Heroic Norfolk nurse is honoured 100 years on
The 100th anniversary of Edith Cavell’s death this year is being marked with a series of events in Norfolk, London and Brussels as well as a British £5 coin and BBC TV coverage. Sandie Shirley reports.
The sacrificial love of this extraordinary nurse from Swardeston near Norwich helped over 200 Allied soldiers escape from behind enemy lines during World War One and resulted in her execution.
Within days Edith Cavell – who has been celebrated for assisting soldiers on both sides of the war - was hailed as a heroine and a martyr across the globe.
An extensive programme is planned from June to December to help pay tribute to her bravery. In Swardeston there will be guided walks, displays, concerts and a centenary festival in October while a charity ball at Dunston Hall on 19 September will help raise funds for Help for Heroes and the upkeep of St Mary’s Church at Swardeston.
The Forum will be the hub for commemorative events in Norwich with special exhibitions and events at the Cathedral, St Peter Mancroft, the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, the Record Office and the Castle Museum.
Edith Cavell was the daughter of the vicar of Swardeston who taught her to support poor villagers by running mercy errands. From an early age she pledged: “Someday I am going to do something useful. It must be something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy.”
That statement was to set the seal on Edith’s life which tragically ended before a firing squad on 12 October 1915 after she was arrested by the German secret police, questioned and held in solitary confinement for over two months.
Accused of “assisting men to the enemy” and tried by a military court, the only incriminating document was a postcard from an English soldier thanking her for helping him reach home. She had sewn her diary inside a cushion before her arrest and then burned almost all of it so it did not fall into German hands.
During imprisonment she prayed and studied The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and when visited by a church minister, the night before her death, she said: “I am glad to give my life, rather than any of my soldiers should have fallen into the hands of the Germans.” Later she added: “I know patriotism is not enough. It is not enough to love one’s own people. One must love all men and hate none.”
Edith’s strong Christian resolve was fuelled by prayer throughout her life and during her imprisonment. Before her death she said: “I am thankful to have these ten weeks of quiet to get ready. Life was so full and I had no rest and no quiet – now I have it.”
From governess to nurse her career included working at two Poor Law Institutions as she rose through the ranks to become a matron. She prayed for the seriously ill at their bedside, made home-visits to newly discharged patients and pressurised suitable convalescent homes to provide care and rest for needy patients, often making personal donations towards their upkeep. She spent 10 years in deprived areas of London but Edith’s experience was further stretched to industrial Manchester. As a Queen’s district nurse she assisted at mine and factory accidents and cared for the victims of industrial diseases.
Praying for future guidance led to a new direction in 1907 when she began professional nurse training in Brussels.
By 1912 Edith was providing more than 100 nurses to three hospitals, 24 schools and 13 kindergartens in Brussels. At the outbreak of war in 1914 she was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses and finding time to care for a sick family contact and a runaway girl. When Brussels fell, German nurses replaced their English counterparts who were despatched home but Edith and her chief assistant stayed behind.
Colonel Dudley Boger and Sergeant Frank Meachin became the first of 200 fugitive soldiers to be sheltered and cared for by Cavell during the next nine months. The men headed for escape through Brussels since Antwerp had fallen but they were unable to find safe shelter until Edith was approached for help.
It would have been contrary to her nature to turn away from anyone in distress - they were given medical treatment and hidden for two weeks. So began a long and dangerous crusade as soldiers were harboured in homes and hospitals despite growing random checks by the Germans. It became difficult to keep undercover activities secret and the German authorities warned that anyone found sheltering Allied troops would be shot.
Edith knew the dangers but refused to cease her activities. As she faced her death that October dawn she said: “Think of me only as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”
Nick Miller, Edith Cavell website manager, said: "Edith Cavell was a remarkable Christian who imitated Christ in how she lived. Her death was a direct result of her refusal to put others in danger by "passing by on the other side" - she knew her life was on the line every day for over nine months as she helped soldiers escape to Holland. She gave up her life that others might live - whilst also nursing German soldiers. She had a sure hold on life the other side of her execution. I am always deeply moved when reading of her calmly reciting the hymn Abide with Me in her cell the night before she died:
“Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me."
Norfolk commemoration activities include:
July 2014 – premiere of a new oratorio by Patrick Hawes drawing on Edith Cavell’s readings in The Imitation of Christ during her time in prison
2015 exhibitions in Norwich – in the Forum, the Castle Museum, the Norfolk Record Office, the Cathedral, the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital
Input in up to 60 secondary schools in the county – covering history, Religious Education/ethics, citizenship and assemblies
The Cavell Centenary Festival in Swardeston (her birthplace), October 3-4
Concert including the telling of Edith Cavell’s story in Norwich Cathedral 1October 10, with services in the Cathedral on October 12 and 15.
Walking and cycling trails established from Norwich Cathedral to Swardeston
Pictures top is Edith Cavell and, above, the cell in St Gilles where Edith was imprisoned before her execution.