Edith Cavell (4 December 1865 – 12 October 1915) was a British nurse and patriot. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction and in helping some 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium during World War I, for which she was arrested. She was subsequently court-martialled, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.
According to Wikipedia: In November 1914, after the German occupation of Brussels, Cavell began sheltering British soldiers and funneling them out of occupied Belgium to the neutral Holland. Wounded and derelict British and French soldiers and Belgians and French of military age were hidden from the Germans and provided with false papers by Prince Reginald de Croy at his château of Bellignie near Mons. From there, they were conducted by various guides to the houses of Cavell, Louis Séverin and others in Brussels, and furnished by them with money to reach the Dutch frontier and with guides obtained through Phillipe Baucq. This placed Cavell in violation of German military law.
She was arrested on 3 August 1915 and charged with harboring Allied soldiers. In her court-martial she was prosecuted for aiding British and French soldiers, in addition to young Belgian men, to cross the border and enter Britain. She admitted her guilt when she signed a statement the day before the trial, thus reaffirming the crime in the presence of all other prisoners and lawyers present in the court at the beginning of the trial. Cavell gave the German prosecution a much stronger case against her when she declared that the soldiers she had helped escape thanked her in writing when arriving safely in Britain. This admission proved hard to ignore because it not only confirmed that Cavell had helped the soldiers navigate the Dutch frontier, but it also established that she helped them escape to a country at war with Germany.
The night before her execution, she told the Reverend Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who had been allowed to see her and to give her Holy Communion, “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” These words are inscribed on her statue in St Martin’s Place, near Trafalgar Square in London. Her final words to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur, were recorded as, “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”
She was shot by a German firing squad at Tir National shooting range in Schaerbeek, at 6:00 am on 12 October 1915.
Cavell is one of many figures in history who have left an indelible mark on the world.
Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Harrison (1869–1918) was a British pharmaceutical chemist who gave his life in the First World War to save troops from gas attacks. He tried to join up when war broke out, but was refused as he was in his forties at the time. Later, however, he was accepted into a Pals Battalion. Chemical warfare surfaced after Germany first tested chlorine gas in Ypres in 1915, and when the British War Office gathered a team of chemists to research the threat, Harrison was a key member. In 1916, he produced the first box respirator, and he and his team tested it themselves—they locked themselves in a room with lethal chemical agents to prove the mask’s efficiency. The development and perfection of the mask led to promotions and distinctions for Harrison, but after working tirelessly and exposing himself to horrific hazards, he died from pneumonia only a week before the Armistice was signed. Winston Churchill wrote to Harrison’s widow offering his sympathies and his deepest admiration—because although it cost Harrison his own life, his invention saved millions more.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – director Lewis Milestone
“This story is neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped its shells, were destroyed by the war…” (Opening prologue.)
The relevance of All Quiet On The Western Front is as important today as it was back in 1930. There is a duty to remember the dead, and the survivors, but this deep scar in the world, the First World War, should have taught our people to steer clear from inglorious wars. (Since then, there hasn’t been a single day of peace, there is always some conflict going on somewhere…)
“I’ll tell ya how it should all be done. Whenever there’s a big war comin’ on, you should rope off a big field (and sell tickets). Yeah, and, and, on the big day, you should take all the kings and their cabinets and their generals, put them in the center dressed in their underpants and let ’em fight it out with clubs. The best country wins.”
“I think it’s more a kind of fever. Nobody wants it in particular, and then all at once, there it is.”
“Up at the front you’re alive or you’re dead and that’s all. You can’t fool anybody about that very long. And up there we know we’re lost and done for whether we’re dead or alive.”
“They never taught us really useful things like how to light a cigarette in the wind, or make a fire out of wet wood, or bayonet a man in the belly instead of the ribs where it gets jammed.”
“War isn’t the way it looks back here.”
“I can’t say anything…I can’t tell you anything you don’t know. We live in the trenches out there. We fight. We try not to be killed; sometimes we are. That’s all… I’ve been there! I know what it’s like…. I heard you in here reciting that same old stuff, making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you? We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?…You asked me to tell them how much they’re needed out there. He tells you, ‘Go out and die.’ Oh, but if you’ll pardon me, it’s easier to say ‘go out and die’ than it is to do it….And it’s easier to say it than to watch it happen…”
“War is organised murder and nothing else….politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder”
Harry Patch was the last Tommy to survive the horror of the trenches of WWI. He died aged 111 in 2009.
