studio1.1 is proud to present an exhibition dedicated to the memory of Edith Cavell, on the centenary of her death. A British nurse running a Red Cross hospital in a Brussels occupied by the Germans, she was executed for treason, for helping British Servicemen escape into neutral Holland.
We believe it is important to remind ourselves of Cavell’s final statement, given to a British chaplain the night before her death: “‘Patriotism is not enough… I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
Words that are visible, carved on her statue in central London, immediately outside the National Portrait Gallery. Words, however, that did not appear on the statue when it was erected in 1920, and words which George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play ‘Saint Joan’, accused the authorities of leaving out because of their subversive potential.
It is that subversion we would like to celebrate.
These days, when commemoration of wars ‘we’ won can easily tip into nationalistic self-congratulation, while wars we started, unwon and probably unwinnable have led to a major humanitarian crisis we are refusing to take responsibility for, there could be no better time to honour Edith Cavell, her work and her words. There are no borders, no boundaries on humanity.
This exhibition brings together four artists, from the nations involved in the fighting around Brussels. Although the artists’ work does not necessarily have any direct bearing on Edith Cavell or on the war itself, they are artists we have had a long connection with – Yves Beaumont is from Belgium, Annie Kevans from France, Richard Bateman from Britain and Michaela Zimmer from Germany.
It is worth a footnote, at least, to mention Edith Cavell’s local links: she trained at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, alongside which runs Cavell St, and there is a plaque to her on St Leonard’s Hospital in Kingsland Road, where she also worked.
Counting the number of full-length statues of women in Greater London won’t take us long: there are sixteen, and seven of them are of Queen Victoria. Shown at different times of her life, admittedly, since there’s a wide range of ages to cover. Always a queen, mostly wearing a crown and carrying a sceptre and a solemn expression, but a slim young girl outside Kensington Palace, widening slightly in Carlton House Terrace, and in by the time we get to Croydon the familiar glowering dowager. The nine others (there are just about that number of men in Parliament Square alone) form a necessarily random list that depended on whoever at the right time had the energy and enthusiasm to agitate for a permanent commemoration, and then to make it happen. The nurse Mary Seacole, active in the Crimea alongside Florence Nightingale, has been in the pipeline for some decades. So what we have, alongside the armies of kings and politicians and forgotten soldiers, is an actress, a ballet dancer, a suffragette, a Salvationist, a writer, a charity worker, a doctor and two nurses. One of the nurses, inevitably, is Florence Nightingale. The other is Edith Cavell.
‘Edith, like Joan, was an arch heretic: in the middle of the war she declared before the world that ‘Patriotism is not enough.’ She nursed enemies back to health, and assisted their prisoners to escape, making it abundantly clear that she would help any fugitive or distressed person without asking whose side he was on, and acknowledging no distinction before Christ between Tommy and Jerry and Pitou the poilu. The modern military Inquisition… shot her out of hand; and her countrymen, seeing in this a good opportunity for lecturing the enemy on his intolerance, put up a statue to her, but took particular care not to inscribe on the pedestal ‘Patriotism is not enough’, for which omission, and the lie it implies, they will need Edith’s intercession when they are themselves brought to judgment… ‘
These fierce words come from 1924, from Shaw’s typically mammoth preface to his play ‘St Joan’. Edith Cavell has been dead for nine years, and in four years’ time there will be a full-length silent film about her trial and execution, ‘Dawn’, in which she’s played by Sybil Thorndike, the very same actor who has had the part of Shaw’s Joan written specially for her. The statue he’s referring to, the one at the junction where Charing Cross Road meets St Martin’s Lane, was erected in 1920, paid for by public subscription, designed for no fee by a society sculptor, Sir George Frampton, and unveiled by Queen Alexandra, the Queen Mother at the time. (Frampton didn’t neglect Queen Victoria, designing two statues of her, but one’s in Winnipeg and the other’s in Calcutta.) Edith Cavell, dressed in her nurse’s uniform, is carved more than life-size in white Carrara marble, against a tall Modernist-ish granite column. And there’s text. First of all, a time and place: ‘Brussels Dawn October 12 1915′. Cryptic, maybe, at least at this distance in time; but still with a definite ominous charge. Additionally, as a change from the generally curt inscriptions giving us names and dates and decorations, thumbnail biographies of the forgotten soldiers, there’s a selection of vaguely inspirational words carved round all sides of the marble and the granite. ‘For King and Country’, ‘Humanity’, ‘Devotion’, ‘Fortitude’, ‘Sacrifice’ and ‘Faithful until Death’. Sentiments that are really doing nothing very much, an overdose of language, signifying everything and nothing. And once you know, as Shaw did, that there are obvious words to have carved there, a defining statement made by Cavell herself, a cynic could well pick up the feeling these other inspirational exhortations, spun out unedited in an Edwardian version of a brainstorm, have been cut there to take up the available space, leaving no room or need for any other comment. A cynic would have no trouble suspecting a sense of purpose here. An intentional omission of the words Edith Cavell used in her last conversation, with the English chaplain who attended her the night before her death. The words, ultimately, that mark her out as worth remembering and celebrating far above all the Generals Havelock and Napier and Whoever.
