John Buchan: The Man Who Wrote Loads of Books

Edinburgh, Literature

Since we’re drawing inspiration from some of his best writing, we thought it was only fair to give you a bit of an introduction to the great John Buchan. Best known for his spy thrillers, Buchan led a life comparable to some of his most daring characters. He drew a lot of inspiration from the remarkable events he witnessed – to help you navigate this, look out for which books he wrote at the different stages of his life.

This is the face of a man who has submitted a lot of essays in his time.

Part One: Calvinist Beginnings 1875-1895

John Buchan was born on 26th August 1875 (for the historically minded – bang in the middle of the Victorian era). He was the son of another John Buchan, a Church of Scotland minister, and Helen Jane Buchan. Like James Hogg, Sir Walter Scott and numerous other Scottish authors, he spent a lot of time in the borders area while he was growing up and appears to have developed a love for landscapes and outdoors activities such as hiking. He later listed Hogg and Scott as literary influences for his own novels.

He initially studied at Glasgow University but struggled both financially and socially until he won a scholarship to Oxford, where both his literary and personal exploits were more successful.

Friends made: No one particularly notable, but lots of sheep

Books written: none known but I suspect Buchan was the type of child who wrote one a week.

Part Two: University 1895-1900

Buchan was accepted into Brasenose College in Oxford with a scholarship to study Classics. According to some contemporary accounts, he was tremendously lively and threw himself into the full student experience. One source tells of how he rescued an American student who had a candle thrown into his pants – Richard Hannay, eat your heart out. Buchan was officially published for the first time while at Oxford, and received a First-Class Degree in Law upon graduating. He was also the President of the Oxford Union and won several prizes for his essays and poetry.

Friends made: Hilaire Belloc (Anglo-French poet and politician), Raymond Asquith (son of future PM Herbert Asquith), Aubrey Herbert (offered the throne of Albania, twice) and Sholto Douglas (famous painter who bailed out Oscar Wilde). Also, presumably, the grateful American from the candle incident.

Books written: Sir Quixote of the Moors, John Burnet of Barns, A Lost Lady of Old Years, The Pilgrim Fathers, Grey Weather: Moorland Tales of My Own People, Sir Walter Raleigh (biography), Scholar-Gipsies (non-fiction), A History of Brasenose College (non-fiction)

Part Three: London Life 1900-1914

Edmund Ironside was a spy and later Field Marshal who was famous for using disguises. He worked undercover in Southern Africa and clearly really impressed Buchan.

Without any family income, Buchan had to support himself in the years after graduating. He managed to squeeze in a quick career as a barrister, publisher and journalist at the Spectator before deciding that diplomacy and government were more suited to his skills. In 1901, he travelled to South African to work as the private secretary to Alfred Milner, then High Commissioner of Southern Africa. South Africa and its people featured in many of Buchan’s novels and this period served as his introduction to the British Empire at its outer reaches.

It’s not entirely clear what Buchan made of the Empire. On one hand, many of his characters fight valiantly to protect it and it’s often upheld in his books as the forces of civilisation and progress. On the other hand, as a committed Calvinist, Buchan was notably compassionate towards those in difficulty and was later committed to protecting minority cultures from being wiped out by Western governments. According to his granddaughter, he saw the British Empire as a natural stepping stone towards achieving a Federal system of states in alliance around the world. Certainly, he didn’t share his hero Richard Hannay’s anti-semitic and racist views – they can be more easily attributed to the common speech of the officers and diplomats he observed.

Buchan married Susan Grosvenor (cousin to the Duke of Westminster) on 15th July 1907. Despite her lofty connections, Susan was also very keen on reading and by all accounts, the two enjoyed a long and happy marriage together with several children. During this time, Buchan also entered politics for the first time and ran as a Unionist candidate for Peebles and Selkirk. He supported women’s suffrage, free trade and national insurance but ran against many of the recent Liberal welfare reforms.

