Readers who aren’t familiar with the British school system may imagine that it’s only at Hogwarts where you are assigned a “house,” a team to belong to for the rest of your days at the school. But no, it’s a hallmark of one’s early education “over there” – or it was when I was at school. If you attend a boarding school, your house might literally be the place where you live when not in classes. For those of us who attended regular non-boarding schools, it’s a place of belonging, the team you’ll be part of for sports, for administration, indeed, for many events in school life. In primary school I was in the “Blue” team, which was all very nice because I liked blue. When I went on to the local girls secondary school at age eleven, I discovered I would be joining Jane Austen house, which turned out to be quite fitting for a would-be writer – and our house color was blue, which was comforting. Being a girls’ school, the four teams bore the names of women who might inspire in us the qualities of confidence, commitment to one’s work and to society; of bravery and of accomplishment. The other houses were named after Elizabeth Fry (red), who was a Quaker, philanthropist and above all a social reformer with a particular interest in prisons; Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (yellow), a physician and feminist who was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in England, and Edith Cavell (green), a nurse and – effectively – a spy, who was shot by firing squad in Belgium in 1915.
My interest in the history of women in the Great War and the years that followed has given me a great admiration for Edith Cavell, because I don’t think I could ever show half the courage she demonstrated on behalf of the Belgian people, and the soldiers she helped to escape across the border to The Netherlands.
If you’ve never come across Edith Cavell’s name before and this has piqued your interest, a new book about her by Diana Souhami is a must-read. It’s not a fusty old biography of a long-dead spinster, but instead at times reads like a thriller, with so much detail of Edith Cavell’s “undercover” work that you are almost on the edge of your seat, hoping that she won’t get caught – but of course, she was caught.
Edith Cavell had a normal but austere childhood in Norfolk, England. She was the daughter of a vicar, and because of her family’s station – the country vicar has a certain status, but generally no money (Jane Austen would have loved Edith Cavell, I think) – Edith became a governess, spending time overseas as well as in England. After a few years the young woman wanted to do more meaningful, so she applied to The London Hospital in Whitechapel, and was accepted to train as a nurse. Edith wasn’t the most successful student nurse, and was often reprimanded for various infractions of behavior. Souhami has looked a little deeper into the genesis of complaints against Nurse Cavell, and draws attention to the fact that often these episodes were due to her commitment to her work – for example, she received punishment for being tardy, however, it transpires that she was often late to the dining hall because she was so busy attending to her patients; she would remain with them rather than run off to eat. Poor Edith was often misunderstood.
Eventually, after qualifying, and then assuming several nursing positions of increasing responsibility, Edith Cavell was offered a position in Brussels, her remit being to bring greater professionalism to the role in Belgium, and to found a school of nursing. When war broke out in 1914, Edith and her nurses provided food, clothing and medical care for many refugees fleeing the German army. Soon, however, her work became more serious when she became involved in harboring escaping French and British soldiers who had been wounded and separated from their regiments, providing a vital link in resistance to the German occupation. Souhami’s book brings the time alive, as she describes the antics of some of the young soldiers. Those who were fit enough had to leave the hospital during the day; they were instructed to lay low and return each night for a bed and a meal until it was their time to be taken by a guide across the border. But many of those young men wanted to party - most were barely out of their teens – and could often be heard making their way back to Cavell’s hospital, singing at the tops of their voices – usually a British marching song, such as “Tipperary” – or laughing and joking in their native
Nurse Cavell would often lead the young soldiers to meet the resistance guide, walking ahead of a man in the dawn hours, her beloved dog, Jack, at her side. I think I would have been on the first boat home, or at least across that border myself. Perhaps that’s why the stories of women and men who have lived secret lives so that they might help others has always fascinated me. Certainly there were those who thrived on the adrenalin rush, but at the end of the day, it was a very real game of roulette and took immense courage. Every time Cavell answered the door and took a young soldier into her care, she was spinning the wheel, taking a gamble with her own life. Finally, one day, the wheel stopped turning.
Thirty-three men and women from the resistance network of which Cavell was a crucial part, were rounded up in the sweep that eventually led to her death. Letters were sent from the British Foreign Secretary, asking for Cavell to be released from prison, from the Spanish Ambassador and from the American Ambassador in London. Others petitioned for clemency on Cavell’s behalf. Nurse Cavell had spent two months alone in her cell before her trial in October 1915. German prosecutors worked hard to send Cavell to the firing squad, and again there were last-minute attempts to save her life, but she received the most severe sentence. Following news of her death, Britain was gripped by a surge in enlistment. I often wonder what Nurse Cavell would have thought of about that.
Her body, hurriedly buried following her execution, was exhumed and returned to Britain in 1919, and in the way that stories come full circle, so must this story of my admiration for Nurse Cavell.
As some of you may know, I was in England in October, for my Dad’s 85th birthday. As a special treat, I took my parents to a special “Sherlock Holmes Mystery Dinner” aboard the steam-hauled Pullman service run by the volunteers of the Kent & East Sussex Railway. With Remembrance Day just over a week away, everyone was wearing a poppy, either in a buttonhole or pinned to a dress – it’s very much the “Lest We Forget” tradition in Britain. That sentiment came ever closer when the train stopped at the old station in Newenden, East Sussex, where the “Cavell Van” rests. In Britain, a train’s freight cars were traditionally known as “goods vans.” This van had not only carried Edith Cavell’s casket into London, but also the body of the Unknown Warrior, who was to be buried at Westminster Abbey and would ever more bring to mind those “missing” in the war.
On this cold October evening, an empty casket with a wreath of white chrysanthemums represented the heroine who had risked her life to aid others. It was so still inside the van when I walked in and said a silent prayer for Nurse Cavell. At school I wasn’t a member of the house that bore her name, but I kept the story of her life close to heart.
“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.” Edith Cavell