Considering Motherhood, Loss and the First World War with 21st Century Women by Sarah Giles

The unprecedented death toll of the First World War led to such widespread bereavement that the loss of loved ones can rightly be regarded as one of the defining experiences of the conflict. Millions of mothers across Europe and the wider world lost sons and, in some cases, daughters serving in the military between 1914 and 1918. They experienced unimaginable loss, yet relatively little is known about them today and, with some notable exceptions, historians haven’t had a great deal to say about loss during wartime. Nor have the centenary commemorations of the conflict over the past four years generally acknowledged the experiences and hardship of these bereaved mothers. To shed light on this much-overlooked aspect of the war, Big Ideas has led a major community commemoration project entitled Motherhood, Loss and the First World War. This project has invited community groups across the UK to discover the experiences of mothers who lost sons or daughters whilst serving in the First World War, to respond creatively to these stories, and to share these with their wider community. The project has encouraged community collaboration, bringing groups together through shared understanding of grief, an emotion that resonates with and connects many of us today.

The project launched on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour just before Mothering Sunday in March of this year, with a call for stories from individuals and community groups about mothers who lost children serving in the military in the First World War. We were greatly moved by the responses, as people shared stories of their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts and other relatives who had suffered the loss of children during the war. Many of these testimonies are now included in our free resource pack, joining a series of heartbreaking stories of mothers whose lives and losses we discovered.

Sgt. Wakedield - Ramparts Cemetery
An epitaph composed by a mother, British soldier’s grave, Ramparts Cemetery, Ieper/Ypres

Given the relative youth of many of the men and women who went to war between 1914 and ’18, a lot of them were unmarried and their relationship with their mother was often one of the strongest and most intimate in their lives. To help community groups explore this relationship, we shared a series of letter exchanges between mothers and their sons who were serving during the First World War. Letter-writing was very much part of everyday life and the main form of communication during the period. An extraordinary number of letters were sent to service personnel from Britain – as many as 12 million each week. Most mothers kept the letters sent by their sons, but in many cases the letters from mothers carried by their sons and daughters did not survive wartime conditions, especially if their child never made it home. These letter exchanges reveal the significance of the everyday, and we find servicemen and women asking their mothers for updates on family illnesses, car repairs and enquiring about the changing of the seasons at home, as well as asking for comforts, such as chocolate, cigarettes and socks, to be sent out to the front. One letter asks for another pack of peppermints. What is revealing in these letters is the way they shed light on the mother’s role as an anchor to the normality and comfort at home, and the degree to which the horrors and general deprivation of war were usually concealed by their children to shield their mothers from the realities of their hardship. The letters kept by mothers often remained in the domestic and personal realm, kept in an attic somewhere, rather than entering official collections.

This is a project with discovery of unknown stories and remembrance at its heart. Community groups are invited to discover these mother’s stories through the resource pack and letter exchanges and respond creatively to them. This can be done through any medium they choose, including music, drawing, painting, sewing, gardening, or creative writing. Importantly, these groups are exploring not only the experiences of British mothers, but also mothers of service personnel from across the world, including Nigeria and the Caribbean. By remembering together within our communities, we have been able to shed light on these stories and commemorate the contributions made from across society.

Beyond Conflict
Members of the Beyond Conflict support group for women affected by the Troubles at a Motherhood, Loss and the First World War workshop in Belfast

To bring the story into the current day, the project connects with women’s groups across the UK through personal advocacy and skills-building workshops, helping them to gain the confidence to share their own stories. As a key part of these workshops, groups discover the stories of the mothers of the First World War, reading the letter exchanges and responding creatively to them. The participants have created care packages of items that they would share with a loved one serving in wartime, crafted sweetheart cushions, created unique postcards with messages of love, realisation and loss. They have cried together as they discovered more of these stories and indeed learned about one another. Each workshop has been unique, yet what has resounded in all of them is the empathy and sensitivity of the participants discovering these stories and sharing their experiences through community and creativity. The workshops have also revealed that, although the First World War was a particular moment in time, the experience of the mothers and their grief remains universal and continues to resonate.

To develop a better understanding of the experiences of mothers during the period, a major collaborative conference has been organised by Big Ideas, the London Centre for Public History and Heritage, and the Institute of Historical Research, which will be held at Senate House on 5 and 6 September. The conference will bring historians and community groups together to explore maternal bereavement as a result of the war, an experience that was understood to be particularly painful and difficult to come to terms with. A dedicated session will showcase the important work of community groups across the country who have give up their time to discover and remember these stories, and to share them with their wider community.

Two free public evening events have been incorporated into the conference programme. Professor Susan Grayzel, one of the world’s leading commentators on women in modern war, will deliver a lecture on the experiences of mothers in the First World War on 5 September. On 6 September, a world premiere of a specially-commissioned series of pieces by acclaimed violinist and composer Clare Connors, accompanied by letter readings from the First World War, will bring to life the voices of mothers and their sons and daughters serving in the military.

As legacy of the project, Big Ideas is installing a unique piece of playground equipment in the UK, bearing a message to remember bereaved mothers of the First World War for generations to come. The Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project runs until the end of November 2018, yet our hope is that these stories will continue to resonate with communities across the UK.

Sarah Giles is Director of Partnerships at Big Ideas, where she develops programmes, connects networks and helps community groups get involved in historical and cultural initiatives.

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To join the Motherhood project and access free resources and funding information, please email the Big Ideas team at mothers@big-ideas.org.

To attend the Motherhood, Loss and the First World War conference on the 5 and 6 September, please follow this link to book your tickets.

Two free, public evening events have been incorporated into the conference programme: a keynote lecture by Professor Susan Grayzel on 5 September, and an evening of music and readings exploring the relationship between mothers and their children on 6 September, composed and led by acclaimed violinist Clare Connors. Free tickets can be booked on the IHR website.

The Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project is led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with additional funding from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund to work in the Home Nations. The project is part of Remember Together, a series of First World War community commemoration programmes led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), with additional funding for select projects to work in the Home Nations from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund, and RAF100, through the Chancellor using LIBOR funds. Discover more at http://www.big-ideas.org.

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