Who are the heroes?
Heroism taken to extremes
by Brian Radcliffe
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore students’ sense of what it means to be heroic, using the example of Edith Cavell (SEAL theme: Self-awareness).
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two readers, who should be forthright characters, willing to confront the leader’s account.
- Have available the song ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie to paly at the end of the assembly (check for copyright).
Leader Can anyone show me a picture of the Queen?
Await response. A student or staff member will eventually think to display a coin with the Queen’s image on one side of it.
The images on the reverse side of sterling coins change from year to year. In order to commemorate the start of the First World War this August, the Royal Mint has decided to issue £2 coins with the famous image from the poster of Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer, with the strapline, ‘Your country needs you’. The poster was created to encourage young men to enlist to fight against the German enemy.
This proposal has provoked a significant amount of opposition. Why? Because there are many people who see Kitchener’s image as a symbol of much that was wrong with the way British men were led naively to their deaths under the guise of patriotism.
Reader 1 OK, with hindsight, it’s easy to see that mistakes were made. Kitchener’s an easy target, but whose image could have been used to symbolize the bravery of British people during the war?
Leader Well, there has been a petition sent to the Royal Mint suggesting that, instead of Lord Kitchener, we should have a portrait of Edith Cavell on the coin.
Reader 2 Edith Cavell? Who’s she? I’ve never heard of her. Why is she so significant?
Leader Let me tell you about her. She is an important figure in history because, in 1907, she was put in charge of a pioneering training school for women to train as nurses in Brussels, in Belgium. She was a feminist and encouraged women, early in the twentieth century when it was really uncommon, to see that working as a nurse was a career option.
Reader 1 So what does this have to do with the First World War?
Leader Ironically, in the summer of 1914, Edith had popped home to Norfolk to visit her mother. When she heard the declaration of war in August, she decided to return to Belgium.
Reader 2 That sounds a little mad, as the German army was advancing on Belgium.
Leader She’s reported to have said, ‘At a time like this, I am needed more than ever.’ She certainly was. The nursing school became a centre for caring for the wounded. What made it unusual was that, being a Red Cross centre, the wounded soldiers were treated equally, regardless of nationality, so German and Allied troops were there together.
Reader 1 I can’t see that making her popular with either side. What happened when the Germans took the city a few weeks later?
Leader They commandeered the hospital for their own wounded and sent home 60 English nurses. Only Edith Cavell and her deputy, Miss Willis, remained.
Reader 2 So she failed to take a second opportunity to avoid the situation. Did she still act impartially or was she forced to work only with German casualties, the enemy?
Leader She couldn’t really avoid getting involved. Allied soldiers, stranded in France and Belgium, found their way to her. As a member of the Red Cross, Edith felt that she had to help them, so she organized an underground route and, through it, about 200 Allied soldiers found their way back to the UK. This lasted until July 1915, when she was arrested.
Reader 1 I assume that she resisted all attempts to find out what she’d done, as a brave member of the resistance.
Leader No. She was so honest, she had to tell the truth. She even signed a full confession. The Germans had no alternative but to execute her for crimes against their nation. She’d helped the enemy.
Readers 1 and 2 together Oh!
Time for reflection
Edith Cavell is not a stereotypically heroic figure. She walked into danger, she naively treated everyone equally, she could not deceive and she did nothing to take care of her own safety. She simply took care of the wounded. As a woman in a man’s world, she did what she was best able to do, which was to nurse the wounded and sick.
Who are your heroes? Are they powerful figures who resist all opposition, challenge the forces of wrong, fight for equality and justice? Those sorts of people can be great inspirations to us, but our attempts to match their achievements usually seem trivial by comparison.
Edith Cavell was heroic in a way that was much more down to earth. She knew what she could do and simply carried on doing it in the place where she could have most effect. She nursed people who were wounded, so it was obvious she should be close to the fighting. A wounded German and a wounded Allied soldier felt the pain equally, so both deserved equal treatment. In that lay her heroism.
What are your abilities and personal strengths? They may not appear to amount to much, but what might be heroic would be for you to regularly and consistently use them for the benefit of others, to go where they’re needed and not bow to the pressure of the opinions of those around you.
If we had a portrait of Edith Cavell on our £2 coin, it might just be a more relevant inspiration day by day than that of a wartime leader.
Thank you for the ordinary people who do what they can, day by day,
to be friends.
May we be heroes of the ordinary.
‘Heroes’ by David Bowie