Edith Cavell, the daughter of a Norfolk Anglican priest, trained as a nurse at the Royal London Hospital and in 1907 became the director of a nursing school in Belgium.
When Germany was poised to invade Belgium, Edith returned to be with the nurses she had trained, and she insisted that their calling was to care for all, friend and foe alike. From November 1914 Edith assisted British and Allied troops to escape from enemy occupied territory into the neutral territory of Holland. Edith was arrested for assisting Allied soldiers to escape.
At her trial she was asked how many she had helped. The judge asked ‘ as many as twenty?’ ‘By my reckoning,’ she answered ‘over two hundred.’ What clinched her conviction for ‘aiding the enemy’ was her admission that she knew that some had made it back to England for they had written to thank her.
She spent ten weeks in prison and the latter part in solitary confinement. She had few personal possessions – a few clothes, some paper and pens but crucially her Prayer Book, her Bible and a much treasured copy of the Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. The only time she received Holy Communion was at 10.00pm on the eve of her execution as she was only allowed to see the German Chaplain until that point.
Edith embraced this time ; she said to the Revd Gahan (the chaplain to the British Ex Pats – and Americans in Brussels) "I thank God for this ten weeks quiet before the end – life has been always so hurried and full of difficulty, this rest has been a great mercy."
She was shot and killed by a German firing squad on October 12 1915, and hurriedly buried in a grave outside Brussels. Her body was reburied at Norwich Cathedral, following a state funeral at Westminster Abbey in May 1919.
Her example inspired many, and she soon became a popular heroine and a model of selfless service. There are memorials to her opposite the National Portrait Gallery in London, and at Norwich Cathedral.
Before she died, in her last hours Edith wrote:
"To my sorrow I have not always been able to talk to each of you privately.
You know I have always had much to do, but I hope you will not forget our evening conversations. In them I told you devotion would bring you true happiness and the thought that before God and in your own eyes you have done your duty well and with a good heart will sustain you in the hard moments of life and in the face of death."
"My dear Sister, Mr Gahan will give you twenty francs from me to pay my little debts. Miss J. owes me (she will remember) a hundred francs. Take it to buy a clock for the entrance hall. At the end of the daily account book you will see the Red Cross accounts; money spent out from the School funds but not entered, which should have been covered by the two cheques I told you of and which is not entered either. I am asking you to take charge of my will and a few things for me. You have been very kind my dear, and I thank you and the nurses for all you have done for me in the last ten weeks. My love to you all, I am not afraid but quite happy. Yours E. Cavell."
God of compassion, as we recall the fearless courage of your servant Edith Cavell, give us a heart to serve and to care even for those who abuse and despise us. Remove from us all fear, hatred, and bitterness, and give us that life-giving love that loves to the uttermost and seeks the good of all, through Jesus Christ who came to seek and to save the lost. Amen.
God our Father, we thank you that you call women and men to share the passion of your Son, and to witness to your truth in adversity. As we recall the courage and single-mindedness of Edith Cavell, may we show forth your costly reconciling love, and be strengthened to serve you in one another, through the one through whom we are made one with you and one another, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Come Lord Jesus and abide with us. Be with us in the evening hour and protect us through the dark hours of the night. Comfort all who are in danger and those who watch and wait. Help us to be still, and to hold to your promise that in the end your purposes will be fulfilled, our anxieties dispelled, and our fears calmed, in the name of him whose love casts out fear, Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord. Amen.
Heavenly Father, your Son said that whatever we do for the least of our brothers and sisters we do for him. May we, like your servant Edith Cavell, bring relief to those who are in need, comfort to those who are afraid, and healing to all who are in pain. This we ask in the name of him who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many, Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.
Eternal God, whose servant Edith Cavell placed her duty to you above all things and laid down her life in protection of others: make us, after her example, steadfast in all adversity, and abide with us until, with all your faithful ones, we share the joy of heaven; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Norwich Cathedral)