Old English Women to Shoot
And when they tied her, teary, to the stake,
In her worn blue suit, and hat with the tortoiseshell pin,
She bowed before the rifles, upright to the end.
I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.
Creating the Centena
Who to write about? With the focus on the humble tommy, my impulse was to choose a toff. The poet scion of a grand family, perhaps, desperately trying to take leadership of a reluctant band of brothers. Or one of the despised, moustachioed Generals. What would it be like to look through their eyes?
That’s how I came to Nurse Edith Cavell; a familiar historical figure from a well-to-do background. The challenge was to get behind the conventional image and find the real person.
The research part was easy. The internet is bursting at the seams with information about her. Most of it tells the story we all know – brave matron shelters Allied soldiers in occupied Belgium, leading to her execution by German firing squad.
And it’s all true, according to eyewitnesses. Even down to her last words about not hating anyone.
There were dissenting voices – from the correctional tone of Stella Rimington, ex-head of MI5, who found evidence that Cavell was indeed spying for the Allies, as the Germans claimed and the British denied – to angry blogs asserting that Cavell’s ‘martyrdom’ was cynically exploited by Allied governments to send thousands more to their deaths.
I appreciate those views, because they brought me closer to my subject. If this was the worst that could be said of Edith Cavell, then she really was all she seemed to be.
A nurse who worked for her, recorded in the BBC World Service’s Witness series, described her as “Pale, thin, dignified, no sense of humour, a disciplinarian”. But Cavell was driven, to exhaustion, by a sense of duty – firstly to raise standards at the Brussels hospital where she was based, and later to save the lives of Allied soldiers.
The title of my centena, and its inspiration, came from a passage in one of those obscure books you come across online. True Stories of World War 1, Complete: The Story of Hugh Gibson, American Diplomat contained an anecdote about the efforts of an Allied delegation to plead for clemency with the German authorities. Exasperated by the delegation’s numerous appeals, “Count Harrach broke in… with the rather irrelevant remark that he would rather see Miss Cavell shot than have harm come to the humblest German soldier, and his only regret was that they had not ‘three or four old English women to shoot.’”
These contradictions brought Cavell to life for me and drove the poem. The stern disciplinarian, the compassionate humanitarian. A formidable Edwardian spinster, an expendable old woman. A person of superhuman bravery, and a very human terror of death.
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