Located between the Astoria and the Whirlpool rivers is a mountain considered by many to be the most majestic in Jasper National Park, if not the entire Canadian Rocky Mountains. At an impressive altitude of about 3,300 metres, the mountain has been known by a number of names. French Canadian voyageurs using the Athabasca Pass referred to the notable landmark as La Montagne de la Grand Traverse (Mountain of the Great Pass). Dr. James Hector of the Palliser Expedition referred to it as Le Duc, probably after a Metis member of his party. In 1912, Arthur O. Wheeler of the Alpine Club of Canada and the Interprovincial Boundary Survey named it Fitzhugh Mountain, after the townsite of Fitzhugh, which was named for E. L. Fitzhugh, a director of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (the townsite of Fitzhugh was later renamed Jasper). It had also been periodically, and incorrectly, referred to as Mount Geikie. Today, and since 1916, the mountain is named Mount Edith Cavell, named for a British nurse who never set foot in Canada, let alone within Jasper National Park or on the mountain itself. How this mountain became a commemoration to Edith Cavell is an interesting lesson in Canada’s role in the First World War, its place in the Empire and the importance of wartime symbolism and the values of myth and memorialization.
Edith Louisa Cavell was born in Norfolk, England in 1865, the daughter of a local Anglican minister. She trained as a nurse and, in 1907, became the matron of a nursing school in Brussels, Belgium. She stayed in Brussels following the outbreak of the First World War and the invasion and occupation of Belgium by Germany. During the occupation, Cavell treated and sheltered wounded soldiers from both sides of the conflict, and her nursing school and hospital became part of a network of locations that facilitated the smuggling of Allied soldiers across the lines back to neutral and Allied territory. In August 1915, she was arrested and charged with harbouring and aiding the enemy. Always outspoken, Cavell readily admitted to her role in aiding Allied soldiers and French and Belgian nationals escape to the Netherlands and Britain. She argued that as these men would have been shot by German authorities if found, it was her duty to preserve their lives by aiding their escape. She was tried by court martial on October 7th and 8th and was found guilty of conducting soldiers to the enemy. Despite appeals for clemency from Allied and neutral nations, notably Spain and the United States, as well as from within Germany itself, Edith Cavell was sentenced to death on October 11th and was executed by firing squad the following morning. Buried in the prison cemetery, her body was exhumed and transported to Britain and was interred in Norwich following a service at Westminster Abbey.
Throughout the war, Allied propaganda used a number of images and events, such as the sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania and a series of real and imagined atrocities on the front lines, to portray Germany as a depraved and dishonourable power. Edith Cavell, as a woman and a nurse who stoically gave her life aiding Allied soldiers was ideally suited to become part of this anti-German propaganda narrative. By the standards of the time, the fact that Edith Cavell was a woman and a nurse made her sacrifice even more virtuous and noble, and by contrast the actions of her executioners more shocking, to a western world raised on the Victorian chivalric view of women as nurturing caregivers in need of protection. Almost immediately following her execution, she became a powerful symbol of the righteousness of the Allied cause and the barbarity of Germany throughout the British Empire, its allies and in many neutral countries. Books, with titles like The Martyrdom of Nurse Cavell: The Life Story of the Victim of Germany’s Most Barbarous Crime and Un crime abominable l’assassinat de Miss Cavell, were published. Her image was used on posters encouraging people to avenge her death by buying war bonds or enlisting for service, and memorials to her sacrifice were erected across the Empire. The Government of Canada began to look for a way to commemorate Edith Cavell, and focused on naming a mountain in her honour.
Initially, a proposal supported by Sir Robert McBride, Premier of British Columbia was put forward to rename Mount Robson in her honour. Proponents of this plan felt that the mountain could be easily and appropriately renamed as the precise origins of “Robson” were not known (The origin of the name is still not known, but is believed to be a reference to Colin Robertson (1783-1842), a prominent Hudson’s Bay Company official, the name Robertson often being shortened to Rob’son). This proposal met considerable controversy with numerous letters and telegrams of protest being sent to the Geographic Board of Canada. Most wanted Edith Cavell recognized, but not through the renaming of such a prominent landmark. Robert Borden, Prime Minster of Canada instructed the Geographic Board of Canada to find an alternative mountain to name for the war heroine.
