Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of Britain on: "The Heroine who humbled me"

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A new book by Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown  salutes those who have inspired him. In the publication Courage: Eight Portraits,  he tells the extraordinary story of Edith Cavell, the British nurse,  who faced a German firing squad for saving hundreds of First World War soldiers.

Image A new book by Prime Minister GORDON BROWN (left) salutes those,  who have inspired him. We present an extract, where he tells the extraordinary story of Edith Cavell, the British nurse who faced a German firing squad for saving hundreds of First World War soldiers. Her courage is an inspiration for all.
photo credit: Caroline Forbes



Early in the morning of October 12, 1915, nurse Edith Cavell was driven to the Tir Nationale execution site in occupied Belgium, where a firing squad awaited her.

She faced death as she had faced life, telling the vicar who visited her on the eve of her execution: "I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me."

In her last solitary moments in her cell, she wrote to her beloved fellow nurses at the hospital where she had saved countless Allied soldiers by hiding them from the Germans.

"I have told you that devotion will give you real happiness, and the thought that you have done, before God and yourselves, your whole duty and with a good heart will be your greatest support in the hard moments of life and in the face of death."

At 2am, the command to fire was given and Edith Cavell was shot dead. In the minutes before her death, she once more showed the courage that defined her every act, and forgave her executioners.

Her courage was not simply a matter of perseverance, of making the best of difficult circumstances from which she could not escape.

She had choices and options throughout her life. But she had a strong sense of duty - a dedication to relieving the suffering of those in their darkest hour.

Sir Winston Churchill said: "Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others."

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  Edith Cavell
"In everything, one can learn new lessons of life, and if you were in my place, you would realise how precious liberty is, and would certainly undertake never to abuse it. To be a good nurse, one must have lots of patience - here, one learns to have that quality, I assure you."
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In the midst of war, this courageous woman's devotion to helping the sick and injured expanded to caring for the hunted and endangered.

Miss Cavell, matron of the Berkendael Institute in Brussels, became Edith Cavell, rescuer and saviour of scores of Allied soldiers behind enemy lines.

The road that led from the English country vicarage where she was born in 1865 to her place of execution in Belgium 50 years later was a long and indirect one.

Her early life in the village of Swardeston in Norfolk was framed by a sense of duty, with the family taking a portion of their Sunday dinner to share with impoverished local families.

From an early age, when confronted with unsatisfied need, Edith chose the course of action over inaction.

As a young woman, she wrote to a cousin: "Some day, somehow, I am going to do something useful. I don't know what it will be. I only know that it will be something for people. They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy."

At the age of 20, she began work as a governess. In 1888, she inherited a small legacy, which she used to travel to the Continent.

She discovered the Bavaria Free Hospital, where she was apparently known as 'The English Angel'.

It seems this was the beginning of Edith's interest in nursing, and she is said to have given part of her inheritance to the hospital so that it could buy surgical instruments.

Receiving news that her father was seriously ill, she returned to Swardeston to tend to him. When he recovered, she applied to train as a nurse at the Fountains Fever Hospital in London.

What led to her decision is not recorded -training would take many years and she would be in her mid-30s before she could fully practise.

The conditions would be a stark contrast to her work as a governess, with exhausting hours, surrounded by injury, sickness, disease and death. But Edith was undaunted.

She trained under Eva Luckes, a matron who was influenced by Florence Nightingale, and who strove to maintain the newly acquired professional status of nursing.

Edith was clearly ambitious, and restless. But her letters to friends point towards an ambition not motivated by self-advancement, but rather by a knowledge of her capacity to help others.

In 1907, she was presented with the opportunity she craved. Dr Antoine Depage, one of the most respected surgeons in Europe at the time, was looking for a matron to run the Berkendael Institute, a progressive new teaching hospital on the outskirts of Brussels.

In Belgium, nursing still lacked respectability, and the duties of nurses were performed by nuns or lay women who had no other means of income - neither group being medically trained or much concerned with hygiene.

The magnitude of the task Edith had accepted was immense. "I arrived two days ago and found the four houses in much confusion," she wrote in September 1907.

"No servants and nothing furnished but my sitting room! And we have to open on October 1!"

Like Florence Nightingale, Edith had the vision of a pioneer. She explained in the Nursing Mirror what she was trying to achieve.

"The probationers wear blue dresses with white aprons and white collars. The contrast which they present to the nuns, in their heavy stiff robes, and to the lay nurses, in their grimy apparel, is the contrast of the unhygienic past with the enlightened present."

