Author details the story of a WWI nurse and her connection to the famous Nurse Edith Cavell

Posted on on 19 November 2014
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Nurse historian, Narelle O'Rourke, has written an article for Cenenary News about her fascination with Nurse Edith Cavell and her journey in uncovering the story of another WWI nurse with connections to Nurse Cavell. O'Rourke is seeking to publish a book from the collected research and memorabilia on Nurse Cavell and her comrades in WWI. 

An Unexpected Discovery

Some twenty years ago, I came across a small photograph of a young woman dressed in white muslin wearing a string of pearls. Over one sleeve of her dress she wore a Croix Rouge de Belgique armband. I wanted to purchase the item for my nursing memorabilia collection. However I was told that I could not buy it as a single item as it came in a complete box, which was rather expensive.

I so wanted the photograph that I asked to see the rest of the items in the collection. I rummaged though an old cardboard filing box and, to my surprise, there were other interesting items belonging to this woman. The photograph of the young woman was the front of an "identite carte". To make things even more enticing, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered the carte was numbered 001!

The box contained another photograph of this same woman, now obviously a high ranking person with the Croix Rouge de Belgique during the Second World War with medals on her chest. I excitedly rummaged further and found a tattered photograph album of items which obviously meant something to this woman. It included French and Belgian lottery tickets, letters to Mr Cecil Alpen, two train tickets--one from Brussels to Ostend and Ostend to Dover--charity badges she had acquired, a Tommy’s bombardier badge, and other items. Lo and behold, when I picked up all of this paperwork, there, staring at me, were 7 medals strewn at the bottom of the box.

I wondered who this special woman was and why she would sell items obviously so precious to her. I thought she must have done some very special deeds and was worthy of recognition. The owner of the shop would not tell me where she had acquired the items, except to say that a dealer from the coast had sold it to her. 

I took my husband outside the shop and told him I wished to buy the items and we went back and asked for a small discount. So my pay packet from Queanbeyan Hospital went towards the purchase, which I planned to investigate further over our Christmas holidays.

For two weeks at the coast, holidaying with our children, I hardly let that box out of my sight. I looked at the items and wondered, 'who was this woman?' As soon as I arrived home, I went through the Sydney and Melbourne telephone books to find any help. I chose two names from the box to pursue. One response held little use for me, so I waited with baited breath for a letter from Sydney and, lo and behold, I received one and trembled at the thought of opening it, for it was handwritten and I knew there was information for me. The writer of the letter was Cecil Paul, 76 years old.

The story of Simonne Alpen

He wrote, 'The woman you are enquiring about was my mother, Simonne Alpen nee Cahen, a nurse with the Croix Rouge de Belgique in both wars.' He then went on to tell me a little about himself, which in itself could fill a book . He was born in Brussels and was studying medicine at the Louvain University when the war broke out. At the outbreak of the Second world War he was a young stretcher bearer for the Croix Rouge and joined his father at the Brussels railway station helping the wounded .

At the outbreak of the First World War Simonne enlisted with the Croix Rouge de Belgique and her call up number was 001! She and her Australian husband-to-be, George Alpen, knew Edith Cavell very well.
George Alpen had set up a sports store in Brussels before the war. George took cricket to Belgium and was known as the Victor Trumper of Belgium, acting as both player and umpire at some of the International cricket games in England and Belgium. He became trapped in Brussels during the First World War, went into hiding, and helped with Edith Cavell’s escape route spiriting away British soldiers to the Dutch border under dangerous circumstances. 

As the Germans entered Brussels, George was forced to go into hiding and took on a different identity. He was hiding at a friend’s Chateau when, one day, German officers entered the building. George had preplanned a hiding place and, with short warning by the wife of his friend, he dressed in black and spread eagled himself on wires which he had previously assembled under the billiard table. After searching high and low for any fugitives the officers played a game of billiards unaware George Alpen was hiding underneath the table. Later, George was able to hand over information to British intelligence and consequently became a spy for the British. During the war, Simonne worked as a nurse at the railway stations and was sent further afield in sanitary trains to France to assist the wounded soldiers. 

After the war Brussels returned to its gaiety and Simonne and George were married in 1919. Their son Cecil Paul was born in 1920.

When the Spanish Civil War broke out Simonne went to the aid of the refugee children. She took many back to Belgium and after the war reunited children with their families. When she walked through villages, the group was given a hero’s welcome and Simonne was given a special ring from the Mayor of the City engraved with a key for her heroic deeds. Simonne then settled back into married life with George in Brussels and their son Cecil Paul and was presented with a jewelled brooch from the King of Belgium as well as a silver service for her twenty five years service to the Croix Rouge de Belgique.

