Minister’s Letter November 2015

‘But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and Eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone’

Dear friends,

These words were spoken from her cell at St Gilles prison, by the British nurse Edith Cavell, to the Anglican Chaplain Rev. Stirling Gahan. Along with Philippe Baucq, She was executed by firing squad in Brussels, on 12th October 1915.

On Monday 12th October I was privileged to be invited to the Belgian Senate for a Commemoration of the Centenary of the death of Edith Cavell. Present were H.R.H Princess Astrid, H.R.H The Princess Royal and Vice-Admiral Sir Tim Lawrence. Some other members of St Andrew’s were there including Mr Andrew Brown, Chairman of the Belgian Edith Cavell Commemoration Group and Rev. Professor Hugh Boudin, who has written a new biography on her life.

Cavell, along with eight others, was tried in the Belgian Senate on 7th and 8th October and three days later was sentenced to death. Her crime was assisting up to 200 Allied prisoners to escape to Holland and Britain from the hospital where she worked, in contravention of German wartime law.

Edith Cavell’s Christian faith took root in her formative years. She was the eldest daughter of Rev. Frederick and Mrs Louisa Sophia Cavell. Her siblings were Florence, Lillian and John. Her father was vicar to the community of Swardeston for 45 years and regularly conducted pauper’s funerals for occupants of the local workhouse. Her father impressed upon his family care of the needy by ensuring there was enough of the Sunday roast for the Cavell children to take out to poor families in the parish. When the Church needed to build a new Sunday School room, Edith and one of her sisters painted and sold decorative cards to help raise funds for the venture in addition to writing directly to the Bishop of Norwich.

After home schooling, Edith attended Norwich High School, later she studied at three different boarding schools, the last one being Laurel Court School, Peterborough, where she became fluent in French.

After schooling, she spent her first stint as a governess with a clerical family in Steeple Bumpstead and after a year there, having been left a modest legacy, she spent the summer of 1888 in Austria and Bavaria. After her first taste of life on the continent, it was then, on a recommendation from Miss Gibson, her former head teacher at Laurel Court School, that Cavell went to work as a governess of the chic François family who resided at 154 Avenue Louise. She looked after their four children, speaking only to them in English, taking the older ones back and forth to school and teaching the younger ones to read and write. Much as she enjoyed this time, in 1895, Edith was compelled to return to Swardeston to help her mother look after her ailing father.

At the end of the following year, Edith enrolled as an assistant nurse at the Fountains Fever Hospital in London, spending 7 months there before continuing as a probationer nurse under Matron Eva Lükes, at the London Hospital, Whitechapel. During her training she was seconded to Maidstone nurse during a Typhoid epidemic. She qualified as a staff nurse in 1898. Over the following years she worked as a Night Supervisor at St Pancras Infirmary and thereafter she was appointed as Assistant Matron at Shoreditch infirmary. After an extended holiday, she was appointed as Queen’s District Nurse in Manchester and, for a short time, acted as Matron. In 1907, she was invited by the renowned Belgian surgeon Dr Antoine Depage to become Matron of Belgium’s first school of nursing. Thus, that August, Edith Cavell returned to Brussels.

The premises for new nursing school were 143-149 rue de la Culture, Brussels (now rue Franz Merjay). The school, “L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées”, part of Depage’s “Institut de Berkendael” opened its doors in the October and the probationer nurses were taught by experienced nurses from London. Cavell was assisted in her duties by Marie Depage, the wife of Dr Depage. In 1909, 23 probationer nurses enrolled in the school and in the same year at hospitals St Jean and St Camille in Brussels. The following year a new hospital in St Gilles opened its doors, with Antoine Depage as its lead surgeon. As result probationer nurses in their second and third year under Cavell’s tutelage did their training in this modern hospital facility. By this stage, the “L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées”, was providing nurses to three of the city’s hospitals and number of communal schools and kindergartens. In 1913 Queen Elisabeth of the Belgians broke her arm and asked for one of Edith Cavell’s trained nurses to aid her recuperation; such the renown of the school.

By the summer of the following year, Europe was heading towards war, she returned to Norwich to spend time with her mother and by the time that she returned to Belgium on 3rd of August, the same day as German troops crossed the Belgian border at Liège and the invasion of Belgium began. Queen Elisabeth asked Antoine Depage to head a field hospital in De Panne. Depage asked Nurse Cavell to remain in Brussels and oversee the training school and supervise the completion of the new nursing school in Uccle. In addition to this, she identified suitable premises to be converted into temporary hospitals. By this stage Edith Cavell flew the Red Cross flag over the school and quickly trained volunteers to staff the makeshift hospitals. The Kaiser’s army made short work of Liège and then moved on to destroy Namur, then Leuven. By the time German troops marched through Brussels on 20th August, wounded soldiers of all nationalities were pouring into Nurse Cavell’s clinic and the makeshift hospitals.

It was after the battle of Mons, where the British Expeditionary Force was defeated, that two stranded British soldiers made their way to the training school. They were sheltered there for over two weeks, despite the danger this posed. One of them made it to the Dutch coast, while the other was captured and remained a prisoner of war. Others were to follow and an underground ‘network’ was soon established, supported by Prince Reginald de Croÿ and his sister Princess Marie, at their home, Chateau de Bellignies in France. Guides were organised by a Brussels architect Philippe Baucq. Cavell saw the help that she provided to soldiers fleeing the enemy was as much an act of humanitarian kindness as healing the sick.

However, in August 1915 Edith was betrayed by Gaston Quenon, a French soldier who had passed through the training school. She was arrested on 3rd August and in the following weeks another thirty five members of the network were captured.

She spent ten weeks in solitary confinement in St Gilles prison. There is no doubt that her Christian faith sustained her during these days. She requested her copy of the ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Thomas á Kempis and her own personal prayer book. She read the ‘Imitation’ many times and her copy book was annotated with many notes. During this time she said to Rev Stirling Gahan “Life for me has always been hurried and full of difficulty. These weeks in prison have been a time of rest. I have had time to read, to pray and to reflect”.

Edith Cavell was tricked into a confession and, with eight others, was tried under a military tribunal at the Belgian Senate on 7-8th October. She was found guilty of conducting soldiers to the enemy and on 11th October she and others were sentenced to death. A sentence that was upheld, despite pleas for clemency on Edith Cavell’s, behalf from American, Dutch and Spanish diplomats.

In 1919, her remains were exhumed and after a service in Westminster Abbey, her remains were reinterred in the grounds Norwich Cathedral. In the same year she was posthumously awarded the highest honours by Belgium and France. However she will also be remembered for her deep Christian convictions that drove her to show Christ-like kindness in the midst of the brutality and horror of war.

Your Minister and Friend,