I was in Trafalgar Square in London England recently and made a point of finding Edith Clavell’s memorial in St Martin’s Place. Like all great leaders, no matter the arena, Edith Clavell had great courage and much tenacity. During the first World War, she was a nurse who remained in Brussels, Belgium, after the Germans occupied the city early in the war, tending to wounded soldiers from all countries at the Red Cross Hospital.
In addition to this work, Clavell helped captured British, French and Belgian soldiers escape to the neutral Netherlands, where most would eventually make it across the channel to England. Born on December 4, 1865 in Swardeston, England, she has been described as a “vivacious, tree-climbing girl who grew into the determined, severe woman we see in the statue.” She has been further described as “headstrong and independent” and thus prevented from attracting “a man of money” and it is said that ” she was too proud to accept a lesser one”. She never married, but devoted her life to nursing.
Here is an account of her work from the diary of a man she nursed back to health:
In 1915 Miss Clavell was directress of l’Ecole Belge d’ Infirmieres Diplomees, as well as a new hospital, St. Gilles, both training women for the profession of nursing. As the great war engulfed Belgium Miss Clavell became part of an underground resistance network working in Brussels to help men escape. She protected hospitalized men by keeping them longer than they needed. When there were no beds available, Edith sheltered men in the hospital’s attic and cellar. In this way, she helped approximately two hundred men escape the Germans. On August 4, 1915, after months of observation, the Germans arrested Edith and others sheltering Belgian soldiers. On October 7, 1915, Edith Clavell, along with others in the underground network were found guilty of resistance activities and sentenced to death by firing squad. Despite American, French and Spanish intercession, Edith’s sentence was not commuted. On October 12, 1915, Edith was executed by German firing squad.
Edith Clavell was 49 years old when she was shot to death. “Her life and death make me think of the line from The Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams’ character, Mr Keatings says to his students: “Make something of yourselves, boys. Make you life count!