Friends made: Viscount Alfred Milner, GM Trevelyan (historian), Edmund Ironside (Field Marshal and possible inspiration for Richard Hannay), the well-to-do of London (including but not limited to: the Wellesleys, Walpoles, Balfours, Cecils, Stuart-Wortleys, Lytteltons and Talbots)

Books Written: The Half-Hearted, A Lodge in the Wilderness, Prester John, The Moon Endureth: Tales and Fancies, The Marquis of Montrose (biography), Andrew Jameson, Lord Ardwall (biography), The African Colony (non-fiction), The Law Relating to the Taxation of Foreign Income (non-fiction), Some Eighteenth Century Byways (non-fiction), Nine Brasenose Worthies (non-fiction), What the Home Rule Bill Means (non-fiction)

Part Three: Enter Richard Hannay 1914-1935

As the First World War broke out, the government rather sensibly employed Buchan in the War Propaganda Bureau. He also worked as a correspondent for The Times in France, and was later appointed as a second-lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. In 1917, he was promoted to Director of Information and assisted in writing a 24-volume contemporary history of the war. Buchan made it through the war relatively unscathed, but his younger brother Alastair was killed at Arras in 1917. It’s not clear whether he stayed involved with intelligence after the war ended, but we’d like to think that he did…

The much-spoofed The 39 Steps remains a literary classic even today, thanks in part to Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation. Also, my mum really fancies Richard Hannay so there’s that.

During this time, Buchan also wrote some of his most famous novels, focussed on the wartime hero Richard Hannay. They were initially published in serial form and were extremely popular with soldiers on the front-line. At the close of the war, he continued to publish both novels focussed on Hannay and other fictional heroes. He also became Director of Reuters news agency and Lord High Commissioner within the Church of Scotland.

In 1927, he made his first successful foray into British politics as the Unionist MP for the Scottish Universities. Here, he proposed his own form of Scottish Nationalism – he saw Scotland as a self-contained nation within the greater British Empire. He petitioned Conservative PM Stanley Baldwin to appoint him to the Cabinet, but was unsuccessful. It’s not entirely clear why this is, but know-it-alls with a phenomenal work ethic don’t tend to be very popular with their work-shy Parliamentary colleagues – that’s my best guess. Just look at Alexander Hamilton.

Friends made: Lord Beaverbrook (newspaper baron and proto-Richard Murdock figure), General Allenby and TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia to us), Lowell Thomas (American journalist), most of British High Command, Hugh MacDiarmaid (poet and Scottish nationalist), Stanley Baldwin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr (Hollywood star)

Fiction published: Salute to Adventurers, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Power-House, Greenmantle, Mr Standfast, The Path of the King, Huntingtower, Midwinter, The Three Hostages, John Macnab, The Dancing Floor, Witch Wood, The Courts of the Morning, Castle Gay, The Blanket of the Dark, The Gap in the Curtain, The Magic Walking Stick, A Prince of the Captivity, The Free Fishers, The Runagates Club, Poems: Scots and English

Non-fiction published (selected!): An enormous amount of work on World War One, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell: A Memoir, Lord Minto: A Memoir, The Man and the Book: Sir Walter Scott, Montrose: A History (biography) Julius Caesar (biography), Oliver Cromwell (biography), The Last Secrets, The Margins of Life, The History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers 1678-1918, The Causal and the Casual in History, The Kirk in Scotland, Montrose and Leadership, The Novel and the Fairytale, The Massacre of Glencoe, Gordon at Khartoum

Part Four: Governor of Canada 1935-1940

In the same year that The 39 Steps was adapted for cinema by Alfred Hitchcock, Buchan was elevated to the peerage as Baron Tweedsmuir of Elsfield. This tied together his love for Scotland and Oxford, and also prepared him for appointment as Governor General of Canada on 1st June 1935. He moved his entire family out to Canada and began his tenure as Governor on 2nd November.

