WHITMAN — Sometimes a muse finds their writer — and won’t let go until their story is told.
For retired Falmouth nurse Terri Arthur, British nurse Edith Cavell was one of these muses.
“Edith who?” one might ask.
Cavell’s work, dedication to humanity and determination to save the lives of about 200 British soldiers in German-occupied Belgium during World War I, led to her Oct. 12, 1915 execution by firing squad when the Germans caught up with her. The only woman so executed by the enemy during that war, Cavell’s death became an emotional recruiting tool for the British Army and launched a letter-writing campaign by American women’s groups to President Woodrow Wilson that is now recognized as a first step toward American involvement in WWI.
“Her death was [headlines] in every country all over the world,” Arthur said. “When they saw the headlines on Edith Cavell … [women’s groups] took her on as a cause celebré and they inundated Wilson with letters.”
In a way, Cavell’s stated life’s goal may have foreshadowed the circumstances of her death.
“Someday, somehow, I’m going to do something useful, something for people,” Cavell once wrote. “They are, most of them, so helpless, so hurt and so unhappy.”
But who was Edith Cavell?
That question took Arthur on a journey of coincidental events that led her to write “Fatal Destiny: Edith Cavell, World War I Nurse,” [2015, $19.95, HenschelHAUS Publishing], a book so well received in Britain that she was asked to adjust spelling and syntax for a British edition.
Arthur’s visit to the Whitman Public Library’s Local Author Series on Monday, Nov. 10 traced both Cavell’s story and how she came to write it. The Friends of the Whitman Public Library fund the series.
“It’s time to resurrect Edith,” Arthur said. “She has a message for us today. She showed courage and strength at a time when it was very difficult to do.”
Arthur began her talk with an anecdote of how DNA left in bloody fingerprints by ancient native peoples who constructed New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon settlements helped answer some questions about possible connections to other Anasazi dwellings in the region.
“The person I’m going to talk about today also left her fingerprints in history, but she’s been basically forgotten, like those builders were forgotten,” Arthur said. “It’s time to bring Edith back.”
The centennial of Cavell’s execution was observed last year and the centennial of WWI is ongoing through Nov. 11, 2018.
For Arthur, the journey began with one of those nursing-related gifts many nurses receive and are never sure what to do with: a book titled “Postcards of Nursing” by Michael Zwerdling. She finally leafed through it on a stormy night and ran across postcards depicting Edith Cavell, some of which depicted her death and images of the Grim Reaper. She read an outline about Cavell in the back of the book and was “blown away.”
“How is it that I, as a nurse, had never heard about this nurse?” she said.
It launched her on a search for information, which led her to others whose response was “Edith who?” Even during a trip to the UK, where she made a special trip to the memorial statue to Cavell in Trafalgar Square, Arthur was unable to find anyone staffing tourist gift shops nearby who had heard of Cavell, either.
Arthur then made a side trip to Cavell’s burial site in Norwich where, as fate would have it, the city’s cathedral was holding a 90th anniversary service for Cavell the next day — Oct. 12, 2005.
A BBC reporter caught the sound of Arthur’s American accent and asked what brought her to the event.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m a nurse and I believe that what Edith Cavell did really represents nurses in every country,’” Arthur said, adding the next thing she new, she was being interviewed for BBC-TV news.
Arthur was hooked.
“I don’t know who got who first,” Arthur said. “I don’t know if I got Edith Cavell first or if she got me first, but after that, I was hooked.”
Arthur’s research took her from the Imperial War Museum, where she was able to purchase copies of Cavell’s letters, to Belgium, the Royal London and the Brussels Hospital named in honor of Cavell as well as the Tir National Prison where Cavell was executed.
Before she began writing, however, Arthur also had take classes in creative writing techniques such as finding the voice of a narrative and setting the pace.
The eldest daughter of an Anglican minister, Cavell studied nursing at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel about the time of the Jack the Ripper murders, because that section of London was where she felt she was needed. She worked there until she was asked to begin a nursing school in Brussels in 1907. She had worked in Belgium before as a governess.
When WWI broke out in August 1914, Cavell was visiting her family in England but felt it was her duty to return to Belgium. The Germans occupied Belgium, reaching Brussels by Aug. 20, 1915. Since September 1914, Cavell had been helping smuggle British soldiers into the Netherlands after initially caring for two wounded British soldiers who had sought her out. She took them in despite signs posted by the Germans all over Belgium warning of the fatal consequences of helping allied soldiers escape.
She was arrested with 33 others on Oct. 5, 1915 after a German spy had infiltrated the underground, was tried for treason by a German court martial on Oct. 7 and executed on Oct. 12, 1915.
After the war, she was exhumed by the British and returned to England for a state funeral in Westminster Abbey [a rare film clip of which may be viewed at iwm.org.uk] and reburied at Norwich Cathedral. Her pallbearers included soldiers she had saved.
Since writing her book, Arthur has been the only American invited to participate in anniversary ceremonies for Cavell in both Norwich and London.