Anyone who’s passed the statue will have been able to see those missing words, though. In the same year that Shaw’s preface was published, Cavell’s own words were finally added directly below her on the plinth. (Though the opposite of a cynic might have imagined the space had been left free on purpose, ready for an objection that was bound to come.) Even if a little smaller than the committee-devised watchwords, there they are, included after a request (maybe it was even a complaint) from the National Council of Women: ‘Patriotism is Not Enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.’
Despite his intemperate tone, the facts are pretty much as Shaw sets them out. The Germans had occupied Belgium within the first weeks of the war in August 1914, and Britain had declared war on Germany the same day. Although in Brussels the Germans set up their own hospitals for wounded combatants, the training hospital Cavell was running, flying the flag of the Red Cross, accepted all wounded soldiers under the terms of the Geneva Convention. When war was declared she’d been on holiday in England; she’d returned to Belgium at once. For her, far beyond the obligations of nationality, it was as a nurse and a Christian that she saw her duty to the widest possible humanity, even in wartime. Especially in wartime, perhaps. And it wasn’t long before she was called on to test the limits of that duty. If there were, as she soon discovered, hundreds of soldiers separated from their regiments and wanting to escape into neutral Holland rather than be transported to German prison camps or be shot, as she believed they could be, that simply meant to her that they needed help.
For her eventual captors, probably understandably, her nationality wasn’t so easy to disregard. She was a representative of not just an enemy nation, but one whose entry into the war had presumably been considered highly unnecessary, even provocative. In the circumstances, the legality and fairness of her trial risk becoming irrelevant. Whether a charge of treason was appropriate for a non-German not even living in Germany, (but maybe Belgium had become technically German), the fact that the trial was conducted in German, a language she didn’t understand, translated into French for her benefit and with the high likelihood of errors, both accidental and intended. (This is happening worldwide, all the time). Even the fact that the crux of the charges against her was unproved and indeed unprovable – the ultimate destination of the soldiers helped to escape. If they reached England and stayed there, she was guilty of the serious, but definitely not capital crime of helping prisoners to escape. She pleaded guilty to this. If the men re-enlisted and returned to fight the Germans, she was guilty of a far more serious crime, of materially assisting the enemy. That was a fact it was impossible to determine – though one could maybe admit it was likely a fair proportion of the men would rejoin the army, even unwillingly, given the public hostility to any men of fighting age not in uniform. Her trial was as unfair as most trials in wartime are probably bound to be.
What was shocking, was the speed with which the sentence was carried out. The desire to execute her was clearly implacable. In case there was to be any kind of international outcry, events were carefully managed so that there wasn’t one – there simply wasn’t time. She was sentenced on Saturday 9th October, told the sentence late on the afternoon of October 11, and shot at 7 the next morning, along with Philippe Baucq, a young Brussels lawyer responsible, among other things, for disseminating ‘la Libre Belgique’, a satirical anti-German news-sheet.
Criticised for shooting a woman, the German commander countered that sparing her for that reason would have sent the wrong message, encouraging women in particular to take part in anti-German activity. The Kaiser, however, did rule that no further executions of women were to take place without his consent, though a Frenchwoman was shot the following year.