No, he wasn’t at Coachella. This picture has a somewhat touching back story as Buchan was awarded with an honorary title by the leaders of the First Nations in recognition of his extraordinary talents as a storyteller.

In many ways, Buchan was the ideal candidate for this position – he had a longstanding love and appreciation of Canada and had visited several times after the war. He was also well respected across Canada and, despite his failing health, he travelled the length of the country to encourage national unity. He had a particular respect and appreciation for First Nation culture and was a major early campaigner for multiculturalism as a key part of Canadian society. There is one amusing anecdote from the man himself regarding a party with some Ukranians:

“At Regina on Saturday afternoon I visited the community halls of the Germans, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, Ukrainians White and Red, and the Jews, and spoke in each. The Police didn’t want me to go to the Red Ukrainians on the ground that they were dangerous Communists, so of course I insisted on going, and was received deliriously in a hall smothered in Union Jacks, and they nearly lifted the roof off singing the National Anthem.”

Perhaps his greatest success as governor was organising George VI’s tour of Canada in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War. This shored up support for Britain in the face of German invasion, and strengthened relations between Britain and America which proved invaluable in the following years.

John Buchan died on 6th February 1940 after suffering severe head injuries following a stroke. He received an extraordinary amount of tributes on both sides of the Atlantic, and his ashes were returned to Oxford. The most personal was the naming of Tweedsmuir Provincial Park in British Columbia – for a man who loved adventures in the untamed wilderness, there could be no finer gift.

Friends made: George V, George VI and family, Mackenzie King (Canadian PM), Franklin D Roosevelt, a lot of Canadians

Books written: The House of the Four Winds, The Island of Sheep, Sick Heart River, The Long Traverse, The Far Islands and Other Tales of Fantasy, Augustus (biography), The King’s Grace (non-fiction), Naval Episodes of the Great War (non-fiction), The Interpreter’s House (non-fiction), Presbyterianism Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (non-fiction), Memory Hold-the-Door (non-fiction), Comments and Characters (non-fiction), Canadian Occasions (non-fiction)

While you’re here…

We hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy exploration of one of Scotland’s finest authors (it’s not our fault – the man wrote over 100 books!). We’ve been working on our own rather exciting project and we are very excited to finally introduce it properly. Inspired by John Buchan’s masterpiece Mr Standfast, we will be bringing our very own spy adventure to the Fringe and you (yes, you) can be a part of it. Follow this link to grab tickets and feel free to contact us for more information at hello@simplyspiffing.co.uk. 

Further reading:

Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, Ursula Buchan, Bloomsbury 2019
John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier, Andrew Lownie, Thistle Publishing 2013
John Buchan: A Biography, Janet Adam Smith, Hart-Davis 1965
https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usbiography/b/johnbuchan.html
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/2lWTsMM9FyLFMSTgCtrl91k/john-buchan
https://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/2015/03/in-pursuit-of-john-buchan/

Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. We think John Buchan would be pretty pleased with this.

A Brief History of Escape Rooms

Edinburgh

Ah yes, the great Escape Room. They’ve swept across the world in the last few years, followed by a trail of awkward selfies with weird props and increasingly confusing themes (see below…). But where did they come from?

“In 1203 AD, a mysterious tale reached the shores of England. Sailors spoke of a room containing riches beyond imagination, that could be accessed if the seeker was brave, clever and quick enough to find them. But if they failed to escape within one hour…they would be trapped in an underground bunker forever, doomed to die amongst the puzzles they failed to solve.”

– William of Newburgh, Anglo Saxon Chronicler and Historian

It was at this moment that Susan remembered how much she hated mazes.  Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi on Unsplash

I made that bit up. There are no Escape Rooms in Anglo-Saxon chronicles (as far as we know) and their origins are somewhat more prosaic. Treasure hunts and puzzles have existed in some form or another since…well, since one person knew where something was but wanted to make it harder to find. Labyrinths and mazes provide some early examples – treasure maps are another. Socialite Elsa Maxwell was credited with the invention of the treasure hunt as a party pursuit – in her own words, it was a good opportunity to pair people off and create mischief as they inevitably disappeared into bushes and hooked up. Something to consider when choosing a partner for an Escape Room.

