On the edge of our St Martin’s community stands a statue of a heroine of the First World War. Recently I read a biography of Edith Cavell. The daughter of a clergyman she lived a life devoted to love and governed by prayer, service and study. She trained as a nurse at The London, under the leadership of an awe inspiring matron who demanded the highest standards and got them. Edith absorbed the lessons, first taught by Florence Nightingale and was eventually invited to pioneer the development of modern nursing in Belgium. She was very successful in this difficult task but it left her in Belgium when the Germans invaded at the beginning of the First World War. Habituated to a life of love and service she received wounded soldiers of all nationalities in her hospital. As the war progressed Germans began to be taken direct to German hospitals leaving Edith and her team to tend allied soldiers. Later she began to help them to escape to neutral Holland. For this she was tried for treason and shot in 1915.
News of Edith’s death horrified the British and she became something of a war hero. Reaction to her execution doubled the number of men enlisting for several weeks. The statue that stands opposite the National Portrait Gallery was originally inscribed only with the 4 words “For King and Country.” The Bishop of London preached in St Martin-in -the-Fields urging greater violence towards Germany in her name. Only some years later did her friends gain the addition of Edith’s dying words on the memorial:
‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for any man.’
So now when I pass Edith Cavell’s statue, at least twice a week, I am more awed by her wisdom than by her courage. It seems to me that there is no lack of courage in the world but the kind of wisdom that led to her dying words is very rare.