When our present Con-Dem government started to plan commemorations for the anniversary of the start of World War I, it didn’t take a genius to guess just who its heroes would be.
Would it be the brave and oh-so-young Tommies who fought like lions in the trenches and on the muddy, bloody battlefields that were home to this historic conflict?
No. It was clear that David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Michael Gove — then still rewriting school histories — would hand the accolades to insensitive and incompetent officers, the often Eton-educated donkeys, who sent so many brave men to an unnecessary early death.
The government’s Royal Mint announced it was to honour one of the most insensitive of all the donkeys, Lord Kitchener, who convinced thousands of working-class lads to sign up. Many of them were very young indeed who lied about their age to answer Kitchener’s jingoistic appeal.
Kitchener was a warmonger with the blood of millions on his hands.
Even before WWI he had a reputation for atrocities. He led the Omdurman massacre in Sudan in 1898 and expanded the network of concentration camps in South Africa during the second Boer war. Many civilians died in the unhealthy conditions.
In January this year the Morning Star published my article on the outrage and insensitivity of such a commemorative Kitchener coin. This article proved to be just one part of a massive public outcry.
I suggested that nurse Edith Cavell would be a far better candidate for such a commemorative coin. I suggested the message on the coin be her famous last words: “Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”
I wasn’t the only one backing Cavell. Tens of thousands signed an online petition organised by Sioned-Mair Richards, a Labour city councillor in Sheffield. Richards, a former mayor of Carmarthen, had admired Cavell since she was a girl.
Cavell was a vicar’s daughter and the English matron of a teaching hospital in Belgium. She had already built a huge reputation as an influential pioneer of modern nursing.
When war broke out she was visiting her mother in Norfolk. She hurried back to Belgium where she knew her nursing skills would be urgently needed.
Cavell’s hospital became a Red Cross station for wounded soldiers. She ensured all nationalities were equally treated in her wards. “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved,” she said.
When a number of wounded British soldiers, cut off from their comrades, arrived at the hospital, Cavell faced a dilemma. Should she help the British soldiers and put at risk the neutrality of the Red Cross and endanger those working with her?
If she refused to help the soldiers they would be in danger of being shot, along with any Belgian civilians who had harboured them. Cavell decided to help them despite the risk to herself.
“Had I not helped, they would have been shot,” she later said.
In order to help them she joined the Belgian underground. Her actions helped more than 200 allied soldiers to escape to neutral territory. When the network was betrayed, Cavell was arrested, found guilty of treason by a court martial, and sentenced to death.
Cavell was shot, in her nurse’s uniform, by a firing squad, at dawn on October 12 1915 in Brussels.
Now the British Mint has belatedly announced that it will mark the anniversary of the first world war with a £5 coin bearing the likeness of Nurse Edith Cavell.
It’s very rarely that our dreadful government gets it right, given enough pressure from the likes of the Morning Star and the public in general.
First published in the Morning Star 4 August 2014