A Norfolk heroine whose selfless sacrifice helped save the lives of soldiers during the First World War was remembered at her grave-side at Norwich Cathedral this morning.

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Edith Cavell, the nurse from Swardeston whose undaunted sense of duty, faith and patriotism drove her to help Allied troops escape from occupied Belgium – was executed by a German firing squad on October 12, 1915.

During the annual remembrance service outside the cathedral, wreaths were laid on Cavell’s grave by forces veterans, civic dignitaries and nursing staff from the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, in honour of their heroic predecessor.

The congregation sang a poignant rendition of Abide with Me and heard a reading of the famous words spoken by Cavell on the eve of her execution: “I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

After a lone bugle sounded the Last Post, a parade of about 50 service veterans carrying the standards of various regimental associations filed past the Edith Cavell memorial on Tombland, led by the Salvation Army band.

The dignitaries included the Lord Mayor of Norwich Ralph Gayton who said: “This story is part of the drama of World War One and is about someone who set an example to the nation as a whole. It is good that we still remember that and have this celebration to mark the occasion.

“She was a wonderful woman and thinking of her epitaph of not bearing bitterness to anyone – that is a message we can all learn from today. She is an important local figure and we should be proud that she came from these parts.”

The service was led by the Rev Paul Burr, the vicar of Swardeston – a position once held by Cavell’s father.

He said: “I think it resonates with Norfolk people because she is a Norfolk woman. She is a national figure too, but her story is no longer remembered as widely as it once was. But to Norfolk people, it still matters because she is such an inspirational character, and this is the place where we can keep that story alive.”

RAF veteran Eric Fox organised the commemorative event on behalf of the Norfolk and Norwich Combined Ex-Services Association. “People use the word hero or heroine too easily today, but she obviously stands for a great deal,” he said. “She is still recognised throughout the services, but mostly through the local regiments.”

Ernie Green, Norwich branch chairman of the Royal British Legion, said: “It is a very poignant day. It is very difficult to appreciate what Edith did for servicemen. The dignified way in which she represented herself was absolutely fantastic and her actions deserve to be remembered every year.”

Group Capt David Cooper, the station commander at RAF Marham, took the salute from the parade outside the memorial. He said: “The first point I want to make is that people now across the services are still showing the same commitment Edith Cavell showed and we cannot make any progress around the world today without people showing that commitment. My second point is that it is very easy to focus on the military services, but the emergency services also need the same recognition. Often organisations like the Red Cross do not get the recognition they deserve.”

Edith Cavell was born in 1865 in the vicarage at Swardeston and, after training to be a nurse, accepted the post of matron at Belgium’s first training school for nurses in Brussels. She had returned home to visit her mother in Norwich when war broke out in 1914, and after she heard of the German invasion of Belgium, she returned there.

In the autumn of that year, two stranded British soldiers found their way to Nurse Cavell’s training school and were spirited away to neutral territory in Holland, prompting the formation of an underground lifeline which eventually helped about 200 soldiers to escape.

After the arrest of two members of her escape team in July 1915, Cavell was sentenced to death. She was hailed as a martyr in her home country and, after her remains were brought to Westminster Abbey for a memorial service, she was brought to Norwich Cathedral to be buried.

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