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"I am glad to die for my country"


When she grew up, in the 19th century, it was not expected that a girl who liked to paint flowers, play tennis and dance would die before a German firing squad.

Before World War One, Edith Cavell helped her mother, a vicar's wife, to visit the ill, and she taught children. Falling in love with a man who told her that marriage didn't suit him, she decided, after the salutary shock, to become a nurse.

During her professional training at Royal London Hospital, Edith was often in trouble for tardiness, but she was a brilliant nurse. She saved hundreds of patients in a typhoid epidemic, and was invited to Belgium to help set up nursing schools.

In Belgium she pioneered the importance of follow-up care, and through her school provided trained nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools, and 13 kindergartens. Her students thought the world of her.

Into the War Zone and risking her life

She was on vacation at home in Norfolk in August, 1914, when she learned that Germany had invaded Belgium. Without a thought for herself, she caught the train to London and a boat across the Channel, heading straight into the war zone. Arriving she organized her nursing students. They worked in a Red Cross Hospital where every wounded soldier received attention and care no matter what his nationality. They saved German as well as British lives. When Brussels fell and British troops retreated, Edith remained.

Two British soldiers found their way to her, and Edith sheltered them then helped them escape to the neutral Netherlands. Other Allied soldiers came to her for help.

Philippe Baucq, an architect in his mid-30s, organized guides who led the Brits to safety. They helped two hundred soldiers to escape.

Edith knew the risk she took in harbouring them. "Had I not helped", she said later, "they would have been shot".

Arrested by the Germans

Someone betrayed them. The Germans arrested Edith and interrogated her. She remained calm, and silent.

The Germans told her that other members of the team had confessed. Believing them, she honestly told them what she had done. For her, the protection and smuggling out of hunted men was the moral equivalent of caring for the sick and wounded.

The Germans sentenced her to death by firing squad. The American and Spanish ambassadors to Belgium made frantic efforts to save her, but the Germans refused to alter their decision.

Dressed in his German uniform, Le Seur, a chaplain, visited her on October 11th, the day before she was to die. Her cell was filled with roses sent by her students.

LeSeur offered to find the Rev. Gahan, the local Anglican clergyman, and ask him to bring her Holy Communion. At eight o'clock in the evening, the Rev. Gahan, an Irishman, arrived. LeSeur explained to him that Edith was to be shot, and Gahan collapsed. Recovering, he went to the prison.

Gahan later told LeSeur that just before she received Holy Communion Edith said, "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone."

These were not her last words.

Her last words

On the morning of October 12th, 1915, Edith Cavell and the architect Philippe Baucq were led from their cells to the yard where the firing squads waited. Le Seur, the German chaplain, was with her. He took her hand and said, "The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the Communion of the Holy Ghost be with you for ever."

Pressing his hand in return, Edith said, "Ask Mr. Gahan to tell my loved ones that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country."

Le Seur walked with her the few steps to the pole, where she was loosely bound. A bandage was put over her eyes. Sixteen soldiers at a distance of six paces shot her. Later, the soldier who covered her eyes told Le Seur they were full of tears.

In the silence of her tears, I can only add, she died believing in freedom and the Golden Rule.

Comments (1)


Good luck from across the pond, where we also struggle to avoid abdication of sovereignty and self-inflicted loss of individual rights.

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