“It’s difficult to say ‘thy will be done’, but God plans all these things for the best, so I must be brave, along with other mothers and wives, who have lost in this dreadful war.” So wrote Bessie Walker of York in November 1918. Her husband of only six weeks had died in the final weeks of the First World War, one of the 11 million servicemen on all sides to lose his life.
The letter is one of 120 discovered at Ormesby Hall, Middlesbrough, and newly published through a partnership between Teeside University and the Heritage Lottery Fund. They were addressed to Mary Pennyman, secretary of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers widows and orphans fund, in response to letters of condolence to the regiment’s bereaved wives and mothers.
What painful reading those letters are. Through an age in which it must have seemed as though He had averted His eyes from the earth, the grieving constantly rededicate themselves to God and the ideals they believed themselves to be fighting for. “You will see my sorrow is heavy, but by the help of God I will try to cheer myself by nursing others,” Agnes Septon, another widow, wrote. Only after the ordeal of war did that commitment disintegrate under the weight of the sacrifice made to it.
It is hard to explain what the Great War did to Europe and Christian civilisation once it had passed, other than to say that it was like a rape. The violence had been appalling, the body had suffered dreadfully and now the mind suffered still more. The Europe that survived the war had lost the faculty of trust. It became sensuous, sad and careless of itself, and has remained that way.
The war is never far from my mind in this tough old country. How can it be when each church and every cross on the green cries out for its dead inscribed? When almost every town in the country mutely transcribes in its buildings the collapse of the faithful vitality of the Edwardian age into the cheap brutalism of the late 20th century? When to pick up a book from that era leaves you haunted by what was and what is, and the unbridgeable distance between the two?
One of the main ways in which the collapse of faith in the old values came after World War I was the gradual retreat from the demands of adulthood. Many modern adults want desperately to be children: they dress in plimsolls, play with electronic toys and live the life of sensation which is properly left in infancy. They have a child’s moral sense: easily outraged, wholly subjective and yet ignorant of sin and the need to protect themselves from it.
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