Nurse Edith Cavell
Memorial Service at Norwich Cathedral

On Saturday 9th October 2004, in the bright autumn sun a crowd of about fifty people gathered at the graveside of Nurse Edith Cavell which is at Life’s Green beneath the south wall of Norwich Cathedral. They came to honour the memory of this brave daughter of Norfolk on the 89th Anniversary of her death by German firing squad in Belgium on 12th October 1915. The Lord Mayor of Norwich led the official party. The Red Cross and ex-service organisations attended and, this year, it was good to see two serving members of H.M. Forces present - a Captain of the Women’s Royal Army Corps and a R.A.M.C. Staff Sergeant. A parade of 14 Royal British Legion Standards gave colour and dignity to the service.

Each year the Royal British Legion organises this ceremony, held on the Saturday nearest to the date of Cavell’s death, in conjunction with the Cathedral clergy and a local Salvation Army Corps whose band leads singing (including 'Abide with Me') and sounds the Last Post and Reveille.

The service is a full memorial service with traditional hymns and prayers. The RBL Chaplain gave an address based on words used in the local paper (Eastern Daily Press) in 1915 in a call for ‘Justice not Revenge’. His words were especially apt as we also remembered the murdered hostage, Ken Bigley, and his grieving family.

The Salvation Army bugler signaled our silent remembrance with immaculate playing before the Blessing and march off by the band and standards.

A brief resume of the life and death of Edith Cavell:

Edith Louise Cavell was born in 1865 in the vicarage of Swardeston (Norfolk) where she grew up. She was an accomplished artist and would collect and paint wild flowers. She had a flair for French which she had easily and quickly learned. She had several jobs as a governess and was recommended for a post in Brussels in 1890.

In 1895 Edith returned to Swardeston to nurse her father through illness and this led her to spend the next five years training to be a nurse at the London Hospital.

In 1905 she accepted the post of Matron at Belgium’s first training school for nurses in Brussels.

Edith often returned to visit her mother who, since her husband’s death, was living in Norwich and she was at home in 1914 when news came that the Germans had invaded Belgium. She was back there by 3rd August.

In the autumn of 1914 two stranded British soldiers found their way to Nurse Cavell’s training school and others followed to be quickly spirited away to neutral territory in Holland. An underground lifeline was established, initiated by Prince and Princess De Croy at their chateau in Mons, who with others helped some 200 soldiers to escape.

Two members of the escape team were arrested on 31st July 1915 and five days later Nurse Cavell was interned. The German authorities, having sentenced Edith and four others to death, were determined to carry out the executions immediately. Permission was given for the English chaplain, Stirling Graham, to visit her the night before she was to die and together they recited the words of the hymn ‘Abide with me’.

The allies claimed Nurse Cavell as a martyr. After the war her remains were brought to Westminster Abbey for the first part of a burial service on 15th May 1919. A special train then brought her coffin to Thorpe Station, Norwich, from where a great procession followed her to the Cathedral where she was laid to rest at Life’s Green.

[Note on pronunciation of the name ‘Cavell’. The emphasis is on the FIRST part of the name. Edith’s brother has been quoted a ssaying, ‘ Our name does not rhyme with HELL but with GRAVEL’]

For a direct link to the author of this article, email Chris Basey

Copyright © Chris Basey, October, 2004

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