I have passed by this memorial, just off the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square and across the road from the National Portrait Gallery, many times without even noticing it much less pausing to see that it is in memory of Edith Louisa Cavell, a British civilian nurse in World War I, who was executed by a German firing squad for helping Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.
In 1907 Cavell became the matron of the Berkendael Institute, a pioneering nurses’ training school in Brussels. During WWI when Germany occupied Belgium Cavell, in addition to nursing the wounded from both sides, sheltered around 200 British, French and Belgian soldiers in the Institute and then assisted them in their escape to neutral Holland. Whether or not Cavell (pictured below – UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images) was also actively working for British Intelligence remains a subject of much debate.
In August 1915 she was arrested and subjected to trial by court-martial. Cavell was found guilty of treason for providing “reinforcements” to Germany’s enemies though not of spying. She confessed to helping troops escape but insisted she was acting out of purely humanitarian motives. Cavell was sentenced to death (probably in contravention of the German military code of occupation and of the first Geneva Convention) on 7 October 1915. The sentence was carried out on 12 October when she and Philippe Baucq, a co-accused Belgian, were executed by firing squad.
Cavell’s execution sparked outrage in Britain, well summed up by Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote, “Everybody must feel disgusted at the barbarous actions of the German soldiery in murdering this great and glorious specimen of womanhood.” Cavell was hailed as a martyr and in the eight weeks after her execution recruitment into the British army doubled.
Cavell was buried in a simple grave in Belgium (picture above credit – Tim Ockenden/PA) though after the war her remains were repatriated and reburied at Norwich Cathedral Close, after a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.
The Cornish grey granite and Carrara marble memorial, in two parts, was created, free of charge, by Sir George Frampton, probably better known as sculptor of the lions outside the British Museum. It was unveiled by Queen Alexandra on the 5th anniversary of Cavell’s execution in 1920 on this site where a statue of General Gordon stood, prior to its removal to Khartoum.
At the front of the memorial is a three metres high intricately carved marble statue of Cavell, in the nurse’s uniform which she wore at the time of her death.
This part of the memorial is backed by a 10 metres high more crudely carved column of granite topped off with a cross and an art deco/ brutalist style woman and child. For me the two parts do not work well together and the backdrop, as it were, overshadows and draws my attention from what should be the primary focus of the memorial.
That said, the two parts are drawn together by a number of symbolic inclusions on the granite column. The women and child, perhaps the Virgin Mary and Jesus, represent Humanity, more specifically the allies’ role in protecting Belgium and other small nations during WWI. On the rear of the column is a bas-relief British Lion (pictured below) representing Fortitude and speaking of Cavell’s strength as it tramples a serpent – the symbol of Envy, Malice, Spite and Treachery.
The words “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone” were added to the plinth on which Cavell stands in 1924. On the eve of her execution Cavell is reported to have uttered these words of forgiveness to Stirling Gahan, the Anglican chaplain who visited her that evening. While these are the words sent by Gahan to London, via the American Legation in Brussels, his notes record Cavell saying: “Patriotism is not enough. It is not enough to love one’s own people, one must love all men and hate none …” In sending an abbreviated and watered down version of the words Gahan presumably suspected that the actual words used would have been too pacifist for the British Government to accept. Perhaps the authorities dislike even for the abbreviated words explains why even they did not appear on the memorial until 1924.
Notwithstanding Cavell’s courageous and heart touching story I cannot warm to this memorial from an aesthetic or artistic perspective. However, what does make the memorial special is that it commemorates one of the most famous civilian casualties of World War I and is a rare and very early war memorial to an individual woman.
Location: Off the northeast corner of Trafalgar Square and across the road from the National Portrait Gallery.