Some years ago I read Pat Jalland’s book, Death in the Victorian Family, a fascinating look at the rituals of death & mourning in 19th century Britain. Pat Jalland’s new book is a sequel of sorts to the earlier book, taking her exploration of the English response to death from 1914-1970. The experiences of both soldiers & their families in WWI was the beginning of a change in the response of mourners to death. In the Victorian period, the majority of people died at home, cared for by their families & their local communities. There were rituals to be undergone as the body was laid out, friends & family viewed the body & then attended the funeral. A period of mourning was normal where the bereaved were distinguished by their black clothes & a withdrawal from social activity. Then, gradually, they would return to ordinary life.
WWI completed the rejection of Victorian mourning rituals that had already begun. The scale of death was unprecedented. Men killed in action were buried on or near the battlefield so the family couldn’t attend the funeral. Often there was no body to bury as men were blown to pieces by bombs or lost in No Man’s Land as the battle moved on. Then, there were the thousands of missing, whose fate was uncertain. Many parents, siblings & wives found it almost impossible to believe their man was dead when they hadn’t seen his body & they had no definite proof of death.
Violet Cecil went to extraordinary lengths to discover the fate of her son, George, who was killed in action in September 1914, only a month after the war began. Violet was a well-connected woman, the daughter & sister of generals. She was married to Lord Edward Cecil, son of Lord Salisbury. George was initially reported missing & it was months later that his family learnt what had happened to him. She wrote to her sister, Olive,
I am broken too, my old darling, to have lost our darling, to have lost him so young, before he had any chance- to think that all the years of our lives must be lived without him is crushing. I am overcome by it and cannot pretend I am not.
Violet called on all her family connections to search for George. Amazingly she was able to go to France with the help of the American Ambassador & the Mayor of Villers Cotteret, the town near where George’s regiment was fighting. With the help of the Red Cross, local villagers & her connections, Violet eventually found the mass grave where her son & other members of his regiment were buried. She was able to have the bodies exhumed, identified & reburied. Violet was also able to bring comfort & certainty to the families of the other soldiers buried with George. There were nearly 90 bodies exhumed & over 70 were able to be identified. Violet wrote to all the families, telling them of the exhumation & sending photographs of the graves. Violet knew how much it meant to her to know where her son was & to have a physical focus for her grief & she was able to help the families of her son’s comrades in a practical way that helped her to mourn as well. The extracts of the letters to Violet from the soldiers who died with George are very moving. Most had received no more than a brief, formal notification from the War Office that their sons were buried at Villers Cotteret but Violet was able to give them all the details they craved. She had discovered as much as possible about the battle as well so the families had some sense of the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
Violet’s quest can be compared to Rudyard Kipling’s search for his son, John, when he was reported missing later in the War. Kipling was a neighbour of Violet’s & as he had helped in the search for George, Violet did all she could for the Kiplings as they interviewed soldiers & tried to discover John’s fate. They finally had confirmation of his death but his body was never found.
After the war, many families made pilgrimages to the cemeteries laid out by the Imperial War Graves Commission to visit the place where their loved one was buried. The Bickersteth family left diaries that show how comforting it was for grieving relatives to go on these journeys. Morris Bickersteth was killed at the Somme in July 1916. He had two brothers in the Army, one of them a Chaplain, & the three young men had managed to meet just before the battle to talk about their fears of death & their hopes of meeting again afterwards. The Bickersteths were a religious family & their faith was a comfort to Morris’s parents, Ella & Samuel. Julian did all he could to discover what had happened to Morris,
You will see then, dear ones, that it is quite impossible to get the body back…But I don’t worry about that so much and you mustn’t either, dearest ones…I never felt so strong in my faith that the dear lad isn’t dead but lives…His grave is all the world, and his memory is ours to cherish for all time, and he isn’t far from us.
His investigations laid the foundations for the journeys the family made to his grave from 1919 to 1931. Although the family erected a memorial tablet in their local church, this wasn’t the same as having an actual gravesite to focus on as they mourned. Their first visit in 1919 was only possible because Julian had already been to the site & located the grave. The ground had changed so much as the opposing armies fought over the same areas & without his earlier visits, they would not have been able to find the grave. This was before the IWGC had laid out the cemeteries that have become such an iconic image of the war.
The Bickersteths left detailed diaries of their visits to Morris’s grave & it’s obvious that these journeys helped his parents to grieve & move forward. The pilgrimages were more problematic for Morris’s brothers who were also veterans. The trips brought back painful memories of battles & the horrific sights they’d witnessed. Morris’s brother Burgon found it impossible to sleep on these trips & he used his grief as an incentive to write a history of his regiment & exorcise the memories.
I’ve concentrated on these two stories from the early chapters of Death in War & Peace but there is so much more in this book. There are chapters on the mining disasters in northern England in the interwar period where dozens of men were killed in explosions or collapses in mines. Often the bodies could not be retrieved & whole communities were devastated by the loss of breadwinners. Traditional mourning rituals had survived in the north much longer than elsewhere & families were devastated by the death of a loved one with no body or if the body was recovered, the stigma of burial in a mass grave, the traditional way of burying paupers. There was also the financial trauma as mine owners rarely paid compensation to the families & women were left with children to support.
This postwar period was also the beginning of the trend towards hiding grief & showing a brave face to the world. When so many had been bereaved during the war & after the flu epidemic that followed it, it was seen as self-indulgent to mourn publicly. When so many had lost loved ones, the stiff upper lip was expected. This attitude was reinforced during WWII when the war was brought home to many during the Blitz when so many civilians were killed. The young pilots of Bomber Command faced dreadful odds of survival. Over 35% of crews would not survive. The men of Bomber Command also faced the stigma after the war of being blamed for the bombings of German cities such as Dresden & their contribution to the war effort was dismissed until very recently. Peggy Ryle’s husband, George, was reported missing after a flight in April 1944 & she kept a diary as a way of talking to George that expresses her grief at not knowing his fate,
Very sad tonight, darling, just can’t help missing you so desperately and keep thinking I may never see you again on earth, it’s ghastly…I can’t go on without you…You know darling, I think I was numbed at first by shock, because now the pain gets worse and worse every day.
Peggy felt the pressure to keep going bravely without breaking down in public or showing her grief. She turned to praying for miracles in the hope that she would have news that he was alive but gradually she had to accept that George was dead. In September came news that the bodies of a crew member of her husband’s had been found along with five unidentifiable bodies. She realised that one of those men must be George. Her diary ends here & it seems to mark her acceptance of his death.
After WWII the National Health Service led to more changes in the way people dealt with death. More deaths took place in hospitals &, with advances in medical treatment, people were living longer & dying of illnesses such as cancer & dementia. Many doctors saw every death as a failure on their part & so it became an embarrassment when a patient died. They were often shuffled off to a side ward. Families had no way to structure their mourning. Religious faith was declining, mourning clothes & seclusion were a thing of the past. The rise of cremations rather than burials also led to a sanitisation of death. The 1960s saw a gradual change in attitudes & it became more acceptable to seek counselling or talk more openly about grief. The hospice movement also helped to bring some dignity to the dying & gave the families a way of dealing with death.
Death in War & Peace is a moving & involving look at the ways people have coped with grief over the last century. The many personal examples from letters, diaries & interviews are often very touching & create a very human context for the theoretical & statistical sections of the book. I found it fascinating.