The story of a renowned British First World War martyr, executed by the Germans while helping Allied soldiers behind enemy lines in Europe, is being told in Kamloops through letters unearthed in a home in Westsyde.
Eighty-seven-year-old Joan Sabo, a former Royal Inland Hospital nurse who lives with her husband in Westsyde, stumbled upon letters while cleaning out boxes in her house and is sharing her family story, which dates back more than a century.
“I just thought maybe there would be someone who would be interested in it,” she said.
Sabo’s grandfather, Rev. Philip Stocks, whom she never met, had an Anglican church in Belgium before the Great War, in the early 1900s. Among church attendees was British nurse Edith Cavell, who would later become a First World War heroine, killed by the Germans for aiding in the escape of Allied soldiers.
Cavell’s death received worldwide condemnation and fuelled Allied propaganda. Memorials can be found in England and Canada, including a Rocky Mountain peak named after Cavell.
Sabo’s family knew Cavell.
“Mom talked about like she was a friend,” Sabo said, noting Cavell would visit her mother’s childhood home, go to church with and care for her family members in hospital.
“And I didn’t give it much credit, you know. It was just something that was in our family.”
According to Historic England, the British government’s heritage institution, the Germans quickly invaded Belgium during the First World War and Cavell helped Allied soldiers caught behind enemy lines.
Cavell was arrested in August of 1915, charged with treason and sentenced to death.
Diplomatic efforts were made to save her, but she was shot and killed on Oct. 12, 1915, about two months after her arrest.
Her death, according to Historic England, became “a rallying call for recruitment to the Allied cause.”
Sabo told KTW that Cavell had sought communion from Sabo’s grandfather, Stocks.
Stocks, however, was out of the country. Handwritten notes provided to KTW and believed to be written by Stocks shed light on his absence.
“We went for our holiday last July to Scotland, where I had a locum tenancy for an old friend of ours, who is a Canon at St. Ninian’s Cathedral, Perth,” the note states.
“There was of course then not the faintest sign of war. After we had been at Perth about a fortnight, war was declared; but there was no indication for some time that the German Army would treat Belgium otherwise than as a thoroughfare to France, or would come out of its way to occupy Brussels; nor did I receive any indication that I was needed there, where I had left matters in the hands of the assistant Chaplain, a man of experience and ability.”
Sabo said Stocks attempted to return to Belgium to provide communion to Cavell as she languished in German custody, but he was unable to cross the English Channel, due to the war.
Stocks wrote to Cavell’s mother, Louisa Sophia Cavell, after Cavell’s death and Cavell’s mother responded.
Stocks’ family has held on to that letter, which is dated Dec. 8, 1915 (about two months after Cavell’s death) and it provides a slice of history about a renowned Great War heroine, including her time spent in prison awaiting execution.
In the letter, signed “L. S. Cavell,” Cavell’s mother thanked Stocks for his sympathy and comments made about Cavell’s work in Brussels. She talked about the pain of her daughter’s death, hope and belief her daughter was in heaven and her desire for a “speedy reunion.”
“For I am in my 81st year — it can only be ‘a little while,’” Cavell’s mother wrote to Stocks. She died in 1918, three years after penning the letter.
In addition, she described letters received from around the world and flowers and fruit sent to Cavell in her prison cell, which Cavell’s mom described as “quite a bower (attractive dwelling).”
Cavell’s mother also discussed in the letter a memorial — a white marble statue with a grey granite background — that was to be erected near Trafalgar Square in London, in honour of her daughter.
Historic England describes that memorial as commemorating “one of the most famous civilian casualties of the First World War.”
It also describes Cavell as a “genuine victim and propaganda cult figure.”
Cavell’s mother said in the letter that another daughter went to look at drawings of the statue and described it as “beautiful.”
Historic England also noted words spoken by Cavell to a priest on the eve of her execution (the priest that should have been Stocks) are inscribed on the statue that remains standing in London today: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”
“I’d love to go and see that,” Sabo told KTW.
Just as Canada was automatically involved in the First World War, when Great Britain went to war with Germany, a memorial was simultaneously set up in Canada — Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper.
Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives manager Rob Hubick said the Alpine Club of Canada was asked after Cavell’s death to suggest a mountain in the Rockies to serve as a memorial. Other mountains in the area are named for Victoria Cross recipients.
Hubick said a large, angled, unique-looking mountain — previously called La Montagne de la Grand Traverse, as a former landmark to fur traders — facing the Athabasca Valley was chosen and the name was made official in March of 1916.
A memorial plaque at the bottom of the mountain has information about Cavell and the mountain is among attractions people see when visiting the national park in Alberta.
“It’s a very popular spot to go when you come visit Jasper,” Hubick said. “It’s quite beautiful up there.”
A parking area was recently expanded and it boasts hiking trails through alpine meadows and a glacier trail.
Archivist Karen Byers said Cavell is “special” to the community. St. Mary and St. George Anglican Church in Jasper holds ceremonies in Cavell’s honour and a service was held at the foot of the glacier in earlier years.
When the 100-year anniversary of Cavell’s death took place in 2015, the church recreated that ceremony. A memorial also remains in the church.
“Quite often people who care about the whole story do pilgrimages to where she’s buried [in Norwich Cathedral in England],” Byers said, noting people have brought back brochures to the museum. “She’s kind of like our — a martyr.”
After missing out on his opportunity to provide Cavell with communion, Stocks and his family made their way to Canada, where some of his children had been setting up a homestead in Nahun, on the west side of Okanagan Lake just north of Kelowna.
Sabo said it was quite an adjustment, as the family had originally come from British aristocracy she described similar to that portrayed in the Downton Abbey television series.
“Then, they’re coming out to this homestead that is terrible, with log cabins. It’s nothing, hard in the winter, it’s a trail that goes down and the steam ship had come in, the paddlewheelers on Okanagan Lake, and dropped all their supplies off and they had to take this horse down this terrible path to pick it up,” she said. “It was totally different.”
Sabo’s mother, May Gray (maiden name Stocks), was daughter to Stocks and detailed, in a letter dated Feb. 10, 1987, memories of Cavell. She claimed in the letter to be one of the few people in Canada to have known Cavell.
She called Cavell “very professional” and said she was “strict with her nurses.” May’s sister, Ellen, in another letter, described how Cavell was “a great friend of the family” and a “kind, sweet person and worked hard in her nursing home not very far from where we lived.”
“Little did we ever think then what a heroine she was to become in later years,” Ellen wrote.
Added May: “I don’t know how anyone could shoot an innocent person like that, but suppose war is war and anything is done.”
Gray described the letter from Cavell’s mother as “now very precious, real and valuable from her poor mother.” Stocks is buried at the old homestead in Nahun, about an hour and 45 minutes from Kamloops. Memories of him remain alive with Sabo, through handwritten words saved for more than a century.