The outcry came later, when the worldwide shock and anger at her death meant that the other four prisoners condemned to death alongside her were reprieved after representations were made by the King of Spain, the Vatican, and Woodrow Wilson in Washington. In the case of Cavell herself, the minister at the US Legation in Brussels was handling British interests; he was ill and dilatory. At a very late stage the Spanish Ambassador did protest to no effect, his offer to phone the Kaiser in Berlin refused on the grounds that it was too late in the evening to disturb him. The British government, as the enemy who, after all, had had no pressing need to declare war, took the view that their intervention would do more harm than good.
In Britain, there’d been a satisfying amount of patriotic fervour at the start of the war, when enthusiasm in enlisting had been supplemented by some bullying, in particular from the part of the population in no danger of ending up in the trenches. What we’d categorise today as a clever pr stunt capitalised on feelings of public shame, and any man of fighting age walking the street in civilian dress, whatever the circumstances, knew what it meant to be presented with a white feather. In October 1915, a whole fifteen months after the start of the war, with conscription not to be introduced until 1917, there was a strong need to replace slaughtered troops with fresh candidates. Edith Cavell’s execution was immediately – we could say enthusiastically – used to excite anti-German feeling.
In a very different play about St Joan, Anouilh’s ‘The Lark’, a character comments: ‘Joan’s story is one that ends well’. One, we could say, with a happy ending. Edith Cavell’s story ends in a welter of contradictions. The moment news of her execution reached England it was used as a formidable rallying-cry for the army recruiters. For several months enlisting figures doubled.
Edith Cavell’s beliefs were partly the product of a rule-based late-Victorian Christianity: her father was the vicar of a small village outside Norwich. A career in nursing, only quite recently professionalised thanks in particular to the efforts and achievements of Florence Nightingale, was, apart from marriage, one of the few routes out of a non-productive backwater life for girls without money or contacts. Having tried one of the other possibilities, life as a governess, Edith Cavell took advantage of whatever training in nursing existed at the time. At the Royal London hospital in Whitechapel she wasn’t considered a particularly outstanding nurse, at least by the standards of the fearsome-seeming Matron. (Cavell Street, a little desolate, now runs off Whitechapel Road, alongside the hospital buildings. Bus staff hang around there, as if they’re expecting a change in the rota.)
Edith Cavell’s afterlife in myth began almost at once, with a short film ‘Nurse and Martyr’ rushed out and dated November 1915, shot within days of her death. The BFI version runs for eleven minutes and opens with a nurse lying on her bed, smoking, then escaping from her room by means of knotted bedclothes, threatening to get her own back on Edith Cavell. We’ll probably never know why. Under arrest, Cavell is seen being vigorously denounced by this woman now in civilian dress. From then on, arrest and imprisonment, praying and death are clear enough to make perfect sense to an audience who already knew the story. It’s in effect a staged newsreel, though one with a slant. The Germans behave badly, carousing outside her cell door while she’s praying. Cora Lee’s eye-rolling performance leads seamlessly to, after her death, the intertitle ‘The Blood of the Martyr calls to YOU’, and her apotheosis in a screen blocked out in the shape of a cross. She could stand in for any martyred or victimised heroine in the calendar, from Sts Barbara to Bernadette, and has turned into a recognisable recruiting poster. After that a film made in Australia, said to be the most successful ever Australian silent film, complicates matters, apparently (the film is lost) with a conventional love intrigue between secondary, and invented, characters.
Both the British films on Cavell’s story were made by the same director, the competent (and nothing more) Herbert Wilcox. After the first one, ‘Dawn’, was shot in 1928, a novelisation was produced by its screenwriter Reginald Berkeley, including production stills from the film. The second film, ‘Nurse Edith Cavell’, shot in 1939 under the auspices of RKO in Hollywood then has the credit: ‘based on the book by Reginald Berkeley’. Indeed. The two films are so similar, and so comparatively low-key, that watching them both seems like sitting through the same material twice. And so it is, since to a remarkable extent the facts are adhered to, and barely embellished. Even more remarkable in view of the fact that Sybil Thorndike, in the silent film, was a great tragic actor striking for the thrilling sound of her voice, and for the force of her humanity. She was a major stage actor whose film career amounted to little more than a few minor comedies in the ’50′s. Anna Neagle in the talking version was barely an actor at all. In partnership with Wilcox, whose third wife she became, her career took her through the thirties and forties playing a succession of women ranging all the way from Nell Gwnn through Amy Johnson and Odette Churchill, a Second World War heroine, up to, inescapably, Florence Nightingale, from a play by Reginald Berkeley. And, even more inescapably, Queen Victoria, at many different ages, twice.
