The Weekly Machen

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

Edith Cavell (1865-1915) served as a British nurse in Belgium during the First World War. Her story of selfless sacrifice and execution before a German firing squad created an intense reaction in her country and around the world. She has been honored in movies, operas and plays whilst receiving veneration in the Anglican Church, of which she was a devout communicant. Beyond the atrocity itself, Cavell’s martyrdom is one of many incidents which shows an ability in the German authorities to examine their conduct in the context of long-term public relation strategy. These blunders further isolated their country from then-neutral powers such as the United States. For more on Cavell, is highly recommended.

Arthur Machen’s coverage of Cavell’s stately and churchly funeral found space on the front page of the Evening News. Here, his tone is a fascinating mixture of righteous anger and liturgical language. Its rhythm hits the mark. Such emotional writing is a rarity for the writer, and no doubt, he composed it sincerely while expressing the gravity of the event to the reader in grave, but defiant words.

The following article is not listed in the bibliography by Goldstone and Sweetser.

In Memory of Edith Cavell:
The Great Service at St. Paul’s – A Nation’s Lamentations
Arthur Machen
August 22, 1916

Edith_CavellTHERE is a cry in the land: there is the noise of a great lamentation.

The cry rises under the great dome in the heart of London; it rises under the golden cross as the sun strikes through the weeping white mists and makes the Sign of Salvation golden.

That cry speaks in all voices; great trumpets proclaim it as if the Great Angel had uttered his last awful summons; horns re-echo it; it is reverberated by the beating of the drums.

The great organs are moved by it, and their golden tubes are opened that it may resound in tremendous voices. The singing choir chants that dreadful cry, in ancient psalms and anthems, the priest before the altar of St. Paul pleads that lamentation before the High Altar of the everlasting mercies and eternal justice.


It is the most dreadful and most piercing of all the cries that the anguish of this world has uttered; for it is the innocent blood crying to heaven for vengeance.

That blood was shed in darkness; in the black waste and hollow of the night they led out Edith Cavell, nurse and technical offender against military law they led her out and slaughtered her. The stories of her death vary; there is no doubt, however, as to this one thing, that there in the blackness of the night, most base, most wicked, most horrible murder was committed.

The blood was spilt in the darkness, and it cannot be hid, and it cannot be silenced; and now it cries in the light, it cries under the hollow of the dome before the altar, and its lament pierces to the ends of the earth, to the flaming walls of the world.


280px-St_Pauls_Cathedral_in_1896The space under the dome is filled with the sisters of the murdered woman. Line upon line of dark-veiled nurses; here and there a violet veil, a scarlet sash, a white cap.

The nave was filled by the people a few minutes after the doors were opened. Queen Alexandra, the representatives of the King and Queen, take their places; Sir Vesey Strong, representing the Lord Mayor, comes with his officers and mace-men and scarlet company, and goes up into the choir, all the people rising. The Ministers of State pass to their seats.

And just as the Prime Minister enters, near on noon, a tempest breaks upon us. It is the noise of a great wind rising suddenly in desolate places, sweeping through black winter woods; it is the tumult of a storm that might be heard on a waste of waters. There is horror in it, and agony.


220px-The_Woman_the_Germans_ShotAnd as its first mutterings are heard, the whole congregation are swept to their feet, and then, as it were, out of darkness and dreadful tumult, there sound laments, bitter cries of a great woe.

The band of the First Life Guards is playing Chopin’s “Death March” before the choir gates; but to the inner ear, through that tempest of sound the innocent blood of Edith Cavell cries for vengeance.

As the drums die down into silence, the organ begins to play, and there goes forth the Cross at the head of the procession, and the white choir, the Prebendaries, the Dean, the Bishop of London, his staff before him, go up to their places.


And forthwith notes sound dear and familiar and of good memory, and the hymn that Edith Cavell and tho priest beside her repeated very near to the hour of her death in the darkness and terror of the German prison-house, now sounds in the cathedral:

Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, 0 Lord, abide with me. Amen.

The last verse swells into sonorous triumph; the sunlight pours in golden rays down from the dome, the painted saints and martyrs glow in the windows.

Then the Paternoster, which is a prayer for quick and dead alike, is said, and after the versicles and responses, they sing the Antiphon:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet he shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me shall never die.


This antiphon rules the two psalms: De profundis, and Dominus regit me—The Lord is my Shepherd.

The Lesson is St. Paul’s mighty proclamation of immortality, the Lesson of the Trumpet. The Dean reads it in a ringing voice, standing at the chancel gates.

