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!