Jackie Sheehan: cheers, tears and fears on the home front

November 18, 2005

WAR, WOMEN AND SURVIVAL
Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham University, until December 15

As the average cost of a wedding in Britain today rises to a reported Pounds 15,000, it is refreshing to reflect on one marriage during the Second World War commemorated in this wide-ranging exhibition.

The East Midlands bride was resplendent in parachute-silk knickers, a dress made from the product of six months' clothing rations and a veil that later did duty as curtains in the marital home. She went on to enjoy a cycling honeymoon in Derbyshire's Miller's Dale, a full year after the ceremony, the earliest time at which the groom could get leave.

In the propaganda materials on display - the "Make do and mend" posters and recipes for meatless meatballs - female cheerfulness in the face of home-front adversity is, of course, the norm.

But the personal letters, diaries and reminiscences of real women also convey a genuine sense of pride and enjoyment in the roles that opened up to them in wartime. Whether in high-pressure jobs such as code-breaking at Bletchley, with its "a minute lost is a life lost" motto, or in the Land Army, where proficiency certificates in milking and dairy work could be earned, for many this would be the first time in their lives that their skills and achievements had gained any formal recognition or praise.

Not that narrow horizons were the norm for the region's women during the First World War - as the diaries of a young Nottinghamshire girl serving as nurse in Russia in 1914 show.

Elsewhere, Florence Nightingale, the famous founder of such efforts, is praised by the fifth Duke of Newcastle under Lyme as being "no rambly philanthropist, but one whose head as well as heart is thoroughly in her work".

Her young successor displays the same qualities, turning from a matter-of-fact account of the hospital's daily routine to write tenderly of the death of a favourite patient, a soldier whose "big brown eyes" and dignity in his final hours would long keep him in her memory.

If women's contributions to the war effort are generally appreciated for the duration - as the display of women's medals indicates - once hostilities are over, not only their work but also their particular losses and needs are too often forgotten.

In the aftermath of the recent conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan, the formal settlements paid little attention to remedies for the uses and abuses to which women had been put, leaving it to international non-governmental organisations such as Women For Women International to help many new widows make their way in patriarchal societies with little provision for the unmarried.

And what of the men who returned to family life after being away at the front? After years of service, they came home, often physically or mentally scarred, to wives accustomed to making their own decisions and to small children who scarcely knew them and to whom they could be frightening figures.

The importance of keeping in touch through letters is nowhere more movingly brought out than in the greetings cards from the First World War.

These include a Christmas card sending "Greetings from Arras", carefully decorated with images of holly and mistletoe. The homesick soldier who sent it could have seen neither leaf nor berry alive in that terrible wasteland of mud and shattered trees.

Jackie Sheehan is senior lecturer in contemporary Chinese studies at Nottingham University.

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