He never forgot those lost and always made sure to remember lost Germans as well as Allied troops. A quote from Harry: “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”
We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.
We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.
Life in the trenches was dirty, lousy, unsanitary. The barrages that preceded battle were one long nightmare. And when you went over the top, it was just mud, mud and more mud. Mixed with blood. You struggled through it, with dead bodies all around you. Any one of them could have been me.
Yet 90 years on, I’m still here, now 109 years old. It’s incredible to think that of the millions who fought in the trenches in the First World War, I’m the only one left – the last Tommy.
So now, on Remembrance Sunday, it is up to me to speak out for all those fallen or forgotten comrades. But today isn’t just about my generation. It is about all the servicemen who have risked or given their lives, and the soldiers who are still doing so.
My comrades died long ago and it’s easy for us to feel emotional about them. But the nation should honour what we did by helping the young soldiers of today feel worthwhile, by making them feel that their sacrifice has been worth it.
Remember the men in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t make them wait eight decades, like my generation had to wait, to feel appreciated.
The time for really remembering our Forces is while they are at war or in the years immediately after they return, when they are coping with the shock and distress or just the problems of returning to civilian life.
That is what upsets me now. It is as if we have not learned the lessons of the war of 90 years ago.
Last year, the politicians suggested holding a commemoration service at Westminster Abbey to honour the remaining First World War veterans. But why? What for? It was too, too late.
Why didn’t they think about doing something when the boys came back from the war bloodied and broken? And why didn’t they do more for the veterans and the widows in later life?
It was easy to forget about them because for years afterwards they never spoke out about the horrors they had experienced. I was the same. For 80 years I bottled it up, never mentioning my time in the trenches, not even to my wife or sons.
I never watched a war film either. It would have brought back too many bad memories.
And in all that time, although I never said it, I still felt a deep anger and resentment towards our old enemy, the Germans.
Three years ago, at the age of 106, I went back to Flanders for a memorial service. I met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. It was 87 years since we had fought. For all I know, he might have killed my own comrades. But we shook hands. And we had so much more in common than I could ever have thought.
He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. We had a translator but in a way we didn’t need him. After we had talked, we both sat in silence, looking at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of fallen comrades.
Once, to have shaken the hand of the enemy would have been treason, but Charles and I agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don’t know.
He told me: “I fought you because I was told to and you did the same.” It’s sad but true.
When Charles and I met, we’d both had a long time to think about the war and all that had happened. We both agreed it had been a pointless exercise. We didn’t know each other, we’d never met before, so why would we want to kill each other?
Charles has died now, but after our meeting he wrote me a letter. It said: “Shaking your hand was an honour and with that handshake we said more about peace than anything else ever could. On Sunday, I shall think of you, old comrade.”
Now, finally, I feel I can talk about those times. I’ve even written a book about my life and they say that makes me the oldest ever first-time author. Isn’t that something? I hope it helps people understand how the young men of my generation suffered.
I was conscripted into the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in 1916, by which time enthusiasm for the war had fallen away. I knew when I watched the White Cliffs receding as I sailed for France that I might never see England again.
I was put in a Lewis gun crew with three others and we became a very close team by the time we were ordered up to the front line during the Battle of Passchendaele. It was August 16, 1917, and just a couple of months after my 19th birthday.
It doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had, you can’t prepare for the reality of the front line – the noise, the filth, the uncertainty, the casualties, the call for stretcher-bearers.
Exactly 90 years later, in July this year, I returned to that very spot with The Mail on Sunday. There, in the sleepy Flanders countryside, I stared out at what was once No Man’s Land and it all came back to me.
The bombardment like non-stop claps of thunder, the ground we had to cover, the stench of rotting bodies who would never be buried.
You lived in fear and counted the hours. You saw the sun rise, hopefully you’d see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped to see it rise. Some men would, some wouldn’t.
Then the war, for me, suddenly came to an end. We were crossing open ground at Pilckem Ridge on September 22. In my mind, I can still see the shell explosion that took three of my pals and nearly did for me too.
I wasn’t told until later that the three behind me had been blown to pieces. My reaction was terrible and it’s still difficult to explain. It was like losing part of my life. The friendship you have during a war, it’s almost like love.
It was because of those three men that I did not speak about the war for most of my life. It was too painful. Today I have forgiven the men who killed them – they were in the same position as us. I find it harder, though, to forgive the politicians.