And then. Then the air trembles, it shudders and is aghast at this great evil that has been done upon the earth. Alas! the innocent blood that has been shed cries from the deep places of the earth for vengeance and the Lord’s repaying. Alas! in deep places in the black caverns that are beneath land and sea, the spirits bound there utter their abomination; alas! the innocent blood still cries aloud to be avenged, and the voice goes up and the very air is afraid and trembles greatly that this black wickedness was done.


Again the whole of the people rise up before that muttered accusation. They are playing Handel’s “Dead March,” the drums grow to thunder, and through the thunder waitings and cryings sound; the crying of the innocent blood that has been spilt upon the earth.

And then the tremendous trumpet utters its sentence; the sentence of God’s wrath on murderers.

Give rest, O Christ, to Thy servant with Thy Saints, where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.

The choir sing the anthem for the deed, taken from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom to the wailing Russian melody.

There are versicles and prayers and a closing hymn, but this prayer sums up all the service:

Almighty God, with Whom do live the spirits of them that depart hence in the Lord, and with Whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity: We give Thee hearty thanks, for that it hath pleased Thee to deliver Thy servant, EDITH, out of the miseries of this sinful world; beseeching Thee, that it may please Thee, of Thy gracious goodness, shortly to accomplish the number of Thine elect, and to hasten Thy kingdom; that we, with all those that are departed in the true faith of Thy holy Name, may have our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in Thy eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.— AMEN.


The Weekly

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Introduction and supplementary material – Copyright 2023 by Christopher Tompkins. All rights reserved.

7 thoughts on “In Memory of Edith Cavell

  1. Trying to find out more about the movie with the – full-page advertisement? – I am redirected at IMDB and also told “Just after the war ended, the film’s name was changed and [it was] rereleased with the more benign title ‘The Cavell Case.'” I am also pointed to an earlier film, Nurse and Martyr (1915), where I am further told “This was the first movie based on a script by Edgar Wallace”!

    Checking YouTube for the “more benign title”, I find instead (but have not yet watched!) assorted newsreel footage: British Pathé with the titles ‘Nurse Cavell Memorial Opened In London – 1st Anniversary (1914-1918)’ and ‘Nurse Cavell Memorial (1920)’, HuntlyFilmArchives with ‘Edith Cavell’s Funeral, 1910s – Film 81504’, and British Movietone with ‘Edith Cavell Honoured’ annotated “(20 Nov 1939) Wreaths are laid on the monument to Edith Cavell which stands in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris” – as well as another movie, also released during ‘the Phony War’ period, Nurse Edith Cavell (RKO Studios, 1939), and “Test Footage from ‘Cavell’ a British Independent feature film shooting in 2015” on the channel of its writer and director, Simon Marriott.


    1. I am quite interested in watching these early dramatic movies based on her story, especially since I enjoy silent film. However, since the survival rate for silent film is only 20%, the odds aren’t good of finding one. I looked into the newsreel on Youtube that you mentioned. I can’t post here, because Pathe requires a license, but curiously they posted the film with a release date that preceded Cavell’s death by 5 years!:


      1. Wow – a pretty sloppy title typo, it seems – as the description says “Homecoming of Nurse Cavell’s Body 1919” and the ‘Slate’ within the newsreel indeed identifies it as that.

        I sadly have no idea where one can easily discover which silent films survive, and where one might see them, though one would think there must be some sorts of online catalogues to those ends.


  2. I was struck by “technical offender against military law they led her out and slaughtered her” – if we do not limit that to “military law” and remain firmly attentive to ‘slaughter’ while also recognizing the wide range of other injustices, that seems to characterize much of the Twentieth- and Twenty-first-centuries – with which ‘regimes’ excepted? – though not ‘our’ centuries alone, if, for example, with Dorothy L. Sayers we think “the Christian affirmation is that a number of quite commonplace human beings, in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, killed and murdered God Almighty – quite casually, almost as a matter of religious and political routine, and certainly with no notion they were doing anything out of the way.”


      1. It’s from her fascinating “Author’s Introduction” in the published version of The Man Born to Be King – as far as I can discover, always on page 21 of the Gollancz edition throughout its many reprints down the years – and on page 26 in Kathryn Wehr’s new Wade Annotated Edition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2023).


  3. David mentions the Wade Annotated Edition of Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Man Born to Be King. It will be interesting to learn more about that new book & whether those of us who have, say, a Harper reprint of the radio play cycle should acquire this annotated presentation.

    There are things to learn, too, about a Machen-Sayers connection in letters, at least.


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