This year is the centennial of the horrific and shameful execution of one of England’s most noble daughters.
Edith Cavell (her name incidentally rhymes with travel or gravel) was always very insistent on people knowing how to pronounce her name properly, rather like my own name as I have had to do so frequently in the past.
Today, patriotism seems a rather jaded word and instead, we are joyfully encouraged to ignore its meanings and implications and instead mimic the new world order, as ordained through the European Union and elsewhere, of course.
I rather suspect Edith Cavell was one of those individuals who always knew what they wanted to do with their future lives, and she knew full well where her future vocation would lead her. For her, it was always the vocation of nursing where she would excel, with joy and satisfaction. As the daughter of a vicar, from an early age, she would have learnt the meaning of personal sacrifice.
Her medical years were served at the prestigious Royal London Hospital as a young probationer nurse, later as head matron in Brussels at the Berkendael Medical Institute, where the job was more demanding and difficult. And yet she persevered.
The future and what it would offer her held no fears for her either, it seems. In her solitude, she would escape to prayer and to her Bible for its spiritual comfort. Perhaps life and its existence were to Edith a penance, if not for herself then for the sinning world all around her. Enjoyment and the vain pursuit of it did not seem to have been part of her make-up. Later, when her father had died, her devotion and concern would be for her widowed mother, but her lasting love would be for her Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ. Her inner strength had been cultivated in London and later on in the continent, and would eventually be required when the Kaiser’s German military police would try to intimidate her in 1915 on false charges of espionage. Edith had witnessed many of her patients’ pains and suffering at their most vulnerable state in numerous London hospitals, both physically and spiritually. I suspect she always had a will of steel when demanded of her in the basic hospital wards of pre-NHS days before 1945.
The world where Edith mainly lived and worked was predominantly female, and she was not blind to the lesbian traits that swirled around hospital wards and staff, as her biographer writes, nor was she blind to the curried favours and promotions offered by more senior hospital staff to nurses with these sexual inclinations. Edith seems to have been passed over quite frequently for certain promotions because of her heterosexual views and because of her Christian distaste for what she saw and witnessed many times in shadowy hospital side rooms.
One day in London, on returning to the hospital in the late evening, Edith was attacked and her purse and perhaps other personal items were stolen.
No one is sure how this affected her future confidence in London. Naturally, she didn’t complain, but it must have affected her inner confidence and soon afterwards she would be seeking new employment, even outside London, if the opportunity arose. And it seems that it did: in 1906 Edith arrived in Salford, Manchester for a six-month temporary contract. She was now 41 and unmarried.
She had fended for herself since she was 21. As her biographer comments rather sadly about this period in her life: “Her reserve and her age meant she was often overlooked, and no one spoke up for her in a particularly ebullient way.”
Poor Edith, I do feel for her at this lonely point in her life, yet God has a purpose for each of His children, even for Edith.
Unknown to Edith, of course, her future bravery and courage would be tested in the treacherous ambience of wartime Brussels. Perhaps if she had known what would be expected of her as a nurse in those early days of the war, she would have remained under the sombre skies and skyline of Manchester. But it was never to be! Edith’s life was now on a collision course that she could not change or escape from.
Edith would never be a faithful follower to the tempo of this fallen world. Instead, she would march to her own conscience and beliefs. It should always be remembered that this is not our world or its dark domain. We are merely journeying through its lost landscapes and ruined cities towards the coming New Jerusalem.
When Edith arrived in Brussels in 1907 to take up her new appointment as future matron at a training school for probationary nurses, she must have been delighted, but perhaps daunted at what was expected of her. Any language difficulties in conversation would have been no problem, she being conversant in French and German, although it is reported that “she had to learn a medical vocabulary.” She must have been a surgical all-rounder, even assisting in operations.
In that pre-war halcyon day in Brussels, there would be little discussion of an approaching war.
In 1910, Edith’s busy life was interrupted by the arrival of Jack, a stray dog, apparently looking for a home and an owner, and in Edith, he would find both.
I suspect Edith was always cautious with her safety since that mugging incident at Kings Cross on a dark wet night in 1901 and with venturing out alone, but now with Jack by her side she felt safe, as her biographer comments: “Fiercely protective of her, [Jack] was always with her and barked and snapped at anyone who came too near.” But with him by her side she could walk the twisting streets of Brussels, visiting sick patients at any time. The other nurses were chary of him and kept their distance when Jack was around. But Jack, it seems, was a one-woman-dog, always loyal, always loving.
