After my recent look at the centenary of WWI, I felt the need to carry on the theme when I found out about a statue in London that I’d walked past hundreds of times recently without ever realising its true significance. The monument to British nurse Edith Cavell has stood opposite the National Portrait Gallery for years (it’s right outside Pret, to be precise, in St. Martin’s Place) since 1920, but I’d honestly never noticed it before.
Yet my mum came back from a London adventure the other week, having seen a remembrance ceremony taking place on the anniversary of Cavell’s death, and she got me thinking. Were both a bit embarrassed to admit that we’d never even realised this statue existed, let alone stopped to look at who was being commemorated, in all the times we’d hurried past to get to the NPG, Leicester Square or Trafalgar Square. How had we managed to walk by time and time again?
In case you need a history lesson, Cavell was responsible for saving 200 men from occupied Belgium during the Great War; she treated them at the Berkendael Medical Institute, where she was Matron and dealt with patients on both sides of the conflict. She then helped 200 of her English and French patients to escape to Holland, which was neutral, and would allow some of them to travel back to England. Her actions defied German law imposed in Belgium during the war, and she was arrested in August 1915. After spending nine weeks in solitary confinement, Cavell was shot by a German firing squad on 12th October 1915.
The quote carved into the granite comes from a conversation that Cavell had before her death. She’d spoken about coming to terms with the sentence that had been passed, simply saying: “I have no fear nor shrinking; I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.” This seems particularly ironic considering that her role as a nurse was to save lives, but of course she had seen so much death and destruction as a result of the conflict. Her own life, too, was now condemned. She continued, “I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards any one.”
Cavell’s death is seen as tragic because she was doing such a service for her country as a nurse and as a helper to the escapees, but it also caused a lot of scandal at the time simply because of her gender. Women were still the weaker sex, not seen as capable of half the things men could achieve, and they were firmly put in their place; whilst they helped with the war effort and took on the jobs that men left behind, they weren’t expected to get involved to this extent.
In fact, the German Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Arthur Zimmerman, commented at the time and noted that the death sentence had been used as a deterrent to other women, who may have previously assumed they could avoid being punished for committing crimes because of their gender. ‘Consider what would happen to a State, particularly in war, if it left crimes aimed at the safety of its armies to go unpunished because committed by women,’ he wrote. ‘Were special consideration shown to women we should open the door wide to such activities on the part of women, who are often more clever in such matters than the cleverest male spy.’
Visiting the statue really made me think about the impact that Cavell’s actions had on people around the world, and the outrage caused by her death. Whilst it’s sad that not everyone stops to notice her as they walk past, I think a lot of us are guilty of not fully taking in our surroundings, especially when we’ve been somewhere before.
There are probably people who walk past this monument on a daily basis but don’t take the time to find out what it stands for; let’s face it, we live pretty hectic and self-absorbed modern lives that don’t quite simmer down to allow us to really absorb what’s going on around us. Yet that makes it seem all the more surreal to consider what she went through, selflessly helping soldiers at her own expense. Hopefully the ceremony helped to highlight Cavell’s memory to the public and remind us of what she sacrificed to save 200 others.