ANAVETS Shoulder to Shoulder

March 2017

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Page 26 of 33

26 SHOULDER TO SHOULDER I t was 0545 hrs, dawn, on Tuesday 12 October 1915 near St. Giles Prison in Brussels. The marching file of eight coal-scuttle- helmeted grey-clad riflemen halted on the command of their sergeant who turned them over to an officer in a pikelhaub spiked helmet who had been awaiting them. They faced front in one rank, dressed at arm's length and then formed two ranks at the open order, with the members of what was now the rear rank covering off the spaces between the men of the front rank. Upon command the men presented their Mauser 98k rifles for inspection. The officer inspected the weapons and easing his 9mm Parabellum pistol in its holster took post to the left of the firing squad. The sergeant took post five paces to the rear of his men and eased his Parabellum in its holster. The men were still and uncomfortable, silently cursing the rotten luck that had selected them for this unpalatable task. Two eight-man squads had initially been selected and then one squad chosen by lot. For not a man really wanted to shoot the tall woman with grey, white-streaked hair standing calmly ten metres to their front with a piece of white paper pinned where her heart would be, her back to the wooden post that secured her hands behind her back. They all knew her story. She was a women of remarkable courage who had displayed such devotion to duty that many of them secretly admired this particular representative of their British enemy. Their hearts went out to her as they saw her refuse the officer's proffered blind- fold and heard her ringing words, "I am glad to die for my country!" The deed was quickly done… At a few minutes after 6 o' clock, the officer drew his sword and nervously gave the command to load. The bolts clicked home, driving live rounds into chambers. "Firing Volleys Present!" he ordered, and then "Aim!"as he raised his sword. The men took aim… "Fire!" he barked as he slashed his sword downward. The rifles crashed. The woman was smashed back against the post with gouts of blood splashing from her torn chest. "Unload!" He ordered and the men worked the bolts on their empty rifles, ejecting a cascade of spent brass casings. "Sergeant!" he called. The sergeant took post in front of his men and ran them through a few drill movements as the officer sheathed his sword and drew his pistol. Then the officer marched smartly towards the ghastly figure on the ground slumped against the post, his splendid jackboots gleaming in the weak light. He placed the muzzle of his pistol against the temple of the fallen woman and pulled the trigger. The sudden crack made every one of the assembled soldiers wince, although they had been expecting it. The officer took post in front of his men and turned them over to the sergeant who marched them off the way they had come. And thus the sentence of the court martial for "treason" was carried out. Nurse Edith Cavell who had helped hundreds of British and Allied soldiers escape though knowing it might cost her her life had paid the penalty. Afterwards, Patriotism Is Not Enough ( T h e T r a g e d y o f E d i t h C a v e l l ) By Terence Cottrell

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