Later Edith and Jack would be joined by Don, another stray dog looking for a bed and breakfast: “But he disappeared in 1911 amid a rumour he had been stolen.” I do wonder by who and why maybe some jealous nurse on her staff?
When war arrived in 1914 I suspect Edith must have been prepared, not only to support England and her allies, of course, but to offer her nurses’ exceptional skills in caring for enemy soldiers as well. She would write almost philosophically in 1914 that: “There are two sides to war, the glory and the misery. We begin to see both.” She would certainly sample that misery, but the glory (when it came for her) would be too late, and I suspect she would be surprised about the frequent use of her name by assorted post-war governments after her death by bullet for the crime of “treason.”
In fact, soon after hostilities began, her training hospital in Brussels was quickly commandeered by the German high command for their own wounded troops to be treated by the nurses, including Edith herself. Because of this difficult and dangerous situation, Edith ordered her nurses to remember that, “Any wounded soldier must be treated, friend or foe.”
I believe it was only later that was she approached to assist any wounded Allied soldiers who were to be brought to the hospital for nursing, then somehow smuggled back to England. It is amazing that in the upstairs wards, the Kaiser’s wounded soldiers were being nursed by Edith’s nurses, yet below stairs British and other troops were being nursed and nourished in the cellar and storage rooms. Truly amazing if you think of what Edith and her nurses achieved in such a hostile environment! It is even claimed, she smuggled over two hundred troops (perhaps more) home to England, and this is why I suggest Edith was executed by the Germans, not because she was alleged to have been an MI6 spy, but because the escaping soldiers could later return to the front line and carry on the war against Germany.
Yet eventually Edith was finally betrayed by, well, take your pick:
– Garston Quien, a disguised Allied soldier, but a paid German informer.
– Countess Von Kallenbach, although with a doubtful role in the arrest, it seems (a popular conspiracy theory has it that financial donations towards the Belgian relief fund were being diverted to the German war machine and Prussian officers’ pockets and that Edith somehow stumbled across this and therefore had to die).
On the 5th August Nurse Cavell was finally arrested; she would then later spend long days in solitary confinement, sometimes cold, sometimes hungry.
I am reminded of the apostle Paul and of his years in numerous cells, frequently hungry and cold, but never demoralised in his faith, as his letters testify.
Her “trial,” if that’s what you can call it, began on 7th October 1915. (It is not my purpose to highlight the events that took place in the Belgian National Palace that served as a court judge and jury in her case; this is covered in detail by her biographer in her own informative book on Edith).
On the 11th October, Nurse Cavell was found guilty. The court would impose the death sentence on her. I think she had rather expected a lengthy prison term, but when she was informed of her future fate: “Edith Cavell leaned against the wall seemingly impassive…her face flushed almost violet, ‘It is useless, they want my life,’ she said to no one in particular.” Her fate was sealed, now she would prepare herself to meet death.
Death for the true Christian should have no fears or uncertainties. Few people today would hardly face a firing squad, but in Edith’s case, she did, and naturally prepared herself in the only way that she knew, through prayer and faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world.
We are told that she found some comfort in her cold gas-lit cell during her last few hours, composing final letters to her nurses and her mother and reading her Bible, as well as other religious books in her possession. Later, an invited Anglican chaplain would stay an hour with her and together they recited the communion verse before speaking the words of that old English hymn Abide With Me (much beloved by British football crowds today, of course).
Personally, I would not wish to spend my final hours with any priest/vicar, or any other paid church official, because he/she could offer me nothing but a repetition of some religious ritual that could never save me, or anyone else for that matter. The sins of the born-again Christian have been forever washed away by the precious blood of Christ.
Believers in this grace should welcome death and the opportunity to see the Lord, who by His voluntary death, has saved them from the fires of eternal Hell. This is not a criticism of Edith or her circumstances. I do not know what her state of mind was then in seeking further spiritual aid in her cell. Perhaps there were practical reasons for her concern, for instance, to send a final message to her family, or perhaps she just wished for some human company after the long lonely hours spent in solitary confinement. We all have our breaking points.
She then spoke those famous words that have followed her memory down through the years since that day in Belgium:
“…I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me…But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
“Scatter thou the people that delight in war” (Psalm 68:30).
