We will remember them

Projects, War Widows Stories

We stand on the doorstep of 61 Whitehall, a grand stone doorstep for a grand old government doorway. The words Royal Ministry on a brass plate by the black door. A bright, cold November morning in London and we are here for the War Widows’ ceremony commemorating the contributions of men and women made in military conflict, including their own lost loved ones. A cup of coffee and some fleeting conversations while everybody gathers, then we are out in the cold sunshine again.

The widows line up in a column, several people wide. A cohort of people that spans generations and places. A few of the older women are bent over, white-haired, tiny but determined. Later, someone tells us about the younger women who have more recently been made widows, they are carefully positioned in the middle of the rows to be supported and protected by the others. It’s a long line of people, a physical testament to the losses of all those conflicts, from World War Two onward. There is something huge about this group — because they represent so many missing. And because their burden has been so heavy, for so long.

crowd

A Scottish marching band arrives: the Southern Highland Pipe Band, their music swirls down the stone avenues, the bagpipes and the giant heartbeat of the bass drums. They accompany the column of widows who walk slowly up Whitehall. We are at the back of the column, standing a little apart to show respect. As we all walk, the crowd which is thousands strong watch quietly. Many people take photos, a few wave flags carrying the poppy symbol. One woman claps as we pass. People are quiet and attentive, often the faces are full of emotion.

We pass the centotaph, carved with three words The Glorious Dead. The column doubles back to face the Cenotaph, the empty tomb. A strong wind blows and late leaves tumble from the trees. Suddenly the faces of the women look stark and wild, I see tears on some faces.

The priest says prayers, there is a hymn, with subdued singing, snatched off by the wind. And then the old words, half-remembered from such ceremonies, from old films, “They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old, age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”

war widows association

“We will remember them!” The reply from hundreds of voices, some of them shaking with strength of feeling. There is a silence, for thought and then the single bugle call of Reveille, sorrowful as blues and yet undismayed. And then the amazement of the bagpipes, the great drone like a song from elsewhere, it’s difficult to believe that people make such an earthly cry. Lois and I look at each other, unable to say anything.

We walk back, dazed by the power of this memorial, surrounded by a thunder of drums. As we walk I have the strangest sensation that we are marching through the past, connected to all those other marching feet following the drum. But at what cost comes glory?

After, we return to 61 Whitehall, with this group who we’re just starting to know, we climb three flights of spiralling stairs, upward to the vast military library. It’s a room containing thousands of books, some centuries old, and all of them trying to piece together what happens in a war. Strategy, tactics, empire, terrorism, torture, espionage hardware, software. And the question of justice — I see a copy of the Iraq War report, several volumes of it. But the people we are here with have the quietest military history of all, quieter than the spies, or the secret ops: the story of War Widows has simply not been told.

We will remember them.

library

Philip Davenport writing about our work as part of the project War Widows’ Stories. arhur+martha are making an embroidered quilt and a collections of poems with war widows. 

With special thanks to the War Widows’ Association who so kindly welcomed us to the event. 

Questioning the past

Projects, War Widows Stories

Talking with members of the War Widows’ Association at a formal dinner turned out to be a very informal affair, with much laughter and camaraderie. But it also produced a set of fascinating questions, devised by the women themselves, for us to ask as our work with the project War Widows’ Stories gets underway.

As we discussed these questions, little moments of people’s stories were shared. The shock of being told that your partner is dead, the impact of this violent news on everyday normality, that can never again be quite normal. The fear of telling children their father is dead — how to pass on cruel news kindly. Being a victim of gossip. Being angry because you’ve not been told the truth about the death. But most of all, how to get life started again.

Many people said, “We just got on with it.” But each and every one had a different way of doing so.

Here are the questions, some direct, some provocative, many very thought provoking. Perhaps as our project continues, we will find some answers. As well as more questions… 

As a war widow, what are you supposed to say, and what would you like to say?

Is the title war widow offputting? Even the term widow? How would you like to be known? Relict? Dependent? The last three digits of your husband’s service number?

Do you feel that people are on eggshells around you? They really want to ask: “Why are you a war widow?” What happened, and how would you like to tell it?

What didn’t you get told about your husband’s death?

We are trying to get to unknown history. How do we read between the lines of given history? The official version versus the spoken story, versus reality?

What are the words and images of your inner life? What symbols fit you? What phrases stay with you? What remains unspoken?

What is an object that symbolises your experience for you?

Why do you think people see widows as a threat to other people’s relationships? Have you been seen as a threat?

Was your grief ever used as gossip?

Was there a day when your burden suddenly seemed lighter?

survived with a little help

Trying out ideas for the War Widows’ Quilt.