Widows were a constant feature of village life as a child. Sometimes they were war widows, one lady had survived a Japanese prison camp, her husband had not survived. Others were widowed through farm or workplace accidents, one lady’s husband had died through a lightning-strike when he was carrying hay to hid cattle. Others seemed to have lost husbands, who did not live beyond their fifties.
Looking back the seventy-five years to the Second World War, it is hard to imagine how the returning men coped with their memories. Was there an understanding of shock and its impact? How many lives were shortened by the stress they suffered? My grandfather, a London fireman through the war years, spent time in psychiatric care in the 1960s re-living the horrors of the blitz. He died at the age of 65. Among my grand uncles, early deaths were common.
Was the shock compounded by the attitudes of those at home? People who had not endured the conflict at first hand wanted to get on with their ordinary lives, they became indifferent or disinterested to the stories of the returning men. Writing of the First World War. Sebastian Faulks’ captures such a moment in the novel “Birdsong” when Stephen Wraysford stands in a London tailor’s shop, his uniform grubby from the Western Front.
Stephen saw the man’s eyes run down him and register his uniform and rank. He also saw, beneath his formal politeness, an involuntary recoil. he wondered what it was about him that repelled the man. He did not know if he smelled of chloride of lime or blood or rats. He reflexively put his hand to his chin but felt only a minimal scratch of beard that had grown back since he had shaved in the Hotel Folkstone.
The assistant in the shop is embarrassed at Wraysford’s presence, he is anxious that such a disturbing person should leave the premises as quickly as possible.
Wraysford is a fictional character who has the presence of mind to realize that the fault lies with the assistant and not with himself. In Antony Horowitz’ television series Foyle’s War, the stories frequently focus on soldiers who have returned and cannot comprehend the world they have left behind. If writers can capture a sense of the emotion, what did it feel like for the real soldiers? How did those who returned from the greatest conflicts in history feel when they discovered that there were many, many people who did not want to hear their stories?
After the horror of war there seemed the horror of memory – and the pain of realizing that people neither understood nor wished to do so. How many lives were shortened?