, her biographer says, was an unusually thoughtful child who was beloved by everyone because of a natural sense of duty and concern for others that was rare in a youngster.
It was natural, then, that at age 29, Edith Cavell, having decided to devote her life to the nursing of the poor, entered London Hospital as a nurse and remained there for five years. Then, in 1906, after a series of successes in nursing, she was offered a position as the matron of a surgical and medical facility in Belgium, where she had attended school for a time as a child.
That placed Edith Cavell directly in the path of danger under Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, which called for a sneak attack on France through neutral Belgium to catch the French army off guard and very quickly defeat it, leaving Germany free to attack and defeat Russia before it was ready.
Being the remarkable person that she was — a woman focused on giving aid to the ill no matter who they were — when the attack on Belgium began and wounded soldiers were brought into her hospital, Edith Cavell wrote to the attacking Germans and told them to bring their wounded to her hospital because all soldiers, regardless of their nationality, would be well treated.
However, when she was ordered by a German general to make sure that no French or Belgian soldiers left her hospital after being treated, she replied courageously. “We are prepared,” she said, “to do all we can to help soldiers recover from their wounds, but to be their jailers? Never!”
In the meantime, the Germans, following the new precepts of war as a war between peoples, committed atrocity after atrocity, including one in Namur, Belgium, where they posted a warning saying, “Before 4 o’clock all Belgian and French soldiers are to be delivered up as prisoners of war. At 4 o’clock a rigorous inspection of all houses will be made. Every soldier found will be shot. The streets will be held by German guards, who will hold ten hostages for each street. These hostages will be executed if there is any trouble in that street.”
And execute those hostages — men women, and children — they did, an act savagely repeated in other cities. This, and other acts like it, led Edith Cavell and many others to aid soldiers and civilians to escape into neutral Holland.
On Aug. 5, 1915, while she was binding the wounds of a German soldier, half a dozen German troops burst open the door of the ward with the butt-ends of their rifles, entered it, and roughly dragged her away.
For 10 weeks, Edith Cavell was questioned in secret. She was never told that the charge against her was spying — which was totally untrue — nor was she allowed any contact with an adviser of any kind.
Next week, the beginning of the end for Germany.