Her courage at taking on such a role - so great an opportunity, but so great a risk of failure - was part of the pattern in her life of action aligned to conviction.

For now, it would help revolutionise nursing in Belgium. Later, it would save hundreds from certain imprisonment and likely death.

For eight years under Edith's direction, the institute fought to earn itself a respectable reputation.

When Queen Elisabeth of Belgium broke her arm, she sent for a trained nurse from the Berkendael.

When news of the outbreak of war came, Edith was in Britain visiting her recently widowed mother. She decided to cut short her visit and return to the institute.

Travel was chaotic, with ports and railway stations almost overwhelmed with panic- stricken people rushing to reach home and safety.

Edith travelled against the current, leaving the shelter and protection of her home for a more dangerous and uncertain future, tending the victims war would inevitably bring to her hospital.

She was never to return home or see her family again. Britain declared war against Germany on August 4, 1914. Shortly afterwards, Edith and her staff watched the German army enter Brussels.

Edith Cavell
Statue in memory on Edith Cavell, outside the National Portrait Gallery in London
"But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

One of the nurses, Jacqueline van Til, recorded: "I shall never forget the evening before the Prussians entered. We went up to the roof of the clinic and saw the sky towards the East fiery red, while clouds of thick black smoke rolled in our direction. The thunder of the guns was so great that windows were broken round us.

"We were all trembling with fear, and Madame found me sitting weeping. She peered into my face with that powerful gaze of hers, with something mild in it, yet full of firm reproach, and bade me not to give way to my feelings, telling me that my life no longer belonged to myself alone, but also to my duty as a nurse."

A letter Edith wrote to her family in anticipation of the impending occupation shows her great fortitude in the face of terror: "My darling mother and family, if you open this, it will be because that which we fear has now happened, and Brussels has fallen into the hands of the enemy.

"They are very near now and it is doubtful if the Allied armies can stop them. We are prepared for the worse. I shall think of you to the last, and you may be sure we shall do our duty here and die as women of our race should die. God bless you and keep you safe."

As the enemy occupation began, the Berkendael Institute was turned into a Red Cross hospital. Edith instructed her nurses that their first duty was to help the wounded, no matter which army they came from.

Refugees were flooding into Brussels from the fighting. Edith and her nurses gathered clothes and food for them. Among their number were Belgian and other Allied soldiers who had escaped German imprisonment and who needed to be disguised as civilians if they were to have any hope of survival.

The Battle of Mons ensued, in which the British Expeditionary Force was heavily outnumbered and began a fighting withdrawal. In the confusion, soldiers were cut off from their units.

The Germans posted notices warning that Allied soldiers who did not give themselves up would be shot - likewise those who harboured them.

Two wounded British soldiers who had managed to evade capture were passed from safe houses to a convent, and then directed to Edith. She told her assistant matron to give the fugitives beds in the surgical house, and eventually they made a run for the border, escaping to Holland.

Thus began Edith's introduction to the underground movement in the autumn of 1914.

The network would develop into a reasonably sophisticated, audacious and effective resistance operation, working under extremely dangerous conditions.

From the arrival of the first two soldiers until her arrest the following July, she would help as many as 200 people to escape.

Many fugitives arrived wounded and in need of care. Others were Belgian and French civilians who wanted to escape in order to join the Allied forces.

The 'confession' Edith signed in prison describes her role in the operation.

"At first, I hid the Englishmen, sometimes for a fortnight or three weeks in my house, as I was not sufficiently familiar with the means of transport on the roads which they should follow to the frontier.

"Later, guides were put at my disposal. I concealed the men brought to me until favourable opportunity arose for their departure."

Edith asked some British soldiers to write to her family once they reached safety, to let her mother know she was alive. They told of the extraordinary efforts she went to on their behalf, supplying money and securing false documents.

She never refused help to anyone in need, even after the Germans' suspicions had been aroused and her own life was at risk, saying: "Nothing but physical impossibility, lack of space and money would make me close my doors to Allied refugees."

What special quality did Edith Cavell possess that numbered her among those who act when roused to anger, pity or empathy in the face of injustice or suffering?

What was it that opened her eyes to suffering? And what inspired her to do something about it with a resourcefulness and energy that changed the course of many lives?

By June 1915, the activities of the local resistance movement were under closer German scrutiny. Around that time, two soldiers presented themselves to the institute, one of whom was Georges Gaston Quien.

It is thought that he was an agent for the Germans and that he provided the information that led to Edith's arrest.

