Picture Postcards from the Great War

Edith Cavell On Postcards

Tony Allen

Today, Edith Cavell is probably the best known female from the Great War. Born in 1865, she was the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman, and in 1895 entered the London Hospital as a probationer and afterwards nursed in England for several years. In 1907, Edith was appointed Matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels which she transformed into a teaching hospital of some excellence.

After the outbreak of war in 1914, the hospital came under the auspices of the Red Cross. Cavell and her staff aided the sick and wounded but she also gave sanctuary to escaping Allied soldiers.  In August 1915, Cavell was arrested by the Germans for "harbouring aliens and helping them to escape". In due course she was sentenced to death, and despite efforts to save her by neutral diplomats, at dawn on 12th October 1915, she was shot by a firing squad. Just before her death  she said "Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone".

A number of picture postcards were published after Cavell's death documenting her arrest, trial, execution, burial and the eventual repatriation of her body back to England. Some of these cards are displayed on this page.

This black-bordered propaganda postcard, probably went some way to perpetuate a myth which later sprang up. It said the firing squad had refused to open fire on the nurse - who had fainted - and according to the text on the back of the card, "they hesitate to shoot on the prostrate body of a woman",  but  nevertheless an officer took out his revolver, "and leaning over his victim, deliberately blows her brains out. REMEMBER:"

This is the reverse of the card featured above. It was posted by a soldier serving on the Western Front on 6th July 1916, to an address in Essex. Sometimes, on similar cards the sender will write a brief comment about Cavell's execution. However, 'George' simply wrote, "Tell Louise to send me a cake. I am OK".

Cavell's execution was a gift to the British propaganda machine, coming as it did just a few months after the Germans sank the Lusitania, also of great propaganda value to the Allies. Another card released after her death, also fosters the myth that a German officer stepped forward after the firing squad refused to shoot the nurse.

This card was printed in Paris and the picture thereon was enough to enrage at least one British soldier. It was sent to Scotland on 26th June 1917, by 'Adam'  - to his mother. He wrote on the back of the card "...this is a postcard of our brave nurse, what do you think of it. I know it gives you more courage and God knows it lets you see what they would do it it was not for the British soldier today and we will beat them no matter how long it take but I think he is beat now or else if not. it will not be long before he is a washout."

The story that Cavell was killed by a shot from the pistol of the officer in charge of the firing squad, persisted for some time. Eventually, a German chaplain, Pastor Le Seur, who accompanied Cavell to her execution and witnessed the incident said, "...I told her it was my duty to stand by her side to the last." As the pastor led here to the pole a bandage was put over her eyes, "which, as the soldier who put it on told me, were full of tears." At the command, two salvos rang out from the firing squad of eight men from a distance of six paces. "With a face streaming with blood - one shot had gone through her forehead...without any doubt she was killed immediately", said Le Seur and added, "I only mention this fact because untrue rumours have been connected with it." Le Seur also said,  "Finally, no soldier refused to shoot."

While a number of cards showed Nurse Cavell been shot by a German officer, a card from a set of six depicted the truth - it showed her execution by a firing squad. The card is depicted below.

"L'Assassinat de Miss Edith Cavell". This card is the third in a set of six depicting the trial, execution and burial of Edith Cavell. The set was published in France and each card carried both French and English captions.

Numerous postcard publishers put out patriotic and propaganda cards which featured the brave and dedicated English nurse. One particular photograph of her became world-famous and not least, through the medium of the picture postcard and an example is reproduced below - with its wrapper.

This satin-finish card was sold for the benefit of the "Daily Mirror Nurse Cavell Memorial Fund". It became a well-known photograph and showed Edith Cavell with her dogs Don and Jack and is thought to have been taken in Brussels in 1910. The words below the picture, are those she spoke to the prison chaplain on the morning of her execution.

After her death Edith Cavell became a household name. A famous photograph of Cavell was used on a fund-raising card captioned "BELGIAN SOLDERS FUND - 1916 - OFFICIAL SOUVENIR" and "issued under the direction of Joseph Clarkson" of Manchester.

Following her death, Edith Cavell joined the ranks of good and the famous. And a splendid example of this can be seen in the pages of The Lord Roberts Memorial Fund Stamp Album. Among her contemporaries there, were Kings and Queens, Generals and Vice-admirals, Dukes and Duchesses, Premiers and Presidents, Statesmen and Maharajahs and many other titles.

These postcards were released in conjunction with the publication of the aforementioned, "The Lord Roberts Memorial Fund Stamp Album" in which there were 144 'boxes' (one, two, three or four to a page.) to place a special stamp bearing the portrait of a well-known Great War personality. In addition, sheets of biographies were available to cut up and place next to the relevant stamp in the album or the stamp on the card. The Edith Cavell postcard, stamp and bio are shown above.

A most interesting purple concertina-type folder holding 12 black and white printed-photographic cards, recorded details of civilians executed by the Germans at the Tir National Shooting Gallery in Brussels. On the back of each card was printed ‘PHOTOYP . INDUST . BELGE . P.I.B.’ and along the bottom was the announcement ‘Cliche et edit R. Ringoet, 639, ch’ Louvain, Brux (Repr. interd.)’ Some of the cards relate to Edith Cavell. The text on the front of the folder was in gold lettering - surrounded by a gold border - and read "National Shooting Range (Belgium) SOUVENIR of the CIVILIAN MARTYRS of the GREAT WAR"

         The purple folder holding the 12 card mentioned below

The following captions are given as they appeared on the originals. The first depicts an "execution ground" with the caption saying that where "Mr. Colinet, former Directory of the Tir National, is "seen [standing, is where] the firing party was posted".  The second card is an oval portrait of Edith Cavell; The third is captioned "The passage to Edith Cavell’s cell [at St-Gilles Prison"; the fourth depicts the "Visit of their Majestie’s, the King and Queen of England to the Edith CAVELL memorial",the fifth shows the "removal of Miss Edith Cavell’s body from the Tir National"; the sixth shows  a memorial to "Edith Cavell and Marie DEPAGE". The remaining six cards refer to other civilians executed by the Germans.

This is the first card in the purple folder. "Mr. Colinet, former Directory of the Tir National, is seen [standing where] the firing party was posted". There is a stool in the foreground upon which "the condemned was placed", the distance between it and Mr. Colinet appears to be about ten feet.

After the war, it was decided to bring the body of Edith Cavell back to England. On 17th March 1919, she was exhumed. and was "found to be well preserved and the features still recognizable."
"Visit of their Majestie’s, the King and Queen of England to the Edith CAVELL memorial." This is the fourth card in the set.

"Removal of Miss Edith Cavell’s body from the Tir National". The fifth card in the set. On 13th May, a troop of British soldiers escorted the body from the Tir National to Ostend,and from there to Dover on HMS Rowena.

On 15th May, a special railway carriage bore the body of Edith Cavell from Dover to London, where  - through streets lined with people - a horse-drawn gun carriage took it to Westminster Abbey. After a funeral service - where among the guests was the King - the body (in accordance with the family's wishes) went by special train to Norfolk.There, it was buried outside the south transept of the cathedral. Later, a number of statues and memorials stones dedicated to Edith Cavell appeared in London and other cities and of course they were featured on picture postcards too.

The real-photo card on the left was by Rotary and depicted the "NURSE CAVELL STATUE, ST.MARTIN'S PLACE, LONDON."  The centre printed-photo card depicted the Cavell memorial in Brussels and gave the date of her death as 12th October 1915 - which was correct. The real-photo card on the right depicted the same memorial. But look at the date given for her execution! There were no publishers details on either card.

Edith Cavell Remembered in Verse


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