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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Edith Cavell: a universal woman for a £2 coin.

I have signed the nationwide petition to have Edith Cavell depicted on a £2 coin in commemoration of the centenary of the Great War. This follows the Royal Mint’s announcement of a first commemorative coin showing Lord Kitchener pointing his finger on the famous recruitment poster with its motto ‘Your country needs you’.

I am not against the Kitchener coin provided that it doesn’t set the tone for our nation's World War One commemorations. I understand that there is to be a series of coins issued during the four years of the centenary. I welcome this, but am sorry that Kitchener was chosen to be the first. Our country does not need him to blaze this trail. While revisionist historians (and Michael Gove?) may be reassessing the crude, uncritical jingoism popularly associated with his image and recruiting style, this is not a move that would have endeared itself to the war poets and others who dared as servicemen to ask uncomfortable but necessary questions about Britain’s conduct of the war.

Edith Cavell is an altogether different kind of emblem of the Great War. As a nurse, she understood that her vocation to care and heal could not make distinctions between victims of war. They all needed what she had to give. She saved the lives of men on both sides, as the German authorities were quick to recognise. However, her patriotism was a conviction no less profoundly felt than Kitchener’s. This was why she helped British and French soldiers escape occupied Belgium for the safety of the Dutch frontier. For this she was charged with treason. She did not deny that her actions had helped a ‘hostile power’; she was executed by firing squad at first light on 12 October 1915.

Her words to her Anglican chaplain on the night before she died have passed into immortality. But I find them profoundly moving. ‘I realise that patriotism is not enough.  I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ It’s important to read that credo alongside what she was reported to have said to the German Lutheran chaplain on the morning of her execution itself: ‘Tell my loved ones…that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country’. Pro patria mori: ‘that old lie’, Wilfred Owen had called it, yet it was Edith Cavell’s truth – honourable because it understood patriotism within the wider, and primary, context of humanity itself.

To rise above the warmongering rhetoric that so many of her generation (including Church of England bishops and clergy) espoused called for courage and resolve. I believe that her restatement of patriotic love-of-country as part of love-for-humanity makes her a truly universal figure of the Great War. Those who were our enemies in world war will be able to honour this too. She can become a true symbol of integrity and conscience in warfare where, as we know, truth is always the first casualty. More than that, she can stand for the possibility of reconciliation, building a society in which human beings are aspiring to renounce hatred and bitterness and learning the more excellent way of love.

I am saying that Edith Cavell can help us to remember the Great War well. This matters because we only learn from our history if we can reach back into our corporate memory and converse with it intelligently. This means bringing critical insights to bear on the ways we tell our story.  It's a complex, subtle interpretative task. Some recent right-wing commentary on the educational challenges of the centenary does not seem to have realised this yet.

So I hope, with thousands of others, that we shall see this great Englishwoman soon honoured on a coin of the realm. If you would like to add your name to the petition, you can find it at www.change.org.

1 comment:

  1. Sioned-Mair Richards17 January 2014 at 22:16

    Thank you so much for your support!