War Heroes who died before a firing squad

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A campaign for First World War resistance heroine Edith Cavell to be commemorated on a £2 coin is gathering pace. Nicola Furbisher visited the place of her execution.

YOU couldn’t merely happen upon it, hidden away as it is between apartment blocks and office buildings, a stone’s throw from a noisy ring road, in the shadow of a huge concrete radio tower.

It is city modernity at its most unremarkable. Urban sprawl at its most anonymous. Shoppers with their trolleys head for busy high streets, commuters in their suits come and go but today, a Saturday, it is more or less deserted.

A small sign points the way down a cobbled lane, to unattractive iron gates leading into an enclosure boarded by mature trees. Walk down the path and a grassy clay embankment looms oddly, unnaturally on one side, taller and taller until it towers above us. How could we have guessed the significance of it?

It is peaceful here, in the Enclos des Fusillés (the rifle range) in Brussels. There is no one about. The rain falls heavily; the wind sways the cedars and everything is sodden, dripping, the path mushy with fallen leaves.

Three hundred and sixty five graves rise from flat mud. Some are the resting places of souls unknown, most bear a name and a few carry a photograph – a face staring from history, unsmiling, solemn – as if the owner knew what was to come.

There’s Arthur with his jauntily angled trilby, Lucien, with a mop of black hair, dark-rimmed spectacles, an open-necked shirt, very young; Georges, smart in his buttoned shirt and tie; there’s Ernest, who looks older than the others, and quite distinguished; Marcel in his uniform with smart Leo DiCaprio slicked back hair, there’s another Arthur, a doctor and member of the Belgian Red Cross.

Walking slowly you can meet them all. There’s Alexandre in a striped tie, Rene in a beret, there’s Theodore with bushy eyebrows, a thick head of dark hair, scowling. There is Mathias, a handsome young man who stares, stiffly, in his smart uniform. The rain forms droplets on the clear glass over his picture blurring his image. How must it have been for him? How must it have been for all of them.

The list of names goes on and on, there are so many, and there are women here too, Ghislain, Desire and Sara.

There are tributes, memorial plaques placed by loved ones: ‘to my father’, ‘for my brother’, ‘from friends and colleagues at the bank’, ‘to my husband’, ‘to our son’. There is one from ‘Mariette’: ‘Dear Papa, your little girl weeps but she is so proud of you’.

They died in war, these sons and daughters, but not on any front or any trench, or under bombardment from the skies. Not for them the fire step, the whistle, the going over the top, the mud and the blood and the shells.

For these ordinary and extraordinary people it was a clean, more efficient death. A termination. A firing squad.

Heroes of the resistance from the First World War and from the Comet Line resistance movement of the Second World War who refused to be cowed by an invading army, who sheltered allied soldiers, gave them food, water and stole them away to freedom. Who saved the lives of so many and paid for it with their own.

How convenient a spot this turned out to be for the German commandants. A ready-made rifle range previously used as a training area by the Belgian Military. Perfect as a site of execution – the towering embankment already there, an earthen backstop for rifle bullets.

Each grave demands a pause and we read the names aloud under our breath. Then we come to a great stone slab, embedded in the grassy mound that was raised to ingest screaming bullets. It is marked with the names of 35 resistance fighters executed here.

Fourth from the top is ‘Cavell E.’ the British nurse. E for Edith. A woman who saved the lives of soldiers from all sides without distinction and helped some 200 Allied soldiers escape. Court-martialed, found guilty of treason, she met her end here on October 12, 1915 at 6am. Four Belgian men died with her.

What should one expect to feel, standing here, where she and others stood? What should one be expected to do other than pause, trace a finger across her name. Long, long ago now – and yet no time at all.

There is nothing to be done except stand for a while listening for unwanted echoes. But then there’s a sound, a snuffle and a strangled growl. A huge dog appears and quickly afterwards, hanging on to its long lead, an old man.

He says ‘bonjour’ and, calling his heaving dog to heel, asks us whether we know the history of the site. I explain that we do, especially because we know of Edith Cavell, and he says ‘Ah Madame Cavell, notre amie (our friend)’. He talks rapidly and I cannot slow him down.

He refers to the sobbing relief of the Liberation and at one point speaks of the English and the Americans as good friends. Of Belgium, I assume he means. But the Germans? He blows through his lips and tosses his head in a dismissive gesture. A long-dead past still very much alive and reeling in this old man’s heart. How little we who live on our islands protected by sea can comprehend the terrors of an occupation.

A few more moments, both palms rested against the memorial stone. Then, stepping along the foot of the mound, skirting around it we walk back up the path. As we leave, a car stops and two faces stare out. A man and woman. They wind down the window, and he asks in Flemish, then English, if this is the place. I tell them it is.

We should all try to pass this way at some point and read the names, see the faces. It is a place of resting heroes, a place that recalls human spirit at its greatest. In war it was a place of horrors. Now it is a place of peace.