At 5 a.m. Edith Cavell was escorted from her cell towards the execution yard where an assembly of sixteen armed soldiers, with well-oiled and well-prepared rifles, now stood to attention awaiting the prisoner. It must have seemed so surreal to her as she took in her surroundings for the last time. Norfolk must have seemed years ago. Then suddenly accompanied by the chaplain towards the execution post she asked him to “reassure her mother that her soul was safe.”
She was then bound and blindfolded, and it is reported that her eyes “were filled with tears.” I like to speculate they were for the approaching joy she was about to experience and the Heaven she was about to enter into, and to finally meet and bow down before her Saviour who she had served all of her life. Ah, “happy days” as the old hymn proclaims.
Her biographer now writes of those final crucial minutes: “An officer gave the command to shoot…There was a crack of gunfire. Edith Cavell’s face streamed with blood, she jerked forward and three times her body rose up in reflex. One shot had gone through her forehead. There was a bullet hole as large as a fist through her heart. She remained upright at the post.” And it seems one brave German soldier may even have refused to be part of this military blunder by bullets. More importantly, she may also have been wearing her nurses’ uniform. I am not sure as to what happened to that blood-splattered badge of honour of nursing fraternity.
The international fallout of this awful act would naturally echo around the world. In England, the government would use it as a crude means to encourage further recruitment of young men to appease her treatment at the hands of the cruel Germans. Her death may even have forced the American government of Woodrow Wilson to shift its neutral stance.
In fact, on 6th April 1917, the United States did eventually join the Allies in defeating the arrogant Kaiser; maybe Mrs Wilson had an important hand in this decision that her husband signed for Congress to approve.
So, was she murdered or was she a martyr? Or was it all a terrible mistake created in the mayhem of war? Either way, in Britain she was a national hero and to many, she has since become the finest flower of English womanhood, an English rose no less, a symbol of heroism that can never be defiled or destroyed.
Edith Cavell, as dramatized in film
In 1918 a short tribute to her The Woman the Germans Shot was released, followed by the 1926 silent film Dawn which starred Dame Sybil Thorndike as Edith and was directed by Herbert Wilcox who later also directed the 1939 film Nurse Edith Cavell, starring his wife, Anna Neagle in the principal role.
It certainly is high time, I suggest, for a new celluloid take on the final days of Edith, perhaps from an enterprising German company or an independent television film production. Surprisingly, she has not been remembered in many musical offerings, not sure why? Perhaps it’s because of her Christian faith and her patriotic views, both very much frowned on today. Certainly, a cello concerto would be most welcome to music lovers, I’m sure.
Tributes erected in her lasting memory today are numerous, but I doubt she would have delighted in any of these man-made gestures.
9 statue memorials,
14 medical facilities,
35 streets, avenues and boulevards worldwide, and assorted mountains, forests, a bridge, car parks, shopping malls and others that I may have missed out.
Her body is buried in Norwich Cathedral in Norfolk.
The brass plaque shown above was rescued from a local breakers yard. Interestingly, the Union Jack still flies over the entrance, and the Royal Coat of Arms is on display.
I rather suspect the hospital that Edith worked at in 1907 was the old Salford Royal Hospital, now used for students’ accommodation.
Edith pined greatly for Jack’s company when in prison and frequently mentions him in her final letters. “After he died in 1923 Jack was stuffed and sent via Norwich to the Imperial War Museum in London, where he remains on permanent display,” writes her biographer, and I think his mistress Edith might even have approved of this kind gesture from her friends.
The historical jury is still out on Nurse Edith Cavell’s real motives. Newly released documents from the time confirm that she was sending back to London crucial intelligence that would aid the allies in winning the war. Naturally, the Germans would see this as treason, but was this for patriotic reasons or monetary gain on her behalf? I believe it was the former. Edith Cavell believed in her country, something sadly missing today, and for this noble gesture, she paid the ultimate price – the loss of her own life. Edith Cavell professed to be a Christian and spent the last few hours of her life before her execution devoutly reading her Bible. If her conscience was clear, as I believe it was, then she would have no fear in facing imminent death and meeting her Maker. I believe Nurse Cavell acted for her country’s desired victory in that terrible war without any monetary gain, and nothing else. She then finally placed her life in the hands of her blessed Lord before her appointment with the selected German firing squad that day long ago in 1915, stoic, but unafraid.
(The author points at her London memorial plaque)
“It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
Edith Cavell, Diana Souhami
(All Rights Reserved)