A more recognisable version of Escape Rooms arrived with platform video games – designers carefully built levels to make players hunt for clues and solve puzzles. (Personally, I still remember the summer of 2001 when I spent weeks on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone on Gameboy Color and still couldn’t find the Asphodel Root. Message me if you want to know where it is). Another possible inspiration came in the form of game shows such as Jungle Run and The Crystal Maze, which became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. They involved interlinked challenges and teams were rewarded for solving puzzles and obtaining special items to help them along the way. And who could forget Trapped! – that borderline-creepy show on CBBC which made small children solve puzzles to escape an old man, all whilst one of their friends was secretly sabotaging them. Nowadays, you can achieve the same effect by taking the most unhelpful person you know as part of your Escape Room team.

Most Escape Rooms come equipped with an equally Sardonic Games Master. Photo: The Crystal Maze

The culmination of this came with Crimson Room, a video game designed by Toshimitsy Takagi and released in 2004. It featured room-based challenges, and forced the player to collaborate in order to progress through different levels. In 2007, the Japanese company SCRAP took this concept one step further and created real-life escape rooms, based around different themes. From here, the concept spread across Asia and into Europe, eventually reaching across the globe.

Escape Rooms in Popular Culture

Escape Rooms are now sufficiently popular across the globe that they’ve started to crop up in popular culture. They’ve appeared on shows as diverse as Modern Family, Brooklyn 99, Conan O’Brien, My Little Pony, Castle, The Big Bang Theory and even Sherlock in one form or another. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the horror genre’s affinity with problem solving (looking at you, Saw), an escape room themed film (imaginatively entitled Escape Room) was released in 2019, with a sequel to follow in 2020.

It’s pretty likely that the craze is here to stay. If you’re new to it all, just to start you off we’ve found some the weirdest escape room themes out there:

  • Komnata Quest – an “adult” escape room aimed at couples (would love to know the divorce statistics on this one)
  • The Black Book – find very specific evidence of Government corruption (In case you couldn’t get enough of Bodyguard and felt like you had to BE Richard Madden. Sex with the Home Secretary not included)
  • Escape the Plane! (Samuel L Jackson not included)
  • Pet-Snatched! Rescue the Pet-napped Emu (and question your life choices?)

Why are you talking about Escape Rooms on a theatre blog?

I’m so pleased you asked. We’ve got something quite exciting in store for Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2019. It involves spies, quests and enough running around alleyways to make Elsa Maxwell very happy. Keep your eyes peeled for more information in the next few months…

Cover photo by Dariusz Sankowski on Unsplash

Ruminations on Gallantry

Edinburgh

A guest post from cast member Tom who has some thoughts ahead of the opening night of A Gallant Life next week. Unlike the rest of the company who have a variety of qualifications, predominantly in history, English and theatre, he has a degree in philosophy  (although we try not to hold it against him). You might be able to tell… 

The Oxford Dictionary offers two definitions of ‘gallantry’; the first is “courageous behaviour, especially in battle”. Given the historical and contemporary tendency for men to outnumber women in the military, this gallantry of medals and machismo leaves little room for anything but the masculine. The second definition is “polite attention or respect given by men to women”, explicitly reinforcing the quiet presumption that gallantry and its rewards lie firmly within the domain of men. 

