I have never visited the National Portrait Gallery in St Martin’s Place in London without first stopping by the statue of Edith Cavell and re-reading the inscription on the plaque at its base: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.” Only on reading this fine biography did I realise that at the time the statue was erected there was some hesitation and controversy over including these words. At the end of the “war to end all wars”, a war in which Lord Kitchener had exhorted thousands of young men that “Your Country needs You”, did they not sound somewhat unpatriotic? Yet they came from the heart of Edith Cavell’s Christian faith and her innate vocation as a nurse: loving, dedicated service must transcend flags or frontiers.

Diana Souhami has written a most sympathetic, closely researched book. Even though I suspect that the personality of Nurse Cavell was not naturally congenial to her – all that uprightness, reserve and sense of duty – she has done her good service in her turn, not making idle speculations of a psychological kind or pressing her into a story about the limits of women’s liberation in the Edwardian era. In the photos chosen to illustrate the book Edith looks handsome, with firm features and a clear gaze; the description of her ending is enough to move one to tears.

The daughter of a vicar, she was “born into Christian piety, English country life and entrenched social values”, on 4th December 1865 near Norwich. It was not a rich parish and there were few opportunities for an intelligent and determined girl – so Edith became a governess, one of 25,000 during that period. Inspired by the recent reforms of Florence Nightingale, who had made nursing a respectable profession for the middle classes, her real ambition was to become a nurse. In 1890, she applied to work as a governess in Brussels, a move which was to dictate her life’s eventual course. She became fluent in French before eventually returning to England to take up nursing training as a probationer at the London Hospital in Whitechapel in 1896.

Run by a formidable matron, Eva Luckes, who spent 40 years at her post, the London Hospital was an excellent institution for its time. Probationer nurses worked long, hard hours, doing cleaning, scrubbing and polishing as well as learning, among other things, how to treat scurvy, typhoid, concussion, sarcomas, amputations and cut throats. On qualification Edith applied for several posts as matron but without success, until in 1903 she became the assistant matron at Shoreditch Infirmary. In 1907, her opportunity came; her former employers in Belgium, impressed by the strong character and resourcefulness of their former governess, put her name forward to be the matron of a new training school for nurses in Brussels. Nurse Cavell accepted. Aged 42, with years of nursing experience behind her and with a clear vision of her new tasks and responsibilities, she was ideally suited to the challenge.

The second half of Souhami’s book is devoted to the last eight years of Edith’s life; the last quarter to her final months, weeks and days. It makes sombre but inspiring reading. Although austere in her personal habits – her sitting room at the nursing school was simply furnished with a rocking chair, tea set, drawing materials, a silk tablecloth and 4 vases – beneath her rather forbidding aspect was a woman of great warmth and kindness. Unmarried, she created her own unorthodox “family”, becoming the unofficial guardian of two young English girls, vigilant about her students, caring for the school’s porter and cook and devoted to her mongrel dog, “Jack”.

With her high standards and attention to detail, her nursing school achieved a respected reputation. Her nurses, whom she instilled with her own dedication, were very loyal to her. In the summer of 1914 she was enjoying a summer holiday in Norwich with her elderly widowed mother, to whom she was very close, when war was declared. Naturally she instantly returned to Brussels; nurses would be needed for the wounded; to stay safely in England was “out of the question.”

She told her nurses that any wounded soldier was to be treated, friend or foe; their profession was for humanity. Yet Edith was also a patriot; she deplored the German aggression and wanted the Allies to win. Inevitably, during those early months of war, she was drawn into helping hundreds of wounded French, English and Belgian soldiers recover from their injuries and secretly escape across the border into Holland. She was well aware of the dangers; to harbour enemy soldiers could result in the death penalty. But Cavell was made of stern stuff; Souhami comments, “At the age of 49, she was too brave a woman to bow to threats of punishment or violence.”

By July 1915, the German network of spies and informers was closing round her. On 5 August she was arrested. A nurse colleague and friend, Sister Wilkins, arrested at the same time but later released, recalled later, “As she walked away from me I remember how erectly she carried her slight body. Her whole bearing was calm and composed.” Characteristically, from solitary confinement in cell 23, St Gilles Prison, the matron instructed Sister Wilkins to “tell them all to go on as usual”. She also asked her friend to send her her copy of The Imitation of Christ, for it was this manual of devotion, written by a medieval Flemish Catholic mystic, which had long shaped her own deep Christian faith. She enquired, “Are my things put away safely? With camphor?”

Cavell did not forget “My dear old Jack! Please brush him sometimes and look after him” A further letter to all her student nurses admonished them: “I hope you get on with your studies just as if I were there.” With no legal representation and steered into signing a confession in German, a language she did not know, time was running out. At her trial on 7 October she chose not to wear her matron’s uniform (which might have brought clemency from her judges) so as not to risk incriminating her fellow nurses; the responsibility was hers alone.

On 11 October came the death sentence on trumped-up charges of espionage and treason, to be carried out at dawn the next morning. Always thoughtful of others, Cavell declined to have Mr Gahan, the English chaplain in Brussels and a longstanding friend, witness her execution: “He is not used to such things.” It was to Gahan, who visited her that last evening, that she stated, “Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough.” She firmly rejected martyr status: “Think of me as a nurse who tried to do her duty”. She wrote final letters: to her mother (never delivered), to her nurses, telling them “I have loved you all much moiré than you can know” and signing herself “Your devoted Matron” and to Sister Willkins, whom she asked to take charge of her will.

This quintessential Englishwoman, reserved, principled and with a deep sense of right and wrong, went to her execution by firing squad neatly dressed in a blue skirt and jacket and her best white blouse, her hair carefully brushed and her black straw hat secured with a tortoiseshell pin. The soldier who bandaged her eyes reported that they were filled with tears. The nurse who had so often closed the eyes of the dead and treated their bodies with skill and respect, was herself treated with brutal indifference, hastily placed in a wooden coffin and buried at the site. If history is about heroic personalities as well as events, the moral grandeur of Nurse Cavell’s personality and death surely deserve her corner in St Martin’s Place, for the idle curiosity of tourists or to inspire, with her Christian conviction and courage, a new generation.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.