The British nurse who was born in the Rectory on the edge of Swardeston common did great work in the provision of modern nursing services in Belgium. However her name would be utterly forgotten today had she not been shot by a German firing squad a hundred years ago. Most people will be aware of her story, and how she tried to help the soldiers on both sides. ‘Patriotism is not enough’ was her cry; but that does not mean she did not feel that patriotism was important.
Although her work to aid the German injured is undisputed, there is controversy over the precise nature of Cavell’s contribution to the Allied War effort; did she merely help British soldiers to escape the Germans, or was her involvement with British Intelligence more substantial? This attempt to cast her in a less favourable light is entirely misplaced, although utterly in accord with modern mean-spirited scepticism. As a patriotic Englishwoman her intention was unmistakably to aid the British, whether in the escape plans of personnel or with intelligence. Strictly speaking, even her work in aiding fugitive Britons to escape Belgium was clearly illegal to the German occupation force. The question should not be whether or not they were right to shoot her; this raises many problems, not least whether the Germans had any right to be in Belgium in the first place. The question should rather be ‘were the Germans wise to shoot her’? And the answer to this is that they made a monumental error. The contrast between her kind and caring but patriotic nature and the unfeeling brutality of the German High Command could not have been more marked. Is it any wonder that observers across the world have, ever since her death, taken her side?
I am afraid that it is still part of the German psyche to pursue legalistic correctness in disregard of the wider decencies of life. Even today the Germans (and it is they who run Europe) are inflicting apparently endless economic punishment on Greece. The Greeks may have acted extremely irresponsibly in the past, but what is the point of loading extortionate loans onto them, loans that they have no prospect of ever repaying? Individual Germans may be delightful people, but as a nation they appear dour and humourless. Even their sports cars are dedicated to speed and performance rather than fun. Perhaps it is this trait that has made the nation such an economic powerhouse.
Edith seems to have been an exemplary character, whether as a student of French, an amateur painter, mistress of her beloved dogs, nurse to her ailing father or matron of a hospital in Brussels. In spite of her life in Belgium, she was quintessentially a middle class English spinster of a type that no longer exists. These women had grit. It is in no way to denigrate her courage and fortitude to say that any number of her contemporaries would have behaved exactly as Edith Cavell did, given the same circumstances.
I sometimes reflect on the fact that Edith and I attended the same school in Norwich (though 75 year apart). This may seem a little odd as it was the Norwich High School for Girls, but as I have explained elsewhere, the school briefly accepted boys for the first two years of their education. Swardeston common itself was a popular dog-walking spot during my youth, and despite often passing her former home I scarcely gave the poor lady a second thought. My son must have passed her statue daily on the way to school, but such regular attendances soon blunt any deeper consideration. It is as well to take some time to examine the significance of the life and death of nurse Edith Cavell.