My grandmother and a nursing hero

Ruth Moore worked with first world war hero Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed for helping Allied soldiers escape Belgium. Her granddaughter Miriam Taylor, a nurse, talks to RCNi.

Ruth Moore worked with first world war hero Edith Cavell, the British nurse executed for helping Allied soldiers escape Belgium. Her granddaughter Miriam Taylor, a nurse, talks to RCNi

Miriam Taylor’s grandmother Ruth Moore was one of the last nurses to train under first world war hero Edith Cavell. After Cavell’s execution by the Germans in 1915, she helped to promote her legacy. Miriam Taylor, herself a nurse, shares her grandmother’s impressions of Cavell and discusses her extensive archive of memorabilia – which includes her grandmother’s nursing certificate, filled in and signed by Cavell in 1915.

Miriam Taylor
Miriam Taylor wearing her grandmother’s hospital badge designed by Edith Cavell

Clare Lomas (CL): Did your grandmother talk to you about nursing in the first world war and her connection to Edith Cavell?

Miriam Taylor (MT): I spoke to my grandmother as a child and teenager about Edith Cavell, and she always said she was a wonderful nurse. My grandmother started her nurse training in Belgium [at the nursing school in Brussels established by Edith Cavell] in 1912, just as her parents were leaving the country to work for a shipping line in Tangier. As she was under 21, Edith Cavell became her legal guardian. From September 1914 to April 1915, my grandmother worked iin the Royal Palace in Belgium where Edith Cavell also worked, which had been converted into a Red Cross hospital. A lot of the nursing tasks were pure hard work, scrubbing and cleaning, and you quickly learned how to multitask because you had to do everything. My grandmother spoke eight languages, including German, so she was put in charge of the German wards. But every time an English person came in from the battlefield, she would be called to help. She nursed at least 290 German soldiers under occupation in Belgium, which is something you cannot do without a bit of steel up your spine.

She did not realise at the time what a legend Edith Cavell would become, and what a nursing legacy she would leave, but she collected everything she could about her over the years to keep her memory going. She replied to everything in the newspapers, helped the biographers, and had a 40-year correspondence with actress Anna Neagle, who played Cavell in the 1939 fi lm Nurse Edith Cavell. Her many letters are part of my grandmother’s archive.

CL: How did your grandmother’s archive come to be in your possession?

MT: My aunt gave it to me in 2000. It had been in a box in her garage for 23 years! I then had it authenticated at the Royal London Hospital Museum. There are lots of things that have not been thoroughly gone over yet, and new information is coming to light all the time. We recently found a telegram from Cavell to my great uncle Jack, who was living in Belgium at the time, saying: ‘The arrangements are ready.’ I haven’t had it properly looked at yet, so we don’t know exactly what it means. But it is dated August 1915, just before Cavell was arrested, which adds a whole new dimension to this part of her story.

CL: Are there any items of special significance to you? 

MT:   I have my grandmother’s German pass, dated April 7 1915, and a couple of identity cards. Belgium was an occupied country, and the Germans said all foreigners must be registered. Cavell didn’t get her papers signed – she said she was there at the invitation of the Belgian government and the Germans knew where she was.  But my grandmother got registered, meaning she was able to get a train out of Belgium without arousing suspicion from the Germans when she was asked to help set up field hospitals on the Western Front. Seven nurses left Belgium to do that, my grandmother, another English nurse and five Belgian nurses. Cavell had to smuggle the Belgian nurses out dressed as schoolgirls because they were not allowed to leave the country.  My grandmother’s Belgian Red Cross medals are precious, as is her nursing certificate – filled in and signed by Edith Cavell in 1915 – and her hospital badge, which was designed by Cavell for her nursing school. The emblem on the badge is edelweiss. Cavell chose this because it grows high up in the mountains and is hard to find. It represents what she wanted her nurses to aspire to. On the back of the badge is the number 53 – my grandmother was the 53rd  nurse to complete her training with Cavell in 1915. Cavell was imprisoned and executed that year, meaning my grandmother was one of the last nurses she trained.

CL: Has this year’s (2014) first world war centenary meant more to you because of the Cavell connection?

MT: It has definitely focused my attention, and made me think about that war and those who lost their lives. No one in my family was killed in battle in the war, but we have my grandmother’s legacy as a nurse, and she survived to tell the tale for many years. She died the same time I started my nursing training, September 1977, which is poignant for me. My husband and I were taken to the Somme last year by the BBC to film an episode of the Antiques Roadshow. My husband found a memorial to his great uncle who was killed in the war. We found the entire experience very moving, much more than we expected to.

CL: How does nursing in the first world war compare to nursing today?

MT: The nursing ethos of Cavell’s era is still at the heart of nursing today. You need to be highly educated these days to understand all the advances in technology and modern medicine, but you still need to understand people and care for them in a compassionate way. Cavell was a disciplinarian. There were no antibiotics in 1915, so she had to be strict about hygiene – if someone was meant to be cleaning she would check afterwards that they had done it properly. She was also fastidious about personal standards – her nurses had to be in proper uniform at all times – and was a stickler for punctuality; she would sit at breakfast with her watch next to her knife and fork, and if a nurse was more than two minutes late the forfeit was two hours of her spare time. Cavell showed great courage, which is also demonstrated by today’s nurses. Whether it is dealing with new diseases or war, nurses have always had to face up to terror. There were people with bayonets outside my grandmother’s wards. There will always be challenges, as the Ebola crisis shows, but you just have to do your job to the best of your ability.

CL: What is Edith Cavell’s legacy for nurses and nursing?

MT: Edith Cavell was an exceptional nurse leader. When she was arrested and imprisoned in August 1915, she was in solitary confi nement for ten weeks. But rather than dwell on her situation, she had her second in command, Sister White, come to her in prison to take instructions to keep her nursing schools running. I have letters from Sister White to my grandmother about this. It is amazing she did not become self-obsessed, given her situation, but her job was her life. She treated all her patients equally – whether English or German – and she was incredibly brave. If an English soldier came into the hospital from the battlefield and was not able to go back and fight straight away, she would help smuggle him to safety. That is what she was executed for in October 1915. She had a lot of time to think while she was in prison, but she had no regrets about what she had done. The Germans wanted to set an example by executing a nurse. In fact, it turned the war around – more people volunteered to fight when they found out that such a terrible thing had been done to a nurse.

The Cavell Nurses’ Trust was started in 1917 when two national newspapers launched a public appeal for donations in memory of Edith Cavell. The fund was to help nurses who were mentally and physically damaged by the war.  For me, this is her ultimate legacy – almost 100 years after her death, nurses in distress are still being helped in Cavell’s name.

This article is for subscribers only