A while back, the Royal Mint announced plans to put EdithCavell on a commemorative £5 coin, and the reactions I saw across twitter fell broadly into three categories.
Norfolkers: Yay! Hurrah for the local girl!
Feminists: Yay! Hurrah for women!
Shamefully, despite being a feminist, a Norfolker, and a history obsessed moo, I knew very little about Cavell, beyond the basic story. A nurse in occupied Belgium during the First World War, she is believed to have helped over 200 people to escape. She was betrayed, executed by the Germans, and now there is a monument to her just outside Norwich Cathedral. She’s best remembered for her words the night before her excecution:
‘I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’
An admirable sentiment, and her bravery is not in question. What I hadn’t realised is that she is rather a controversial figure to be commemorated, as she was nursing in a Red Cross hospital. Her assisting Allied soldiers to escape went fundamentally against Red Cross principles of neutrality and impartiality – principles she adhered to as a nurse, by treating soldiers from both sides. Cavell herself wasn’t a member of the Red Cross, but her hospital was commandeered by the organisation, so essentially she represented them. By acting as she did, she put those working for the Red Cross in serious danger. You can see why some people may not view her as the heroine she’s usually written up as being.
However, in that situation, having to make that decision, to help or not, who can say what they would do? Do you risk your life and those of others to help one person? Or do you keep yourself safe, knowing that by lack of action, you could be condemning someone to death? It’s unlikely that you or I will ever have to face that situation so plainly. And to follow on from that, it wasn’t just the 200 or so people she aided. What happened to those men? Did they end up returning to the front? Did they make further contribution to the war? Did they die on their way home, meaning that Cavell’s actions weren’t just misguided, but ultimately pointless? Or did they survive? Are their descendants amongst us now? Did Cavell lose her life, so that many others might live? We’ll never know, I suppose.
That’s a very stark, and black & white decision to have to take, which had clear and obvious consequences for Cavell, and misty, half secret ones for those whom she helped. For most of us, the decisions that we make every day, often without really thinking, are the ones that have life altering impact. The decision to walk home, which means you were later, so you missed that phone call from a friend, asking you out for a drink, to the pub where you would have met the love of your life. The cold you had that meant you went to the chemist and bumped into an old friend who tipped you off about your dream job. The time you didn’t bother checking the post, and your other half found their birthday present, which caused a row, so you didn’t have sex that night, you didn’t get pregnant, and didn’t go on to become a parent later that year. The decision to make a joke on twitter that got retweeted, and gained you a new follower, who became one of your closest friends.
We like to think that it’s the big decisions, the university we go to, the person we decide to spend out life with, where to move to, that has the biggest impact. It’s not. It’s the smallest of margins, life, the tiniest things that change our lives, and so often, it’s hard to trace it back to the root, place your finger upon it, and say ‘Yes. That was where things changed.'
I wish I could remember the first day,
First hour, first moment of your meeting me,
If bright or dim the season, it might be
Summer or Winter for aught I can say.
So unrecorded did it slip away,
So blind was I to see and foresee,
So dull to mark the budding of my tree
That would not blossom yet for many a May.
If only I could recollect it, such
A day of days! I let it come and go
As traceless as a thaw of bygone snow;
It seemed to mean so little, meant so much;
If only now I could recall that touch,
First touch of hand in hand – Did one but know!
Christina G Rossetti