Not until the 1st of January 2014 did women eclipse men in the number of state honours bestowed by the Crown, an impressive 61% of the roster. But just ten years prior, 34% of recipients were female, 28% in 1994, and only 17% in 1974. This trend for underreporting the contributions of women to the sustaining of societies and the expansion of empires runs right through to the birth of western literature; as Mary Beard notes in her book ‘Women and Power’, the primary introduction of the Odyssey’s female lead, that of the protagonist’s wife Penelope, is one of silencing and implied powerlessness; and it is her own son who wields the malignant self-righteousness to which men have been accustomed against her – “speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all…for mine is the power in this household”. Whilst it may not be surprising that women in the 12th century BCE were being unjustly treated, this tale is one of the foundational texts in European culture. It may be possible to extricate the misogynistic mores of history from our present state. But such associations do not die quietly, or without cost, and for many who enjoy positions of influence and privilege, they see no incentive to do so.

Where do Muriel Thompson, and all the women engulfed in the Great War who were not permitted to see battle by an establishment saturated in the bitter syrup of patriarchy, fit into this? A Gallant Life is a small window onto a planet at war with itself, throwing light on the lives of a few who were willing to risk everything. Not to destroy their enemy, but to rescue as many as could be saved from the maelstrom soon to be known as ‘The War to End All Wars’. These women did so even as their efforts were ignored or abhorred by the very sovereign powers intent on delivering humanity into suffering never before seen. Muriel herself was a pioneer not just on the battlefield, but on the racetrack, as one of the foremost drivers of her day (an activity condemned by some as dangerously unfeminine, as it is in some countries to this day). While it is true that they were eventually honoured in their own time, their story has largely been forgotten from the history books they helped to write. We hope with our production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2018, that we may change that, and keep the spirit of the women of the war, alive in the 21st century.

 

Audacious Women Part Three: Maria Marvingt

Audacious Women

Move over, Han Solo. Shuffle up, Bear Grylls. Our next Audacious Woman was quite literally described as Danger’s Girlfriend. She also had much in common with our own Muriel Thompson, including a need for speed and a passion for ambulances.

In 1875, the suffrage movement in France was some 70 years away from achieving voting rights. Women couldn’t vote, study or even open their own bank account. Maria Marvingt was born into a world where being “audacious” was not exactly a prized quality for women. Neither was being an incredibly accomplished sportswoman, but thanks to some encouragement from her parents, Maria was reportedly capable of swimming 4000m at the age of 5. By 15, she had canoed 400km across Europe and by 24, she had obtained her driving license at a time when very few people even owned a car.

All of this was accomplished while running a household after her mother’s death, and there was plenty more to come. She competed in and won awards for all of the following sports:

She even made the leather/fur combination look great.

  • Water polo
  • Speed skating
  • Luge (the one where you slide a tea tray down an icy deathtrap on your back, not your front)
  • Bobsledding (same as above but in a speeding metal crate, not a tea tray)
  • Boxing
  • Martial arts
  • Fencing
  • Shooting
  • Tennis
  • Golf
  • Hockey
  • Football
  • Mountaineering
  • Circus skills (specifically rope work, the trapeze, horseback riding, and juggling)

Why master one, when you can win awards in all of them? She also climbed most of the mountains in the Alps and swam the length of the Seine. Oh, and when the Tour de France refused to let her enter (because of that being-a-woman-thing), she cycled the full length of the course anyway, beating two thirds of the field without any support.

Utterly dazzled and somewhat cowed by this, the French Academy of Sport awarded her the only ever “Gold Medal For All Sports”. This might have been to try and make her stop so that someone else could win something for the first time in a decade, but it’s still pretty cool.

This wasn’t quite enough for Maria, however. Perhaps bored with winning everything she ever entered, she took up flying and became a qualified pilot of hot air balloons and monoplanes. As well as setting various records and winning numerous awards (I won’t list them here as I am not paid by the word), she used her aviation expertise to come up with an idea which was to change the face of medicine in warzones: Air Ambulances.

This idea was a slow burner, mainly because planes were incredibly unreliable during the early 20th century. Due to financial issues, the plan had to be shelved during World War One, and Maria had to find other ways to occupy her time. This involved disguising herself as a man, sneaking into a French army unit and fighting at the front until she was discovered, being dismissed and transferring to the Italians (who were desperate for soldiers and less sexist), flying bombing raids and winning a Croix de Guerre for destroying German factories. It’s a good idea to stay active in your 40s, after all.