On August 5, German officers arrived for Edith. She was interviewed at length and eventually put her name to a statement confessing her guilt, so signing her own death warrant.

She was allowed to write a letter to her close friend, Grace Jemmett: "My dearest Gracie. Tell everybody that I am quite all right here. If Jackie [her dog] is sad, tell him I will be back soon. Don't - don't worry. We must hope for the best. Tell them all to go on as usual."

She sent business-like letters to her assistant matron, focusing on the work of the hospital. She asked for a few specific belongings to be brought to her, including the Bible and a beloved devotional work, Thomas a Kempis' The Imitation Of Christ. She also requested the clothes she would wear for her trial and execution.

She wrote to her nurses: "In everything, one can learn new lessons of life, and if you were in my place, you would realise how precious liberty is, and would certainly undertake never to abuse it.

"To be a good nurse, one must have lots of patience - here, one learns to have that quality, I assure you. Au revoir, be really good. Your devoted Matron."

After ten weeks in prison, Edith was court-martialled along with her collaborators on October 7 and 8, 1915. She did not deny her role in helping Allied soldiers and, for this, the prosecution demanded death. Three excruciating days passed between the end of the trial and formal sentencing.

After being sentenced to death, she turned to the Bible. In the Book Of Revelation, she marked one passage strongly, dating it October 11. It was to be the last day of her life.

It reads: "I indeed labour in the sweat of my brows. I am racked with grief of heart, I am burdened with sins, I am troubled with temptations; I am entangled and oppressed with many evil passions; and there is none to help me, none to deliver and save me, but thou, O Lord God my Saviour, to whom I commit myself and all that is mine, that thou mayest keep watch over me, and bring me safe to life everlasting."

She also turned to passages in The Imitation Of Christ, highlighting: "How happy and prudent is he who tries now in life to be what he wants to be found in death. Perfect contempt of the world, a lively desire to advance in virtue, a love for discipline, selfdenial and the endurance of every hardship for the love of Christ, these will give a man great expectations of a happy death."

On her last evening, just hours before she was led to her death, Edith was visited by the English chaplain, Stirling Gahan, whose church she regularly attended in Brussels.

He later recalled their final hour: "She presented herself at her cell door as calm as ever, just as I had know her when last at liberty.

"When we were alone, she began quietly to speak of things which concerned her most as one who saw the nearness of eternity.

"Then she assured me, in answer to my questions, that she trusted in the finished work of Christ for her soul's salvation and was fully at rest."

She then added that she 'wished all her friends to know that she willingly gave her life for her country' and said: "I have no fear or shrinking. I have seen death so often that it is not strange or fearful to me.

"I thank God for this ten-week quiet before the end. Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty. This time of rest has been a great mercy. They have all been very kind to me here.

"But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

After the chaplain left, she wrote her final letters to her loved ones. The letter to her mother was not among those collected after her execution and it is presumed it was confiscated by her captors.

To her nurses, she wrote: "My dear sisters, it is a very sad moment for me now that I write to you to bid you farewell. When brighter days come, our work will resume its growth, and all its power for doing good. I have loved you all much more than you thought."

Her final words to her friend Grace Jemmett were: "My dear girl, how shall I write to you this last day? Nothing matters when one comes to the last hour but a clear conscience.

"If God permits, I shall watch over you and wait for you on the other side. I want you to know that I am neither afraid, nor unhappy, but quite ready to give my life for England."

Frantic, last-minute diplomatic efforts were made on Edith's behalf, unbeknown to her. But to no avail.

The German pastor who accompanied prisoners to their deaths reported her final minutes: "I took Miss Cavell's hand and repeated, of course, in English, the Grace of the Anglican Church.

"She pressed my hand in return and answered in these words: 'Ask Mr Gahan to tell my loved ones that I believe my soul is safe and that I am glad to die for my country.'

"Then I led her to the pole, to which she was lightly bound, and a bandage tied over her eyes which, as the soldier who put it on told me later, was full of tears."

The command was given, and she was killed. Edith Cavell was a patriot to the last.

But her patriotism was not the sole motivating factor in her actions. Her aim was to help people whose lives were in immediate danger. Edith Cavell's duty was to humanity, and her legacy is its triumph.

Courage: Eight Portraits by Gordon Brown is published by Bloomsbury and is available in all leading book stores throughout the world. This extract is reproduced with the kind permission of Bloomsbury.

A 25 per cent  discount available at  http://www.bloomsbury.com/courage   Tel: + 44 20 7440 2475

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