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Today is Armistice Day here in the UK. At 11am on the 11th November (the 11th month) the country acknowledges two minutes silence in memory of all those who have died in combat. Today is particularly special as it marks the 90th anniversary of the First World War, said to be “the war to end all wars”. Over 20 million people died and 21 million were injured in WW1. How could we ever forget it?
I’ve been thinking a lot about our link back to the World Wars recently. The loss of an elderly friend set me thinking about the lost stories and memories he took with him. I was lucky enough to interview my Grandmother for a history project before she died – somewhere I have an audio tape of her memories, and I know where my written report is safely stored. But so many personal accounts, important recollections, are falling by the wayside – it makes me want to collect them all together for posterity’s sake. When I imagine doing this I do not see written tales in a volume, but shelves and shelves of jars containing “living memories” – much like the dreams in The BFG.
I have been reading a book called Singled Out: How two million women survived without men after the First World War. The author, Virginia Nicholson, interviewed hundreds of women who suffered an irreplacable loss during the war years, and whose stories are often heart-wrenching to read. These women were part of the “two million surplus” for whom the high death toll had dashed the dream of marriage – whether by taking their sweethearts and husbands from them or by leaving too few men for the number of women. These women shaped our lives as we know them, seeking satisfaction in other aspects of life, proving their worth in the workplace and in society, and enabling women as a body to live fulfilled lives alone. Before the horror of war forced change upon us, a woman who did not marry was seen, quite simply, as a failure. For these women marriage was not even an option. They had no choice but to get on with it, alone.
A couple of weeks ago I helped my Mum clear out a couple of rooms at home. In a tin in a wardrobe, buried amongst old fur coats and forgotten toys, we found hand written letters from France, sent from my Granddad, Harry, to my Gran, Joan. Joan lost her first husband, my Uncle’s father, in the Second World War. His name was Morris, he was a paratrouper, and he asked his friend Harry to look after his wife and son if anything should happen to him. Harry and Joan fell in love, and after the war were married. The letters we found were the most beautiful, moving words of genuine affection I have ever read. They were so honest and so personal – true “love letters”, professing the kind of love only utter tragedy can inspire.
They also represent an authentic history, the history of individuals, the history of a family and the history of a country all at once. There are so few British families without a link to the World Wars, but simple discoveries such as ours suddenly make that link so much more alive.
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