May Rainer War and Memory (b. 1909) – Writing Lives

May Rainer War and Memory (b. 1909)

In the beginning of May Rainer’s memoir, she writes about her Grandfather’s time during the Zulu War and how it affected his life afterwards. She writes that ‘the battle lasted until all the men were exhausted.’ (Rainer, 2) Her Grandfather’s experience, she thought, was of importance and she wanted the future of her family to know about it. In The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and its Fall in the Zulu War 1879, Donald Morris states that ‘Only one professional historian had ever glanced at the Zulu War’ (Morris, 12) This shows how sometimes history can be forgotten and it is up to us to write it down.

zulu battle
The Zulu War

Rainer identifies as a feminist a numerous times in this memoir, and it shows through the way she writes about the war. She recognises (when many people do not) how women also suffered during the war. She writes that, ‘The wives went everywhere the men went and suffered the same diseases.’ (Rainer, 4) Although Rainer’s Grandfather was the one fighting during the war, she realises that the war did not just affect her, but her Grandmother too. We are all aware of the soldiers who suffer during the wars, but Rainer makes sure that we are aware of the women whose lives were affected as well, as they were the ones who were getting ill as well.

When her Grandfather died, his medals were sold. ‘When Grandfather died in 1906 his three medals were in the pawnshop in the Kings Road Fullham…’ (Rainer, 2) Her Grandfather had risked his life to serve his country in the war, and all he gained from it was the three medals that were later on sold to strangers to pay his debt. This shows how the soldiers were not taken care of during her Grandfather’s time:  ‘The whole of their story seems to me now, to be little short of a tragedy, especially when I think of some unknown person having the Medals for which he suffered so much, when they have no right, save for greed for holding them.’ (Rainer, 5) Rainer expresses her anger through the change of tone in her writing. She recognizes the pain and suffering her grandparents went through during the war and all for someone else to claim a false victory with his medals. His death, Rainer writes, signifies how little respect he was given. ‘Even Grandfather was buried in a public grave in Fulham, what an ending to the life of a hero.’ (Rainer, 5) Rainer did not agree with her Grandfather being buried just anywhere, when she thought he was a hero.

Rainer was born in the early 20th century, so she lived through both world wars. She was a child during the first and a mother with her own children during the second.  She writes f about the harsh reality of the way the soldiers were treated after the First World War ended:  ‘the men began to return to their homes, most of them unsung heroes as usual, suffering from all kinds of health troubles, most of them without prospect of work and long queues at the Labor Exchanges.’ (Rainer, 40) She had previously written that her Grandfather was a hero after being in the Zulu War, but she writes the soldiers that she saw were still ‘unsung heroes’. This shows how the reality of war is different to the fantasy and how the country betrayed the soldiers.

Rainer also writes about her own personal experience of the Second World War. ‘The first time the Air raid siren sounded, almost immediately after the Prime Minister had made his announcement, we all ran round in circles not knowing what to expect, it was a shock to us all.’ (Rainer, 105) This is the reality of war, the shock and the confusion. Rainer did not know what to do and did not know what to expect. War was brought onto them and they were left to create their own lives during it. Rainer made sure that the war would not ruin her life. ‘As the War dragged on we began to hold social evenings in the shelters, entertaining our friends, playing cards.’ (Rainer, 105) She made sure that she was living and enjoying her life during the war by socialising with her friends: ‘we managed to enjoy life’ (Rainer, 196). That is the way May Rainer was. She always made the best out of a difficult situations and never let outside factors ruin her life.



Morris, Donald, The Washing of the Spears: A History of the Rise of the Zulu Nation Under Shaka and Its Fall in the Zulu War of 1879, Random House, 1994

Rainer, May, Emma’s Daughter, May 20th 1977, Brunel University, July 1977, Vol 2. 0644

World War Two-

Zulu War Image-

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