Forget-me-nots: what did you do in the war, Granny?

Earlier this year my family were unfortunate to lose someone who had played an important role in our lives. After he passed, it occured to me that he’d taken all of his memories with him, all the details of the role he played in our history, in the horrendous conflicts which would have stolen his prime years. He had been a doctor, and after his departure his widow, a nurse, began to open up about some of her experiences. It made me wish I had the time to start collecting these memories from people, recording their first hand victories and tragedies for future generations to learn from.

The two World Wars of the early 20th century were horrific and tragic events, with losses on an unimaginable scale even to us, 2-3 generations on. The men and women involved made sacrifices that we cannot begin to understand, and all in the name of duty and honour, king and country. The effect their bravery had on our lives cannot be described – who knows how today would have looked without their influence. It’s impossible to say.

As with every tragic event, however great or small, some positives did emerge from these conflicts. We made a stand against bullying and prejudice. We showed the World what a united front can achieve when their principles are threatened. And the women of our country changed their role in society on an unprecedented scale.

With the men at war, the womenfolk had to work. This wasn’t entirely exceptional. Women had taken roles as teachers and governesses throughout the previous century, the poor had worked in factories and cottonmills, the middle classes as nurses… but the war put an end to class and labour distinctions. Jobs were open to all, though you often had little choice in the matter of which job your were assigned, but whether you were sent down the munitions with the other canaries, out into the fields to bale hay or off in the baker’s van to deliver bread rolls, you played a part. Women began to feel a sense of need beyond that of the family, a level of achievement that had previously lacked.

It was World War One that gave us the first real “singletons”. The widows, former-fiancees and left-behind-girlfriends of the inter-war era became known as the “two million surplus”. With 700,000 soldiers dead and half a million returning wounded, it was inevitable that the spinster count would rise, as more and more young women cluttered up the proverbial “shelf”. In the war that saw the greatest casualties of any conflict in history, the loss of lives narrowed the marriage market to an enormous degree.

Yet, in some ways, World War One actually expanded the marriage market. Up to that point, marriage had been about social standing, money, family connections and class. Not being nearly as mobile as we are today, our potential partners were restricted by location as well as society.

The war created a new mobility – we were no longer restricted even by borders, nevermind county lines. It meant people met others they would never before have mixed with, fought, dug or worked shoulder-to-shoulder with those they would never have met. The women, through working, were physically removed from their previous social shackles – no longer confined to the parlour, they were quite literally available to a wider range of men. Relationships bloomed in the street, on the bus, in factories and hospitals – boundaries fell…

Both fear and courage are excellent conditions under which love can blossom, and neither cares whereabouts on the social scale your father’s etstate is situated!

It may sound outrageously un-pc to say, but there’s a chance that these two million surplus may have actually affected a major change in our genetic make-up. The Times Online recently reported on research that suggests that women are getting “more beautiful” while men are… remaining consistent, we shall say (the article wasn’t quite so kind – the word “caveman” may have been used…). The research in question relates this to the fact that beautiful women have more children, specifically more girl children, and more beautiful girl children at that. This may have been a slow evolution over time – natural selection I suppose – but I can’t help but think that the shelved spinsters gave evolution a little bit of a kick!

So, I guess that’s one more thing for which we should be thanking our grandmothers. They made us all more beautiful!

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8 thoughts on “Forget-me-nots: what did you do in the war, Granny?

  1. Although none of my family went to war, I always loved the stories my granmother used to tell me about family and the experiences she had in life.
    Now that I don’t have any grandparents alive I feel that more than ever I have the dutty of keeping and enlarging our family history for future generations.
    It feels like I have to have my own stories to ell my grandchildren.

    • There’s nothing like hearing stories from your grandparents is there? My Gran used to tell me all the naughty things my Uncle used to get up to – no doubt when my brother’s baby, Logan is old enough I’ll tell him all about his Dad’s childhood scrapes!

  2. One of my favorite stories about my grandmother was what she had to say about remarrying after my grandfather passed away. She was left a widow with 5 children. She said, “Any man who would want a woman with 5 children is crazy. I’ve got 5 kids. I don’t have time for a crazy man.” Among many other wonderful stories, this is my favorite.

    I guess I am doing my part to populate the planet with beautiful boys. 😉

    • Corey – that reminds me of a (BBC) Pride and Prejudice quote, when Lizzy says to Jane that if she could love a man who would marry her for £50 she’d be very happy… but such a man could hardly be sensible, and she could never love a man who was out of his wits! Brilliant!

      Beautiful boys are always much appreciated by the beautiful girls of their generation! 😀

  3. I look back now and wish my grandparents and great grandparents were still alive, even for one day, I have so many questions for them. I think we need to ask them as much as we can as they have so much information to share.

  4. When our son studied The Depression & WWII we asked my mom to write down her memories growing up during that time. She agreed on the condition that our son type them up for the other grandkids. Once she got going, Mom enjoyed the experience and remembered things she hadn’t thought about in decades. The day to day details of her experiences in north Alabama were something we’ll never find in books and were insightful to her character as well as an interesting part of history. We found out my grandparents had taken in and raised a friend’s daughter since her mother had been put in an asylum and the only job the dad could find (in the 1930’s) was on the road. Mom had never mentioned this foster sister, Una Mae. Mom wrote about going to university during the war when all the men were gone, about the cousins who died, about being in the cafeteria when word came that the war was over. The women all joined hands, sang “God Bless America” and cried. I highly recommend this exercise to any of you who can get older relatives to comply.

    • The end of your comment made me cry! What a lovely moment to share in!

      It was my high school studies that made me talk to my Gran about her experiences. She was in hospital at the time, and I had a dictaphone (I wanted to be a journalist!) which I took in and recorded her on, sitting by her bed in a slient ward. Her stories were fabulous to read. I have no idea where the tape is now, but must go and dig out the transcript next time I’m home.

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