Arthur O. Wheeler suggested that the word “Cavell” simply be added to the name of a “splendid spire” near Banff that was already known as Mount Edith. This suggestion was accepted by the Board in December 1915, but it soon faced considerable criticism from people who believed that Mount Edith had been named for their family members or associates. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and the Angus and Wanklyn families argued that Mount Edith had been named for Edith Wanklyn (née Angus), the daughter of Richard B. Angus, a former vice-president of the railway. Also, Banff residents and the Orde family argued that the mountain was named for Edith (or Edyth) Orde, formerly Edith Cowper-Cox, the companion and aide to Lady Agnes Macdonald, wife of Primes Minister John A. Macdonald during her memorable 1886 trip through the Rocky Mountains. The Geographic Board retracted its decision in January 1916 and sought another solution. Proposals regarding a mountain in the Yukon Territory and one in Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains were proposed, but rejected as being too inaccessible or not majestic enough to properly honour the wartime heroine.
In late 1915, the Board had asked M. P. Bridgland of the Dominion Land Survey, who had done extensive surveys in Jasper National Park, if there was a suitable peak in that region that could be used to commemorate Edith Cavell. On December 18, 1915, Bridgland replied that a prominent mountain incorrectly identified as Mount Geikie would make an ideal memorial for Edith Cavell, saying that it “is the finest peak in sight from Jasper and stands prominently above the other peaks in its vicinity.” Wheeler later sent a telegram and letter supporting Bridgland’s suggestion. Following the controversy about the remaining of Mount Edith, Bridgland’s proposal seemed to meet everyone’s approval and the mountain was officially named Mount Cavell in March 1916. However, more letters continued to be sent, this time arguing that for people to truly understand the magnitude of Edith Cavell’s sacrifice and the depravity of her executioners it was essential for her sex or profession to be explicit in the name. These letters and telegrams reached the office of the Prime Minister Robert Borden and he instructed the Geographic Board of Canada to change the name again. In June 1916 the mountain officially became Mount Edith Cavell.
Soon after the war, the mountain became a popular destination for tourists in Jasper National Park. A teahouse (now gone), and a memorial cairn (now replaced by a more modern interpretive sign), were erected at the site and the accessibility and picturesque nature of the mountain were actively promoted by the Dominion Parks Branch (now Parks Canada Agency). For many visitors over the following decades the story of virtuous female wartime sacrifice resonated with the majestic natural environment, giving the site an atmosphere of reverence, awe and duty to a higher power (both to country and to religion). In July 1951, the Secretary of the Geographic Board of Alberta visited Mount Edith Cavell and wrote:
As we gazed in awe and admiration upon Mount Edith Cavell, this outstanding mountain named in honour of such an outstanding heroine, it seemed to remind us that only the real things of life last and are worthwhile. … The courage, fortitude and devotion of Edith Cavell will be remembered forever. This magnificent mountain which is seen for many miles along the highway should be a reminder to us occasionally to come apart from the world to which we daily live and worship in God’s great wonderland.
The physical impressiveness of Mount Edith Cavell and the landscape of glaciers, meadows and pools that surround it are as awe-inspiring today as they were when the mountain was officially named in 1916. The story of Edith Cavell is probably not as well known today as it was previously and the overtly political interpretation of that story in the months following her execution and the years following the First World War would likely ring hollow to Canadian’s today. However, understanding how the mountain was named and why it was named for a nurse that never saw it, offers insight into the values of Canadian society at the time, our perception of our place in the Empire and the war effort and the need that to build a story-line of memorialization and mythology about the sacrifices of the war.
Written by: Ron Kelland, Historic Places Research Officer and Geographical Names Program Coordinator.
The author would like to particularly thank the staff of the Geographical Names Board of Canada Secretariat for providing access to their files on Mount Edith Cavell and scanning many of those documents.
Barney, Shane M., “The Mythic Matters of Edith Cavell: Propaganda, Myth and Memory,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 31 no.2 (Summer 2005), pp. 217-233, available from https://web.viu.ca/davies/H482.WWI/Cavell.Memory.Myth.pdf.
Cross, Michael, “Exceptional Brutality and Stupidity,” The Law Society Gazette (UK), 5 August 2015, available from http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/exceptional-brutality-and-stupidity/5050404.fullarticle.
Duffy, Michael, “Primary Documents – Maitre G. de Leval on the Execution of Edith Cavell, 12 October 1915,” FirstWorldWar.com: A Multimedia History of World War One, 22 August 2009, available from http://www.firstworldwar.com/source/cavell_deleval.htm.
Holmgren, Eric J and Particia M. Holmgren, Over 2000 Place Names of Alberta (Saskatoon: Modern Press, 1972).
MacLaren, I. S. Mapper of Mountains: M. P. Bridgland in the Canadian Rockies, 1902-1930 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2005).
Vance, Jonathan. Death So Noble: Memory, Meaning and the First World War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1997).
Wikipedia Contributors. “Edith Cavell”.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edith_Cavell (accessed March 2016).