Second World War

When the Germans entered Belgium at 5am at the outbreak of the Second World War, Simonne Alpen was on duty at the St-Josse-ten-Noode railway station by 7am. With German aeroplanes bombing the outskirts of Belgium and Fifth Column infiltration around the city, Simonne tended to the soldiers' needs.
Just before the Germans entered Brussels, Simonne and George escaped on the last train from Brussels. They had lost contact with their young 18 year old son, Cecil Paul. He had been assisting his father both as stretcher-bearers for the Croix Rouge de Belgique but he was sent to another post.The Alpens never saw their home again and lost their life’s savings.

The train journey to Toulouse was not without many dangerous adventures and the train was forced to stop and collect the wounded who had been hit escaping on foot from the enemy planes. Their plane was also under shell fire. As the Germans moved closer to the South of France the Alpens were advised to leave. They hurried to a sea port to catch a boat heading for England, but they were late in arriving and watched as their ship moved out into the ocean and was hit by a U-boat. They then journeyed to another port and a ship which should have carried 300 passengers took some thousands of people escaping for their lives. Out on the ocean, there was no food and water for the passengers and they were constantly followed by a U boat, but managed to pick up speed and head for English shores.

The Alplens did not escape the horrors in London as the German planes destroyed homes and killed its citizens. However, George heard his sister Aileen Alpen recording on the BBC. Her story was not without its adventures, as she had been in Poland when the Germans entered the country and she was advised to leave because the Germans had a price on her head. She had been teaching English at the University and she helped Jewish people to escape. Simonne and George reconnected with Aileen but they still had no word of their son. He eventually escaped through Holland and made his way to Australia House in London where they were all reunited.

A New Life

As they had hailed from Europe, Simonne found it difficult to join the British Red Cross, so they headed for Australia, where George planned to visit relatives.
Unfortunately their ship, the Ceramic, collided with another ship near South Africa, but they were rescued and taken to Cape Town. Nurse Simonne assisted with the many children who were journeying to Australia to escape the war. After six weeks in Cape Town they managed to board the Largs bay and headed for Australia.

As soon as Cecil Paul arrived, he joined the A.I.F and went to fight for the Allies. George became a warden, but a year after settling in Australia, George Alpen died suddenly from a burst aortic aneurysm. Simonne was left alone in Sydney but she continued her Red Cross Work and became the matron of a unit. Cecil Paul, speaking seven languages, became a Z Force man. 
When he returned from the war, Cecil Paul took his mother to Canberra, and Simonne, now a retired nurse, joined the public service. Cecil Paul joined the Diplomatic deparment, and after his marriage he became the Charge d’affairs of the Netherlands and South Africa. He was Australia’s representative for the Holy See in Rome and was also involved with the United Nations Food Relief programme.

Follow Up

Ten years ago I visited England and saw the Edith Cavell statue in Trafalgar Square and travelled to Norwich to the grave of Nurse Cavell. I then took a taxi to Swardeston to visit St Mary’s church and meet the pastor. I ventured inside the village church where I viewed memorabilia pertaining to the life of Nurse Cavell. I walked through the graveyard with many headstones belong to the Cavell family.
Lastly my husband and I walked down a small driveway were we saw the manse belonging to the minister Frederik Cavell and his family. We were noticed by the owner and she invited us to see the home. I couldn’t believe m eyes when she I was allowed to view the attic bedroom where Nurse Edith Cavell slept as a child.

To complete my exploration of Cavell's story, I visited the Tir National, the national shooting range in Brussels where Nurse Edith Cavell was shot and buried along with another 35 resistance workers. I also visited the site of Nurse Edith Cavell's la Clinique, the original hospital where she nursed and sheltered wounded Allied soldiers then spirited them to the Dutch border and to freedom. 

End of the Journey

Now that my journey has almost come to an end, I am looking for a publisher for my book, Sisters at Arms, the story of Nurse Editch Cavell and Nurse Simone Alpen. 

I  have numerous photographs and memorabilia relating to both women which could be a book in itself.

My book covers the life of Nurse Edith Cavell: her youth in Swardeston, her early nursing career in England, and the brave deeds she performed with the resistance work in Brussels. She hid wounded Allied soldiers in her hospitals and then spirited them to the Dutch border under dangerous conditions. I also cover the arrest of Nurse Cavell, the trial and subsequent execution, the exhumation of her coffin, the journey home to England via Ostend to Dover with full military honours, the funeral in London, and the final journey to Life’s Green in Norwich. I also tell Simonne's story and the connections between these incredible women. 

Narelle O'Rourke, nee Kaczmarowski, is a nurse and author. She is looking for someone to help put her book into print. If you are interested in this project, please leave a comment here or contact us.