An illustration of Maria working with the air ambulances. She was frustrated with how slow battlefield medical procedures were, so naturally she came up with her own.

After the war, Maria worked as a journalist and lecturer, and redoubled her efforts to promote the idea of aeromedical evacuation (essentially, airborne medical support). She pushed engineers to create planes suitable for medical purposes, founded the Flying Ambulance Corps to train doctors, nurses and pilots for warzones and invented a new type of surgical implement in her downtime. By World War Two, the Allies were equipped with a fully functional Air Ambulance service, and Maria continued to serve as a surgical nurse through the war and in Morocco afterwards.

Retirement was apparently not on the cards, and in her 80s, Maria learned to fly helicopters, cycled 200 miles across France and broke the sound barrier in a jet plane. She died in 1963, aged 88. Happily, she lived long enough for women to get the right to vote, and to see her country freed from invasion. I would like to imagine she probably would have been the first woman in space, if she’d held on for a few more years.

One last thing – somewhere along the line, Maria had also published poetry and fiction under the pseudonym Myriel. Unsurprisingly, it won awards.

For more information:
Air Ambulance Service
A Tribute from Airbus
War History Online (who describe her as an overachiever…)

One last note for anyone who is still reading on – if you need a daily fix of amazing women, I can happily recommend Rejected Princesses for all of the stories of women who didn’t quite make it into the Disney Princess lineup. For *ahem* reasons.

women's regiment

Audacious Women Part Two: Maria Bochkareva

Audacious Women

Now for something slightly more surreal. While the British and other Allied forces were doing their level best to keep women out of the armed forces (we salute you, Flora Sandes, for getting round this rule and looking pretty fabulous while doing it), the Russians had taken a slightly different approach. With their forces heavily damaged and morale low, the Russian army had already permitted women to join the regular units. This wasn’t quite enough for Maria Bochkareva, however, who wanted to take matters a little further.

Maria was born to a peasant family in 1889, and had a difficult childhood as a result of abuse from her father. Fleeing home at 15, she married Afanasy Bochkarev, moved to Siberia and began to work as a labourer. Strong willed and determined, Maria quickly became a supervisor. Unfortunately, Bochkarev was abusive to her, and Maria left him to take a variety of jobs on steamships and in brothels. She soon met her second husband, Yakov Buk, and put her management skills to work opening a butcher’s shop.

Maria might have been an excellent man-manager but she was sadly not so skilled in choosing husbands. Buk was also abusive, and was arrested for stealing twice. The outbreak of World War One gave Maria a new chance to escape and make her own way, and this she did in style.

Maria Bochkareva

Maria has no time for your sexual harassment. She’s got men to rescue and trenches to capture. And lots and lots of medals to win.

Turned away by the army on her first few attempts, she contacted Tsar Nicholas II for personal permission to join the army. He granted it (perhaps he heard how good she was at running butcher’s shops) and she joined the 5th Corps, 28th Regiment of the Second Army. This was where Maria really shone – she won numerous awards and saved over 50 injured men during a single battle in No Man’s Land, while facing down ridicule and sexual harassment from the men in her unit.

The entire army was thrown into turmoil by the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the abdication of the Tsar. Maria, however, had other ideas. She campaigned for, and was granted, an all-female regiment of women to command. It was extraordinarily popular – around 2000 women volunteered, but only 300 survived Maria’s strict training. Once ready, the “1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death” (the Russians took the naming process very seriously) were sent to the frontline.

Their performance was extraordinary – in one mission alone, they took three trenches and 200 prisoners. They were deprived of a future as a regiment, however, by the hostility of male units in the army. Despite her extraordinary record, Maria was captured and nearly killed by Bolshevik forces due to her connections to White Army captains. She managed to escape to America, where things take a rather bizarre turn.