Somebody told me the other day that at homecoming parades for our men in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely anyone turns up. I was shocked. Even in our day there would at least be some kind of welcome.
I hope that today people will take the time to remember not just those who have died but those who are alive and fighting for our country. Please don’t forget them – or leave your thanks until it is too late.
(Harry Patch was talking to Nigel Blundell.)
- From The Last Fighting Tommy, by Harry Patch with Richard van Emden (Bloomsbury). Britain’s Last Tommies, also by Richard van Emden (Pen & Sword).
I came across this horrific story while reading Adam Hochschild’s excellent history of WWI, “To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion.” Actually, the book is not a general history of WWI, but rather a history of the tiny but important opposition to the war in Britain. Hochschild follows the lives of several families who were torn by the war, with opponents pitted against their family members who were very much in favor of continuing the inter-imperial slaughter. It s a beautiful and moving book, and I highly recommend it.
In one chapter Hochschild tells of the disaster at Passchendale. I’ll summarize:
This was a brutal battle, typical of WWI battles. Here, British Empire troops (including Britons, Indians, and Canadians) launched an assault against the German lines beginning July 17, 1917. While the battle was scheduled to be only a few days, it turned into several months. British forces would begin with a barrage of artillery shelling from in front of the enemy lines, then aiming farther back to cover the lines and the area behind them. Then soldiers would march forward, cutting barbed wire and enduring return shelling from the Germans. If all went well, they would push the Germans back and regain Belgian territory. Both sides had used this technique in battles farther to the south.
However, the ground where the battle took place – near the Belgian village of Passchendale – was at a low altitude above sea level. This made for effects that neither side had anticipated. The water table was only a few feet below the ground. When the shelling began, the ground was dry, but after the artillery assault and return fire from the Germans, the land between the lines was cratered like the moon. Meanwhile, it had begun to rain.
The rain, combined with the high water table, turned the ground into a soupy mud. Men, horses and equipment became stuck in the mud. From the book:
“I cannot attempt to describe the conditions under which we are fighting,” wrote John Mortimer Wheeler, later a well-known archaeologist. “Anything I could write about them would seem an exaggeration but would, in reality, be miles below the truth…. The mud is not so much mud as a fathomless, sticky morass. The shell holes, where they do not actually merge into one another, are divided only by a few inches of this glutinous mud…. The gunners work thigh-deep in water.” Some British artillery pieces dug themselves so deeply into the mud with their recoils that they dropped below the surface; the crew would then put up a flag to mark the spot.”
Injured men would crawl into shell craters to shield themselves from gunfire, only to find the crater filling up with water. Untold thousands drowned.
Private Charlie Miles of the Royal Fusiliers carried messages as a runner—a misnomer in this season: “The moment you set off you felt that dreadful suction…. In a way, it was worse when the mud didn’t suck you down…[then] you knew that it was a body you were treading on. It was terrifying. You’d tread on one on the stomach, perhaps, and it would grunt all the air out…. The smell could make you vomit.” And when shells landed, they blasted waterlogged, putrefying corpses into the air, showering pieces of them down on the soldiers who were still alive.
Meanwhile, the combination of censorship and state propaganda meant that a rosy picture of the battle and its heroism and victory was being pumped out all over Britain:
British, Australian, and Canadian troops inched ever closer to the little village of Passchendaele as newspaper headlines triumphantly announced, “Our Position Improved; Heroism in the New Advance” (the Times); “Complete Success in Battle of the Pill Boxes; Haig’s Smashing Blow” (the Daily Mirror). In the sanitizing language of newspapers and memorial services, these Canadians, and all the British Empire troops who lost their lives in the three-and-a-half-month battle, were referred to as the “fallen.” But in the mud of Passchendaele, falling dead from a bullet wound was only for the lucky:“A party of ‘A’ Company men passing up to the front line found … a man bogged to above the knees,” remembered Major C. A. Bill of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. “The united efforts of four of them, with rifles beneath his armpits, made not the slightest impression, and to dig, even if shovels had been available, would be impossible, for there was no foothold. Duty compelled them to move on up to the line, and when two days later they passed down that way the wretched fellow was still there; but only his head was now visible and he was raving mad.”
”I died in hell – They called it Passchendaele”
When You see Millions of the Mouthless Dead, by Charles Sorley
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.