In Jasper National Park, Mt. Edith Cavell rises majestically from the Athabasca Valley. At 3,363 Metres, the iconic peak stands sentinel over the treetops below.
Over the years the mountain has been ascribed many names. First Nations peoples called it the White Ghost; French fur traders called it La Montagne de la Grande Traverse and more recently, it was known as Mount Le Duc, Mount Fitzhugh and Mount Geikie. In 1916, it was officially named Mt. Edith Cavell in honour of an English nurse who risked her life to smuggle hundreds of Allied soldiers out of German-occupied Belgium during WWI. As consequence of her bravery, Edith Cavell was arrested and executed by a German firing squad.
Edith Cavell was born in 1865 in the English county of Norfolk. As a young woman, she was employed as a governess, in England and in Brussels. At the age of 29, while caring for her ailing father, Edith realized a vocation for nursing. She moved to London to attend nursing school and embarked on what would be a lifelong nursing career. In 1907, she was offered the esteemed role of Matron of Belgium’s first nursing school and returned to Brussels to head L’ École Belge d’Infirmiéres Diplômées.
Nurse Cavell took to her new role with great energy, providing exceptional training for her students and establishing an excellent reputation for herself and her clinic. However, Edith’s professional aspirations were significantly altered by the commencement of WWI and the German invasion of Belgium in May1914. Subjected to martial law, Edith and her nurses experienced food rationing, on-the-spot identity checks and raids by the German secret police. Despite these deprivations, the clinic continued with its daily operations, nursing patients from both sides of the conflict without discrimination.
In November 1914, Edith received a visit that would alter the course of her life. Seeking shelter for two Englishmen trapped behind enemy lines, a Belgian named Capiau came to the clinic hoping Edith would shelter her fellow countrymen. Edith did not hesitate; she hid them, tended their wounds and assisted in their escape. This incident was the first of many; Edith was now a part of an ever-widening network of individuals who devoted themselves to the protection and safe transport of Allied soldiers beyond enemy lines. The clinic operated as a safe haven for stranded soldiers. After recuperating from their ordeals, Edith would facilitate their safe passage out of German occupied territory.
It was a dangerous game and discovery would spell disaster for all people involved. By May 1915, Edith suspected that the clinic was under surveillance. The frequency of police raids increased and a number of suspicious characters appeared, asking for assistance in leaving the country. Ever vigilante, Edith did not fall prey to entrapment, but these activities worried her. In June, a fellow conspirator, concerned that the network was under suspicion, proposed they terminate their activities. Upon hearing that there were 30 men awaiting assistance, Edith responded, “we cannot stop.” It was agreed that the work would continue until the remaining men were escorted to safety, but the weeks that followed were filled with much apprehension.
The secret police came for her on August 5th. She and 35 members of the network were arrested and imprisoned for ten weeks before they were tried as a group by a German military tribunal. Though nine of them were acquitted and the remaining given prison sentences, Edith and four others were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death.
Edith was to be executed the following day. On her last evening, Edith met with her chaplain who told her she would be remembered as a heroine and a martyr. She responded, “Do not think of me like that; think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty.” In the early morning of October 12, 1915, Edith Cavell was driven to the grounds of Belgium’s National Shooting Range. There, she was tied to a pole, blindfolded and executed by a firing squad. She was 49 years old.
News of Edith Cavell’s execution was met with global condemnation and Edith indeed became a martyr for the Allied cause. In Britain, the news galvanised the war effort, causing the Bishop of London to remark there was no need for a recruiting campaign as the execution of Edith Cavell was enough to encourage enlistment. Following the firestorm of international criticism, Edith’s comrades had their death sentences commuted to prison time and the Kaiser decreed that no woman would be executed without his consent.
Edith’s death elicited numerous tributes celebrating the woman who saved so many lives at the expense of her own. In 1916, the Canadian Government honoured Edith by officially ascribing her name to Jasper’s iconic peak. Though under interrogation, Edith confessed to helping 200 men escape, it has been estimated, that the actual number is closer to several hundred. Just as Nurse Cavell stood vigil over the countless men that she saved, for the last hundred years, Mount Edith Cavell has stood vigil over Jasper. The mountain serves as a reminder of her selflessness and courage, preserving Edith’s legacy of heroism for future generations. Mount Edith Cavell - a formidable mountain, named for a formidable woman.