Maria was feted as a war hero and secured meetings with Woodrow Wilson and King George V. She even begged Wilson to intervene in Russia, reportedly moving him to tears. Somehow, she also found time to write her memoirs – still in print today – and met Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst described Maria as “the woman of the century”.

Emmeline Pankhurst and Bochkareva

One of the bravest and most inspiring women in history meets Emmeline Pankhurst.

We’d like to finish the story there, but events took a rather sadder turn. Returning to Russia, Maria tried to organise another regiment to fight for the White Army, but was captured by the Bolsheviks. Against the orders of Lenin himself, she was executed by firing squad in May 1920.

She was posthumously pardoned and has remained a standard bearer for the military achievements of women. By World War Two, hundreds of thousands of women were enlisted into the army and were utterly vital to the Resistance movements. But we’ll leave you with Maria’s own words in one of her recruitment speeches:

“Come with us in the name of your fallen heroes. Come with us to dry the tears and heal the wounds of Russia. Protect her with yours lives. We women are turning into tigresses to protect our children from a shameful yoke – to protect the freedom of our country.”

For more information on Maria, feel free to follow any of these links:
Batalon (2015) – Russian film following the story of Maria and the battalion
Spartacus Educational
The Female Soldier

edith cavell

Audacious Women Part One: Edith Cavell

Audacious Women

Audacious Women Part One: Edith Cavell

We’re in the midst of planning our next project (fans of women, ambulances and tales of incredible courage, stay tuned) and in the meantime, we’ve got a series of posts about other lesser-known stories of wartime bravery.

First up, the remarkable Edith Cavell.

Born in 1865, Edith was the daughter of a vicar, who worked as a governess before taking up nursing at the age of 30 (some additional inspiration for any of us who graduated without a clue as to what we wanted to do with our lives…). She was also a passionate lover of nature, and loved ice skating.

edith cavell

Having qualified as a nurse, she was rewarded for her work during the typhoid fever epidemic in Maidstone. Her superior was less impressed, however, noting that “Edith Louisa Cavell had plenty of capacity for her work, when she chose to exert herself” and that “she was not at all punctual”. To be fair to Edith, conditions for nurses were incredibly challenging – 14 hour days and very low pay.

She moved to Brussels in 1910 and helped develop the professional nursing movement, providing hospitals and even the Queen of Belgium with fully trained nurses. Ironically, given her earlier timekeeping, she was a stickler for punctuality and was happy to punish latecomers with extra duties. When war broke out, her family begged her to return but she declared that her work was more important than ever and remained at her post.

As the first casualties of the German offensive in Belgium arrived, Edith treated the wounded of both sides with equal respect, earning her considerable criticism from Allied forces. A strong Anglican Christian, she believed that all wounded were worthy of dignity and respect. However, her efforts on behalf of the British went quite a lot further than treating the wounded. She was secretly smuggling hundreds of men out of Belgium and into neutral countries, assisted by members of the Belgian nobility and her fellow nurses.

This was not to last long. Edith was arrested in 1915, and condemned to death for treason. The idea of executing a woman, and a member of the medical profession, was a highly controversial action, and multiple neutral countries appealed on her behalf for clemency. Even prominent members of the German government were highly uncomfortable with the decision. Nonetheless, they proceeded and Edith was executed on 12th October 1915 at dawn. A very moving account of her final hours has been recorded by the prison pastor – available here.

After her death, her story was spread widely as an example of German brutality and she received a memorial service in Westminster Abbey. Perhaps her greatest legacy is the words she spoke the night before her death:

edith cavell

Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.

A pioneer of nursing practice, a faithful matron and an incredibly courageous (and bossy!) woman, Edith is an inspiration to the Not Cricket team. We hope she inspires you too! For more information, feel free to follow any of these links:

Edith Cavell’s Life

The Cavell Nursing Trust

The Nursing Trust