Address given at a Service to Commemorate the Life of Florence Nightingale

7 May 2014 at 18:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

On Thursday 15th May 1919, 95 years ago next week, a remarkable funeral service was held here in Westminster Abbey. The funeral was surrounded by ceremony, as befitted an occasion of national mourning, and was attended by Her Majesty Queen Alexandra, the mother of the King George V, by members of His Majesty’s Government, the heads of the armed forces and many other notables. The coffin, draped in the Union Jack, had been borne on a gun carriage from Victoria Station with an escort of one hundred men of all ranks in the military. The bands of the Welsh Guards and the Coldstream Guards accompanied the procession.

The Times newspaper the following day reported the scene. ‘Thousands of men bared their heads. Soldiers stiffened to attention, officers saluted, and women and children stood in reverent silence. There was no motion in the multitude. But for the roll of the drums, the beautiful melody of the funeral march and the slow, stately tread of the escorting guards, the stillness would have been unbroken.’

The Times report went on, ‘All along the route to the Abbey, there was no break in the lines of mourners. Mourners the people can be called, for though it is probable that not one man or woman in the crowd ever saw Nurse Edith Cavell, they had gathered to express a deep sympathy born of admiration for what a woman, surrounded by her country’s enemies, did for England.’ Edith Cavell’s funeral continued later that day in Norwich, near the place where her father had been a vicar, where she had been brought up. Her body was interred under the shadow of Norwich Cathedral. In the collective memory, she remains one of the most potent representative figures of that generation of women and men who served in various capacities in the First World War.

So what did Edith Cavell do for England? I rely again on the report in the Times. ‘Trained at the London Hospital, she became a good nurse. She was in her 50th year when the events occurred that made her name known to the whole world. At the beginning of the war she had been for seven years matron of a training school for Belgian nurses in Brussels. To meet the new conditions, this institution was at once turned into a Red Cross hospital. And during the months that followed Nurse Cavell and her staff tended wounded soldiers from the Allied armies, together with wounded Germans. As a servant of the Red Cross she did not discriminate between the patients in her care. But she was also an English woman, and, as such, lent her aid to a secret organisation for arranging the escape of English, French and Belgian stragglers.’

Eventually, the Times goes on to explain in detail: eventually, the organisation was discovered. Thirty five arrests were made by the German occupying forces. Four of those arrested were sentenced to death. There was no charge of espionage and Edith Cavell frankly admitted what she had done. Even so, she was sentenced to death and on 11th October an order was issued by the German Military Commandant of Brussels for her immediate execution. At dawn on 12th October 1915, Edith Cavell faced a firing squad.

The Government of the United Kingdom had declared war on Germany at 11 pm on the evening of August 4th 1914. We shall mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War here in Westminster Abbey with a vigil of prayer, a time of solemn reflection, between 10 and 11 pm on the evening of 4th August this year. In churches and cathedrals around the country, and other places of worship, people will gather in solemn vigil. There will be no spirit of triumphalism; rather a spirit of repentance, as we reflect on the failure that prevents human beings from settling our differences diplomatically, without violence. Later in the centenary of the War will be a time to reflect further on the sacrifices demanded in war, and the spirit of heroism, of self-offering, of self-giving love, the sign of the best of humanity that we so admire, such as that of Edith Cavell.

She went to her death in calm self-possession. The evening before, the British chaplain was permitted to visit her in prison. The words she used then stand as her memorial. ‘This I would say, standing, as I do, in view of God and eternity: I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’

We must admire the strength of character and determination of Edith Cavell and her commitment as a nurse to care for all without discrimination. She stands as an icon, an example and an inspiration, to women and men alike, alongside Florence Nightingale whom we honour today, of nursing at its best, even in the most trying circumstances. Edith Cavell, like Florence Nightingale, had a firm faith. They followed the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, who the night before he died washed his disciples’ feet, so that they too would live lives of loving service and his death and resurrection defeated for all time the power of sin and death to control us and to terrify us. She went to her death in calm self-possession. We give thanks to God for the example of our Lord and for his triumph over death. And we also give thanks for all those who follow that example. For Edith Cavell, as for Florence Nightingale, the praise is of the highest when it is expressed at its most simple and most aspirational. She was a good nurse. 


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