Written by Kit Finnie

Voices

The quality of mercy

Executed today in 1915, Edith Cavell has become the go-to woman on patriotism. But her real legacy, says Kit Finnie, lies in her final words.

Edith Cavell by unknown photographer, from the collection of Imperial War Museums, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edith Cavell by unknown photographer, from the collection of Imperial War Museums, via Wikimedia Commons.

Edith Cavell’s story will always remain one of the most iconic of the First World War. A British nurse based in Belgium, she nursed soldiers on both sides of the battle indiscriminately, while being a major player in an underground network of repatriation for Allied soldiers.

This September, there were revelations from the previous head of MI5 that Cavell was also involved in espionage, smuggling secrets back to the British Government via the clothes lining and boot soles of the men she sent home. She got a lot done. The things I would give for that kind of work ethic.

On 3 August 1915, Cavell was arrested and charged with treason by the German authorities. Due to several convoluted quirks in German military law – along the lines of ‘refer to paragraph 90 of the German Code, which will refer you to article 90 of the German Penal Code’ – she was sentenced to death by firing squad.

This, even though ‘conducting soldiers to the enemy’ was not usually punishable by death and the Geneva Convention disallowed punishment of medical personnel for crimes of this sort.

After 10 weeks in jail, two spent in solitary confinement, Cavell was executed on 12 October 1915, despite international pressure to let her go free. She was 49 years old.

Before, during and after her imprisonment and death, Cavell became a heroine to the Allied cause: her image was used on posters, and her name evoked in speeches as convenient shorthand for the uniquely German barbarity demonstrated by her execution.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood,” which completely sums up the attitude of the press. She was portrayed as moral, steadfast, intensely pious and firmly patriotic; a woman whose self-possession and quiet rebellion in the face of adversity was a model for both sexes.

“If nursing really is the uncompromising foe of war, perhaps it’s inappropriate to use the tragic death of a particularly incredible nurse to further the cause of war.”

This is a simple way to look at what Edith Cavell achieved. She was all of these things, of course, but she actually occupied a much more complex position in the culture of the First World War than the reaction to her death would have you believe. There’s a film about Cavell (called Nurse Edith Cavell) that’s generally patriotic and fluffy, but the title card at the beginning is a pretty beautiful way of describing her achievements: ‘Nursing is a dedication to mercy and healing. War is a dedication to a brutal force. Neither admits distinction of race or person. Each is the uncompromising foe of the other.’

Edith Cavell worked in the space between these two enemies, fighting for what she deeply believed was right. The thing about her story I’m most drawn to is the fact that she treated all lives equally, refusing to be influenced by national politics while carrying out her profession. One of her final statements before she died was “Patriotism is not enough.” That’s a powerful sentiment from a woman whose daily job entailed dealing with the catastrophic result of an international war.

So, it seems somehow strange and sad that Cavell’s legacy is largely to be found in the intensely patriotic propaganda dedicated to inventing and deepening anti-German sentiment.

Photo from the Wellcome collection, licenced under CC by 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Image from the Wellcome collection, licenced under CC by 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the weeks and years after she died, one particularly horrible story about her execution became widespread. It said that she refused a blindfold, then she fainted at the sight of the firing squad, at which point the unbelievably vindictive German commanding officer approached and shot her with a revolver while she was unconscious.

This was completely untrue. And this sort of anti-German rhetoric continued to surround Edith Cavell after the war. A picture of her grave was put in the middle of a poster produced by the British Empire Union. Underneath was written: “Once a German – Always a German! Remember! Every German employed means a British Worker idle. Every German article sold means a British article unsold.”

There’s no way of knowing for sure whether Cavell would have approved of this or not. But, to look at her deliberately impartial way of nursing every wounded body that came to her, it seems like the things she came to stand for after her death don’t sit comfortably with her actions before. If nursing really is the uncompromising foe of war, perhaps it’s inappropriate to use the tragic death of a particularly incredible nurse to further the cause of war.

Cavell does have an alternative, slightly more optimistic legacy. She has lent her name to the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which provides financial support and advice for nurses in need. She’s also been immortalised in stone and in films, inspired music, and, I’m reliably informed, had a car park in Peterborough named after her. Score.

Even 100 years later, her courage and kindness continue to help people. Today, on the centenary of her death, her incredible work will be remembered and celebrated. Patriotism and war go hand in hand, and so, when we remember World War One, we also have to bear witness to the things that happened between nations that led to war.

Thinking about the stories of incredible people like Edith Cavell always has the potential to reawaken tensions and differences, particularly now, when appearing patriotic is of such huge political and cultural importance in this country. It’s easy to forget that WWI entailed the systematised killing of staggering numbers of people.

It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong to be patriotic. It’s just that the way Edith Cavell conducted her life should be our guide to the way we celebrate her life. And so, it’s good to bear in mind, when celebrating her, and when commemorating the First World War generally, her all-important final statement. Patriotism is not enough.

@KitFinnie

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Written by Kit Finnie

Kit Finnie is based in North London. When she's not writing poems and stories, she likes to spend time being her own worst enemy. Proof here: @KitFinnie She blogs at kitfinnie.wordpress.com