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Faith Before the Firing Squad

6th May 2019

as published in Great Yarmouth Parish Life


Edith Cavell

EDITH CAVELL 1This May is the centenary of the funeral in Westminster Abbey of Edith Cavell the British nurse widely celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides during the First World War
Nurse Edith Cavell gave her life to others, and was executed as a result. This year is the centenary of her state funeral at Westminster Abbey
The daughter of a Norfolk vicar, Edith trained as a nurse, and because she could speak French fluently, she was invited to start a nurses’ training school in Belgium

When war was declared in 1914 she was in England on holiday but went straight back to Brussels where she cared for Belgians and invading German troops alike

When English soldiers were trying to escape back to England, she gave them shelter – and when she was betrayed, her only defence was that if she had not helped them to escape, they would have been shot

She had confessed to the crime of ‘conducting soldiers to the enemy’, helping soldiers escape who could potentially return to the battlefield. Guilty, she was sentenced to death in a German military court in occupied Belgium

But Edith’s last words were not of revenge or recrimination. On the night before she was executed, she met with her local priest Revd H. Stirling Gahan

She told him, “I thank God for this ten weeks’ quiet before the end...Life has always been hurried and full of difficulty...This time of rest has been a great mercy

She then said words that have become her memorial around the world: “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

Edith knew that people who had been close to her had played a part in her betrayal. She knew patriotism was not enough for these final hours. She knew that to enter into God’s presence she needed to be forgiven for her own shortcomings. And just as Jesus’ death had bought her forgiveness, she needed to forgive any and all who had wronged her

After celebrating Holy Communion, the Rev Stirling Gahan began to say the words of the hymn

Abide with me’ and Edith joined him in repeating ‘...When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me...’

She then gave the priest the letters she had written to friends and family and when they came to say ‘Goodbye’ she smiled at him and said, “We shall meet again”. She was confident that death was not the end and they would meet again in God’s presence. She was 49 years old
Edith was executed in Brussels on 12th October 1915 and at the end of World War 1 her body was repatriated. After a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, her body was reburied outside Norwich Cathedral on 19th May 1919. Her body was returned to England on the same ship that carried the body of the Unknown Soldier in 1919

In the biography Edith Cavell – Faith Before the Firing Squad, Catherine Butcher explores Edith’s life and faith, in particular considering how she could be so confident in the face of death