My pre-teen years were rather dislocated by Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. That morning in September ’39, when the clocks reluctantly ticked their way towards the fateful hour of 11, the nation held its breath. The grown-ups in our family and in those around the country expected immediate retribution – bombs, poison gas and eventually invasion. But nothing happened. Most of us kids were oblivious to all this drama, as by then we were tucked away into the countryside, evacuated to safe havens, far from the industrial cities where we had lived.
Our schooling in those new locations was different too. Most of the country’s younger teachers, men and many women, were gone, training in uniform for whatever lay ahead. So the call went out to retired teachers to fill the vacancies and we certainly got our share, including the formidable Miss Routledge!
Now every schoolboy has his heroes. For us in those days the fictional ones included Galahad, Lancelot, Biggles, Sexton Blake and the like.
But there was also a smattering of real historical figures on our lists – kings who led armies against the Saracens, the Scots, the French – all valiant men, chalking up victories that furthered their imperial ambitions. Their ancient feats helped bolster our patriotic pride.
But dear old Miss Routledge, an early and fervent feminist, follower of Emily Pankhurst and "Votes for Women", had something to say about this all-male domain. She had her own roster of role models and insisted on introducing us to some British heroines in our history sessions.
Now I’m not even sure, in this age of gender equality, that the word "heroine" is acceptable anymore. Not so long ago I was gently chided for referring to my favourite female thespian as an "actress". Apparently that’s now a no, no. But as the original distaff equivalent of hero is such an old familiar word, I’ll keep on using it in these next few paragraphs. And I have my editor’s blessing to indulge myself on this decision. So let me tell you about my teacher’s favourite women in history, because they soon became mine.
I’ve mentioned the redoubtable Pankhurst, because the Suffragette leader was top of her list. But I found some of the others more interesting, because at the age of eight or nine, social causes were beyond me. Around us, men and women fighting a war were now the norm and reports of their exploits filled our young lives. So we were more than ready to learn about previous British heroines in the drama of conflict.
Boadicea was the historical first, the most formidable, the most barbarous, and we urchins loved her because she created such havoc among her enemies. This remarkable woman was queen of the Iceni Celtic tribe in Roman-occupied Britain. When her husband Prasutagus died in A.D. 61, his written will was ignored by the authorities. His widow was seized and publicly flogged by legion troops and to add insult to the ruling family, her two daughters were raped. But Boadicea’s royal revenge more than matched this savagery. The Iceni and neighbouring tribes immediately rose in revolt. They laid waste to the countryside, burned three major Roman towns, including London, and slaughtered thousands of inhabitants. They then wiped out the professional legions sent against them.
And all this was recorded in gory detail by the contemporary Roman scholar Cornelius Tacitus. He tells us with obvious satisfaction that Boadicea eventually faced a more powerful force, hastily dispatched from northern garrisons, which managed to turn the tide against her. But in defeat she remained defiant, preferring poison to captivity and her courage became enshrined in national memory. For over 100 years the massive bronze statue of this armed warrior queen in her horse-drawn chariot has stood near the Houses of Parliament. It bears glowing testimony to her heroic deeds. No wonder Miss Routledge had such a good opinion of her.
Our no-nonsense teacher regaled us with a couple more names that stirred our budding patriotism. Florence Nightingale was next, an obvious choice. This woman’s determination in the 1850s to challenge Victorian sensibilities and to bring disciplined, hygienic nursing care to the wounded allied troops during the Crimean War stirred the nation. Her zeal emphasized the role that women could play and eventually changed the whole course of Victorian medicine. She discovered that the filthy, primitive conditions in the makeshift military hospitals were contributing to the appalling casualties. Disease was rife and added to the heavy toll. But she tackled those problems and the opposition of the army high command with relentless energy. Soon the fortunate survivors who had received care and attention from "The Lady with the Lamp" looked upon Miss Nightingale as a saint and on her nursing staff as angels of mercy.
Over 60 years later another brave nurse became a household name among the Western allies and a rallying cry against the German army’s string of atrocities in the First World War.
Sister Edith Cavell, daughter of a country vicar, had a singular vocation in life, to serve the sick and injured, irrespective of nationality. When war was declared she was in Belgium running a training school for nurses and also building another. The country was quickly overrun by the Kaiser’s forces and within a few months the local battlefields were producing a steady stream of shattered men. Her team tended to whoever was delivered to the door, whether they were British, French or German.
The allies were in retreat at this time and stragglers, separated from their units, began to turn up at the hospital. They were fed and sheltered from the enemy and although Edith Cavell knew that aiding combatants in this way was a punishable offence, she quietly devised an escape route which enabled these men to reach the border into neutral Holland. This dangerous scheme worked well for months, but was eventually betrayed to the German authorities.
The whole group was rounded up and interrogated. The Prussian officers questioned our heroine for 72 hours and eventually tricked her into what they considered a confession of her involvement.
She was condemned to death with one of her associates, and despite the pleas of many neutral diplomats including those from the U.S. and from Spain, they were driven out to a firing range just before dawn on an October morning in 1915, tied to an execution post and blindfolded. One of the eight-man firing squad refused to shoot at the nurse. His name was Rammler and he was quickly replaced. After the execution he was shot dead by an officer in front of his comrades. The German doctor who witnessed the scene and signed the death certificates, later wrote: "Nur se Ca v ell w ent to her dea th with poise and a beari ng tha t is impossib le to forget. " The three bodies were hastily buried together and the Germans assumed that they would hear no more about this episode. How wrong they were.
The news of their savage reprisal quickly shocked the world and in the wave of revulsion that followed, allied army recruiting numbers doubled for months afterwards. Naturally the British government made the most of this unexpected propaganda opportunity and the Germans, from the Kaiser, down though the ranks, realized the damage they had done to their cause and to their international image. There were no more executions among the escape team, but most of them received jail sentences.
In 1919 the heroine’s remains were brought over to England with great reverence and ceremony. In her new flag-decorated coffin she lay in state in Westminster Abbey where an emotional funeral service was held. Then with full military honours she was laid to rest in the graveyard of Norwich Cathedral, close to where she had grown up, and statues to her memory were erected throughout the country.
Edith Cavell – devoted nurse and devout woman, left a lasting mantra to her beliefs, when she wrote the following words to a friend while enduring the inhumanity of solitary confinement: "P a triotism is not enough. I must have no ha tred or bitter ness to any one".
Our school teacher made sure that we children remembered those words. We recited them together in the classroom during those early days of the Second World War and they’ve stayed with me ever since. Miss Routledge reminded us that bravery isn’t always exemplified by fearless conduct in combat. Her heroines and the many others in our history books bear quiet testimony to that proof.
(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)