12 October 1915. Edith Cavell is executed. ----- Nursing was one of the first professional inroads early activists for womens' rights made into civil society. For the vast majority of history, nursing was a men's profession. This is distinct from being a medicine woman. Nursing is a science, herbal "experts" are peddling snake oil which is more apt to harm as help. In the Ancient Mediterranean, the analog of modern nurses were the assistants to physicians, all men, who were usually apprenticing to be physicians themselves. Later, as Christianity took over, monks, trained from Greek and Roman texts, served as dedicated doctors and nurses; on the battlefield and in the cities both. Many of the Crusading Orders began as a medical order: for instance the Knights Hospitaller (aka Order of St John, Knights of Rhodes, Knights of Malta) began as an order tasked with caring for pilgrims to the Holy Land; and its military mission emerged as an offshoot of its medical mission; the same evolution occurred with the Teutonic Order and others. Occasionally, Nuns would serve the same function, although mostly in Britain where monastic orders were less established. This is why in Britain, senior nurses are sometimes called "sisters". But it wasn't until the 19th century that nursing was opened to women as a profession. As a result, it is one of the first points at which women commonly enter into the military discussion. It is also somewhat funny that we see male nurses today as an aberration, when someone 300 years ago would be surprised to see a women doing the job. It was mentioned to me by a student that it seems as if we, as historians, draw extra attention to these few women and disproportionately allocate them significance. However, women like Florence Nightingale and Dorthea Dix were given lavish attention in their own time, probably more attention than we give them now that we see wider contexts and have more information. Edith Cavell, as we will see, was also given lavish attention. Although not for her profession. Cavell was born in 1865, the eldest child of a vicar to a small village and his wife. Her upbringing, deeply religious of the Anglican style, focused on self-sacrifice and charity. The village was not a large or wealthy one, and so the vicar's family lived in poverty. Yet, they were generous to their community. As befitting the child of the clergy, she was well educated and left home to become a governess (a private tutor) to a Belgian family. And then trained as a nurse in London. After working in English hospitals, she returned to Belgium as the matron (like the chief of nursing) for a nursing college formed by one Dr. Antoine Depage. After several years, she began publishing a professional journal from the college. Professional nursing was still new to Belgium, and she became an internationally known figure for her work. When war came, she was absent in England but quickly returned to Belgium. When the front lines passed over her school, its nursing operations were taken over by the Red Cross. Without the patronage of the Belgian government, it required NGO funding. Additionally, the Red Cross label allowed them to have access to the sick and wounded that representatives of a belligerent power could not have. Almost immediately, Cavell began hiding British soldiers who were trapped behind enemy lines and conducting them to neutral Netherlands, where they could make their way to Britain and rejoin the war. As the German boot pressed ever harder on Belgium and occupied France, she opened her efforts to civilians of military age. A network was established where refugees--almost exclusively men of military age--and stranded soldiers would find a chateau near Mons, on the French-Belgian border. There, a French prince named Reginald de Croy provided them with forged documents. The de Croy family was a powerful noble house with members in both France and Germany, and were married in with financiers and industrialists on both sides of the Atlantic. From there, the refugees or stranded soldiers were sent to Brussels, where they would be sheltered in houses belonging to Edith Cavell and others, including a Belgian architect named Philippe Baucq. Baucq would then organize their conveyance to the Dutch border, and provide them with the proper documents to travel through The Netherlands and travel to England; where they would join the war against Germany. This was an operation designed to funnel motivated manpower into the armies of the Entente. It has been suggested that Cavell and the others were agents of British Intelligence. However, this is widely dismissed by historians of the intelligence services, as there is no direct evidence of it; only hearsay. In total, Cavell admitted to moving 60 British and 15 French soldiers into The Netherlands, in addition to over 100 military age French and Belgian men. This was just her part, not the numbers for the whole operation. Apparently, the weak link in the chain was Edith Cavell herself. While the others in the operation seemed to understand the need for secrecy, Cavell flaunted her involvement. Very early on, German occupation authorities figured out that Cavell was involved in some kind of covert operation. She was outspoken not only in her pro-British sentiments (despite working under the auspices of the Red Cross) but of her actual pro-British actions. It still took quite a while for the Germans to uncover the extent of the network, and find a suitable member to turn into a double agent. This would be a Frenchmen named Gaston Quien, who after the war would be punished by the French as a collaborator. It wasn't until July 1915 that they were ready to sweep in and break it up. Arrests began on 31 July, with Philippe Baucq. Edith Cavell was rounded up on 3 August. In total, some 34 were arrested and put on trial. These included prominent noblewomen Mary De Croy--sister of Reginald--and the Countess Jeanne de Belleville. Cavell was interrogated three times by German authorities and each time willingly detailed the operations she was engaged in. On 7 October, the day before her trial, she proudly signed a confession. On her 8 October trial, she was not charged with espionage, as is often claimed, but with treason. This charge requires some explanation. Under German law--and indeed under international law--the residents of occupied territory are defacto subjects of the occupying power. This assures that the legal structure is there to organize all of the trappings of civilian life (education, policing, medical care, fire fighting, keeping up the roads) which the government traditionally has a monopoly on; and makes the maintenance of such the ethical duty of the occupier. Citizenship is not conferred, of course. Residents of occupied territory were expected to go on with their lives peacefully: not to help their occupiers, but also not to hinder. Therefore, by international law, Belgium was subject to the German Military Code. And therefore, the German penchant for executing hostages in reprisal for francs-tireurs actions was, as a point of fact, legal. The German Military Code, in paragraph 58, outlawed actions which aided the enemy as treason, and mandated death as the punishment. It additionally mandated death for a list of additional offenses in paragraph 90, which listed the conveyance of soldiers to the enemy. And paragraph 160 reiterated international law and specified that all laws apply to foreigners as well as Germans. Modern observers, as well as those at the time, decry the trial as illegal due to the Geneva Conventions giving protection to medical personnel. And while the Conventions do indeed do that, the 1906 version--as well as the modern version--specifies that the protection is forfeit when medical personnel engage in belligerent action. This may be important for the recent shelling of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, as it was apparently being used as a fighting position by the Taliban (some suggest even with the cooperation of the staff). It wouldn't be the first time. This means that the charges, trial, verdict, and execution of Edith Cavell was legal; and, from one perspective, mandated by international law. During her trial, Cavell was allowed a defense lawyer and to produce witnesses in her defense. The German legal system is much like the American in its adversarial format and the presumption of innocence. However, the defense did not argue with her guilt. She admitted it, and proudly signed the confession. The witnesses were therefore aimed at an exception to the death penalty. Many, German and Belgian were presented to the court and argued that Cavell's efforts at saving life regardless of nationality warranted an exemption. The court, however, confirmed her confession and sentenced her to death.