Both films contain odd, random touches of authenticity. In ‘Nurse Edith Cavell’ it extends to the inclusion of Cavell’s dog Jack (though he’s seen just once, at her feet, uncommented-on, and doesn’t appear again). The cell in which she spent her last hours is carefully recreated from a photograph, and shot from the same angle. Though the cover of the dvd makes the claim that Neagle gives ‘a bravura performance’ (anyone who’s ever seen her might fear the worst), the claim’s luckily unjustified. As Edith Cavell she’s probably at her best, giving a simple performance that makes undemonstrativeness look like stoicism. Fair enough. And the rest of the film follows suit. Apart from the fact that most of the characters’ names are changed, even the nurse Elizabeth Wilkins, Cavell’s second-in-command, who’s thanked as an authority in the opening credits, the events are laid out pretty much as they happened, soberly and without exaggeration. The final scene, an overhead shot of the memorial service in Westminster Abbey – a story with, at least, a triumphant ending – becomes all the more moving for it.
There’s just one major fact that strays from the record, and it’s more significant than it might seem. In all three of these British films, Cavell wears her nurse’s uniform throughout, including at her trial and execution. The fact is that she had always made a point of wearing civilian clothes off-duty. At her trial and for her execution she made a particular point of this. It was important to her to appear as herself, a private individual, in charge of her personal conscience, rather than as the represent-ative of the nursing profession. Keeping her in her uniform, then, is a significant decision. Let’s say, a significant distortion. A significant detail suggesting the dead hand of duty imposed from above, still held power. Today we should be able to view her in neutral all-facetted garb, better fitting her universal plea.
In certain parts of the Anglican church, October 12 is venerated as Edith Cavell day, as if Anglicans recognised saints, and she was one. She was recently suggested as one of the candidates, as women, for depiction on the £10 banknote (Jane Austen won.) She will appear this year on a commemor-ative £5 coin. There are streets named after her, including the street in a Brussels suburb where her hospital still stands, renamed the Edith Cavell Institute. In Alberta there’s a Mount Cavell. There are memorials in Melbourne and Salford, as well as Norwich and Brussels. Jack, the dog, was stuffed and presented to the Imperial War Museum. Last year the statue’s Grade II listing was changed to Grade I. She, together with her statement, is there for ever.
It’s possible to pick away at her statement. ‘Standing as I do in the face of eternity and God, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ It’s a reported statement, only heard by one person, an Anglican chaplain. Maybe they seem quite characteristic from such a source. Or from the 50-year-old unmarried daughter of a county vicar? Is patriotism not enough, but still desirable? At the moment we’re in the throes of, apparently a ‘migrant crisis’. At various times last year and this we have been awash in commemoration of four wars that, as it happens, we won. (Waterloo and Agincourt, remember.) What should be important is to keep away from ambiguous celebrations. The poppy display at the Tower last year was off-putting to a minority of us because of its irrelevant aesthetic and (it’s probably the same thing) its closing-off of meaning. What did it mean? Who were we remembering? Everyone and no-one. Ourselves. The great film-maker Jean Renoir, in Hollywood during the war, worked in Europe afterwards but didn’t move from California back to France. Asked about this, he answered that he didn’t consider himself a citizen of France, but of the cinema. Wilfred Owen was killed in the week before the armistice. His poem, ‘Strange Meeting’, is used at the climax of Britten’s War Requiem as a duet between the tenor and baritone, usually cast as British and German soloists. It’s a conversation between a dead soldier and a living one, who ends by singing: ‘You are the enemy I killed, my friend.’ Alongside that assertion of a shared humanity, even – or especially – in wartime, against tribalism, triumphant nationalism, xenophobia and the dark areas beyond, a gentle reminder that ‘patriotism is not enough’ is one of the best defences we could have.