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Edith Cavell

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Calvino famously asked us to listen to a text to hear what it has to say to us. How does one listen to a woman's last words? Which last words were hers and what do they mean?

In 19th century England, 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. She taught children to read and write. She fell in love.

The man she loved told her that marriage didn't suit him. Edith decided to become a nurse.

During her professional training at Royal London Hospital, Edith was often in trouble for tardiness. This didn't seem to matter when she saved hundreds of patients in a typhoid epidemic. Recognised for her brilliance, she was invited to Belgium to help set up nursing schools.

In Belgium she pioneered the importance of follow-up care. 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, Edith caught the train to London and a boat across the Channel, to head straight into the war zone.

She organised her nursing students, setting up 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.

Brussels fell to the Germans. British troops retreated. Edith remained.

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

Philippe Baucq, an architect in his mid-30s, organised 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, protecting hunted men and helping them to escape 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. The Germans refused to alter their decision. They claimed (they still do) that she was a spy.

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. 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."

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.

Edith's last words . . . spoken first to Gahan and then to LeSeur . . . some argue that these words are opposed, that she could not have spoken both about forgiveness and loving her country.

And her tears? What did they silently say?

You might also want to read, No wonder Britain is great with women like that.

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