Women Who Wept
by Eddy Rawlinson
Former press photographer Eddy Rawlinson shares his memories of wartime wives and mothers
Having seen how women suffered during the 1939/45 war against Germany, I concluded that if they ruled the world, there wouldn’t be any more wars. My mother had seen her father in 1914, at the age of 45 years, reenlist with his regiment and go off to fight in France. My father, then her boyfriend being a territorial soldier, said “Goodbye” at the outbreak of hostilities and went to war. They didn’t meet again for nearly three years until he was granted one week’s leave on returning from serving at Gallipoli, then he was off back to France. My father had gone to war as a young boy and returned a grown man, with my mother having lost the romantic years of being together from teens into twenties. Their romance had been a five-year pen-to-paper relationship.
With the cessation of hostilities, they married, and as with lots of servicemen who had been away to war, they lived with that five-year gap taken out of their young lives. Those missing years tore apart millions of men and women who had married before the war and had to start all over again by getting to know each other. Trauma from fighting in the trenches took its toll, with many marriages being incompatible, yet it was unthinkable and against strong religious beliefs for a husband and wife to divorce. Many ex-servicemen, reliving their wartime memories, would awaken at night screaming as they fought over and over long past battles in the trenches. Wives also suffered in that nighttime battle of nerves. Thousands of men came home from the war badly disabled, and a wife had to take the role of breadwinner with war pensions hard to obtain, and if you received one, there was minimal remuneration.
“Those missing years tore apart millions of men and women who had married before the war and had to start all over again by getting to know each other.”
After the armistice in 1918, my parents settled down to a normal family life with my elder brother and me, making their marriage complete when the clouds of war began to appear again on the horizon. In 1938, my ex-military father joined the local Air Raid Precautions organisation and was back in uniform. My mother praised Prime Minister Chamberlain for coming back from Munich after seeing Adolf Hitler and carrying a piece of paper saying it would be “Peace for our time”. Her hopes were to be shortlived.
At 11 a.m. on September 3rd 1939, I saw the sadness in my mother’s eyes as she, with neighbours, listened to a wireless plonked on top of a backyard wall to hear the man who had given her hope make an announcement. Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the nation, “We are at war with Germany.” My brother was to celebrate his 17th birthday in November, working as an apprentice engineer in a factory already making munitions. Looking back, Britain was already preparing for a fight. This gave my mother a glimmer of hope; her son may be reserved from having to join the forces, and he was already in the war effort, as they called it. That was short-lived, as he joined the Royal Navy when he was 17 and a few months old.
During the war, I joined my local newspaper, and one of my jobs was collecting photographs of serving servicemen and women in the news. The sadness came when having to go to the home of someone’s relative who had lost their life in the war. There was no intrusion into their grief; most families wanted to let others see their child or husband had been serving their country. It is hard to describe how women would weep as they clung and kissed a picture of their loved one, then hand it over with a certain pride for it to be published along with many other brave servicemen who had suffered the same fate during the war. Fathers usually said very little.
My brother joined the Navy, and his letters were very few. Sometimes, there would be none for months, and then a bunch would arrive all at once. Every day, my mother would run home from the weaving shed where she worked at breakfast, waiting for the postman to deliver the letter that seldom came. Like many other women, she would return to the mill without knowing where her son was in a world at war. In December, just before Christmas 1941, an aunt of mine went home to find a telegram had been delivered and was delighted thinking my cousin, who had been away at sea without leave for 12 months, was coming home for the New Year.
“You can’t replace your child.” Either way, wife or mother, neither wins in a war.”
On opening the telegram, she was told briefly her son was missing, presumed drowned at sea. Two days later, a letter dropped through the letterbox from him written one month before she had received news of his death. The message was brief; a loving mother had just lost her 20-year-old son in the 25 words of the telegram. My aunt never believed he was dead and kept up hopes that he would return home one day. Her hopes faded away with time.
Today, it must be tough for those who have lost a dear one fighting in battle. During wartime, we were all together, with almost everyone having a close relative fighting the enemy. Life at home was drab; things were utility. We had food rationing and air attacks on our towns and cities. We were fighting for our freedom. It must be upsetting to look at today’s world knowing your loved one is not there to enjoy the freedom our forefathers fought for, and mothers are still sacrificing their sons in yet another war. Wives suffer, but my aunt, who lost her son at sea, said, “You can’t replace your child.” Either way, wife or mother, neither wins in a war.
If there is one advantage nowadays, it is only the technology of being able to communicate from a battlefield to loved ones by phone or text. So different from the days of pen-to-paper messages sent through the post during the two World Wars of the twentieth century.
NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23