Reverend Horace Stirling Townsend Gahan MBE MA THRUSSINGTON’S GREAT WAR STORY
On 12th October 2015, one hundred years after the execution of Edith Cavell, Thrussington will commemorate Reverend Stirling Gahan. This devoutly pious man became Vicar of Thrussington and Rector of Brooksby in 1923 and died in harness in 1959. He is buried near the door of the church and his memorial has been restored through the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Just before the outbreak of the First World War Stirling Gahan was sent to be chaplain of Christ Church Brussels. When the Germans occupied Belgium the Gahans remained in Brussels along with 900 British subjects. Then in November 1914 he was interned but later released after an appeal from the neutral American Legation, which needed a clergyman for its church.
Reverend Gahan knew Nurse Edith Cavell as a parishioner and as head of the Nursing School in Brussels, which became a hospital upon the outbreak of War, treating wounded irrespective of nationality. During this time Edith helped hundreds of allied soldiers to escape however she was betrayed and arrested by the Germans in August 1915. She was held in St Gilles Prison, Brussels and was eventually court martialled for treason.
The sentence of death by firing squad was confirmed at 4.30 pm on 11th October 1915, to be carried out before dawn the next day. Pastor Le Soeur the Prison Chaplain realised that Edith, who had a deep Christian faith, could not receive spiritual help from someone in a German uniform. He hurriedly called for Reverend Gahan who was not at home, but eventually the message reached him to meet the Chaplain at his lodgings. Learning of Edith’s fate was a very shocking moment for him.
Reverend Gahan arrived at St Gilles Prison that evening after 8.30 pm with a pass and went to Edith Cavell’s cell. To his relief he found her calm and resigned. They shared Holy Communion together and he stayed for an hour. She spoke kindly of her treatment in prison and said. "Standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone." The meeting ended after they softly recited Abide with Me. On leaving he said "God Bless" she smiled and replied tenderly. "We shall meet again".
Immediately after the execution Reverend Gahan wrote an important and moving account of his meeting with Edith Cavell. Through the American Legation this went to the Foreign Office in London where it was released. There was outrage at the death of this British heroine and as such recruiting in the United Kingdom doubled in the following months. In America it helped change public opinion, which enabled America to deploy troops to Europe. This helped turn the tide leading to German surrender.
During the War, Stirling Gahan continued parish work in Brussels under the significant strain and hardship of enemy occupation. This was recognised by the King and Queen of Belgium and by Great Britain, when he became a Member of the British Empire and he received an honorary MA from Durham University.
In 1919 six months after the end of the Great War Reverend Gahan helped his friend and parishioner once more. Crowds of Belgians lined the streets as Edith’s body began its repatriation. Before the boat train departed he held a short service at Brussels Railway Station. On arrival in London thousands watched as
her coffin was carried on a gun carriage to a funeral attended by Queen Alexandra in Westminster Abbey and final interment in the precincts of Norwich Cathedral.
The visit to see Edith Cavell in that prison cell might have seemed a small gesture in the face of the enemy. One can only imagine the lonely weight of responsibility and emotion Stirling Gahan would have felt. But the Holy Communion they shared must have given Edith both spiritual uplift and courage to face her death. One hundred years later we know the Christian support he gave her, the importance of his account and its impact nationally and internationally were immense.
Patrick Rendall MBE