Wednesday 4 September 2013

Jasper, Canada: Echoes of Edith Cavell

The more I travel, the more I stumble upon links between places scattered across the globe.

For example, in 2011 I visited Belfast, UK, to trace the origins of the SS Titanic, a year before the centenary of its sinking. A year later I was in Halifax, Canada, at the cemetery where the bodies of many of the victims of the tragedy were laid to rest.

As part of the same 2011 trip, I visited the tiny Irish village where Ned Kelly's dad stole the pigs which saw him transported to Australia as a convict. This neatly matched an earlier journey through the High Country of Victoria, Australia, writing about the newly established Ned Kelly Touring Route.

And then there was Edith Cavell.

I won't go deeply into her story here - you can find it comprehensively covered in the relevant Wikipedia entry.

In a nutshell, however, Cavell was a British nurse who stayed in place after the German occupation of Belgium in World War One. Ostensibly treating combatants on behalf of the Red Cross, she secretly assisted Allied soldiers to escape capture and leave the country.

As a result, the German authorities arrested her, tried her under military law and executed Cavell by firing squad in 1915.

This shocking act was, as you can imagine, a serious propaganda blunder on the part of the German occupiers. The execution of a nurse filled front pages everywhere, reinforcing the line the British Empire and its allies were pushing about Germans' inherent brutality.

A wave of sympathy followed, with the erection of monuments to Edith Cavell around the world.

With the passing of time and another brutal worldwide conflict having taken place between her time and ours, Cavell's story has been largely forgotten among the general public.

So I knew nothing about her when I happened across her statue in the Kings Domain gardens in my home city of Melbourne, researching items for my mobile app Melbourne Historical.

Here it is, the plinth beneath bearing her statement made the night before her death, "Patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone":

As interesting as Cavell's story had been to discover, I wasn't expecting to encounter it again. But last year, visiting Norwich, UK, in the company of a Wodehouse Society tour, I happened upon this pub:

And across the street, near Norwich Cathedral, was this striking monument:

On investigation it turned out that Cavell was a daughter of Norfolk, having been born just outside Norwich in the village of Swardeston.

Finally, Cavell far from my mind, I arrived in Jasper, Canada, yesterday by train across the Rocky Mountains from Vancouver. On the drive from the railway station to our accommodation at Jasper Park Lodge, the driver pointed out a lofty peak in the distance and said "That's Edith Cavell."

You can see it below, in the centre of the picture beyond the attractive grounds of the Lodge:

Reaching an impressive 3300 metres, this snow-capped mountain was given Cavell's name in 1916.

Its earlier title, "La Montagne de la Grande Traverse" (Great Crossing Mountain), was granted by French-Canadian fur traders who used the nearby Athabasca Pass.

Renamed after the nurse whose execution shook the British Empire, Mount Edith Cavell is probably the most impressive and certainly the largest of her memorials. (At least on Earth - there's a 100km-wide Cavell Corona named after her on Venus. I suspect I'm unlikely to visit that one.)

Her story, though not so well remembered nowadays, is a tragic and fascinating one. And my unintended encounters with her memorials have reminded me how moving travel can be, when it allows you to join the dots of great historical events in person, rather than remotely via the experiences of others.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and VIA Rail.

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