Bessie Wallis (b. 1904) War and Memory

Bessie does not dedicate a lot of time in her memoir to the first World War, however what she does include is very interesting. As a young girl in full-time employment as a servant, she didn’t take part in the war efforts herself, or at least she did not write about it. However, she details how the beginning of the war caused problems in her family. Her father and his brother were “inseparable” and had joined the Marines together in August 1914 but when her father was “invalided out of the service with Tuberculosis” her uncle was sent to France marking the “first time the brothers had been separated.” This implies the profound impact the sending of men to fight had on close-knit families like those in West-melton.

Her father’s experience in the marines proved to have life-long consequences as he was “unable to take up his old job as a rope-splicer because of the dust.” The injustice of the system is highlighted as he did not receive a pension as he had not been wounded. Bessie believed he contracted T.B. because of the “inhumane” conditions the soldiers at Gallipolli had to endure, however “All the doctors said he had T.B. before he joined the marines.” meaning that her father did not get any support for his illness as it was seen to not be a result of his service.

Despite her father being out of work, Bessie stresses how she was proud of him as he had been “mentioned in Depatches and had gone to Buckingham Palace to receive a Distinguished Service Medal.” Additionally, she points out that “He was the first man in our village to win a medal for his bravery.” This shows how participating in the war and receiving a medal for bravery was a big deal in this small mining community.

It was fortunate that Bessie’s mother saved money in the effort to start raising chickens for extra dependable income otherwise i’d imagine the family would have struggled even more with money after her father came back from the Marines. In Bessie’s recollection it seems that being given a medal for bravery and service to the country did little to nothing to improve the life of her father and in fact, did more harm than good. It brings up an concept of bitterness in terms of what relief soldiers would get from the government after essentially risking their lives for their country in the war.

In terms of Bessie herself, she recounts a few war-themed experiences. One of these is when American troops stop outside her Auntie’s house for a rest on their way to London. In this passage, all the surrounding villagers made it their duty to tend to these soldiers, including bringing them tea “Everything was carried outside to these men. All along the road the cottagers were doing the same. The men were overwhelmed with this attention.”

The role of women was further documented as Bessie describes that by the nearby Chapel was a hospital for wounded soldiers, “Most of the lady workers at the Chapel took two men home each Sunday for tea.”

This presents solidarity with soldiers relying on the community for the social and physical support after coming back from duty. It didn’t matter to the cottagers that the men were Americans and not British, they were treated as soldiers and therefore people who deserved aid. It’s an inspiring exhibition of the perception of compassion and responsibility when not on the front-line – everyone can do their bit.

Bessie clearly remembered the day the end of the war was announced, “November the 11th 1918. No one who lived then will forget that day.” She and her Aunt found out through a neighbor “Major John” a man who appeared at their door and whom before this day “The only courtesies between the two neighboring houses had been to exchange daily greetings.”

This distant and passive relationship between houses was broken in order for Major John to announce the news. The weight of this occasion was enough to open a new “social contact” between the strangers.

In this section Bessie contemplates this news. “Four simple words to end the slaughter of a generation of males. It didn’t seem possible but oh! how many had died on both sides?”

She doesn’t express joy but considers the loss caused by the war. Major John shares this sentiment, “Major could do nothing but talk of the young men who had been sacrificed; the generation could never be replaced.” Both the Major and Bessie realize that the triumph of the war ending was overshadowed by the debilitating loss the country had experienced as a result of the conflict.

The Major also states that “London was gong wild with joy, his son had gone up but he felt beyond it now.” revealing the mixed response of the British population to the news.

One of the most fascinating parts of this reflection of war-time Britain is the turn in Bessie’s life just after this occasion, “I don’t know whether it was the end of the War or just urge in myself but I suddenly revolted. I was utterly tired of being a domestic skivvy.” It is almost as if this experience of war, the loss that came with it and the mixed feelings of astonishment and bereavement at it’s ending ignited a sentiment of rebellion and the desire to be independent. When she manages to afford to go home for the weekend, Bessie details her departure from her Aunt’s household back to her Yorkshire home, determined to never return to be a servant again.

Bibliography:

J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *