Mourning, Motherhood and the Great War

By Professor Joy Damousi, ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Laureate Fellow, Professor of History, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies.

The unprecedented scale of the trauma of loss and sorrow left an enduring legacy on those who remained to absorb the impact of individual and national tragedy. Rituals of mourning became embedded in cultural life during the inter-war years in ways not seen before or since. The end of the war may have signaled an end to hostilities, but the community of mourners it created in its wake – those millions effected by death – struggled to escape from the persistent shadow of bereavement. The wide circle of those effected – mothers, fathers, siblings, wives, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends – faced what Vera Brittain described as 'the long, empty years' after the war.

It was during these long, empty years that mourning became much more than a private matter. Those who died in the war were commemorated publicly: monuments and memorials – centrepieces for ceremony – rose to honour and remember the men who had made the ultimate sacrifice. The battlefields where combatants had fallen became places of pilgrimage for mourners who were irresistibly drawn to where the carnage took place, and to the cemeteries where their loved ones were buried, seeking an intimacy with the dead as a way for their own emotional wounds to begin to heal. At the same time, the public process of commemoration, memorial and reconciliation of grief also took on a non-physical form in which artistic expression, spiritualism and religion were utilized to imbue the war and the mourners' individual loss with meaning and a sense of higher purpose.

Mothers in particular grieved in ways which were unprecedented, as they were expected to disavow their grief and instead channel it into forms of patriotism.  In 1916, Mrs. Annie J. Williams was typical. Williams had four sons on active service. They had all served at Gallipoli, two of them invalided and another two wounded. The reportage of the sacrificial mother such as Annie Williams aimed to boost morale, support the war effort and allow mothers to share the honour of their sons. Mother's stature increased with the number of sons they had serving at the front.

After the war, a generation of grieving mothers searched to find new ways to articulate their grief, commemorate their loss and live with their bereavement. The cruel and enduring loss of those who continued to live with the shadow cast by war has allowed the experience of women and mothers in particular to find a place in the history of the Great War. Their journey of mourning is one of the most profound and significant legacies in our study of the war. The experience of the circle of mourners who formed as a result of the war – from the East or West, of whatever religion, culture or nation – is a part of all our histories. Their sacrifices, too, remain in our memories.