Women and the Somme
By ALEX BURGHART
This week I have been thinking about my great grandmother, Sybil Maidment, who was born in 1895 and grew up in Somerset. For the last few years of her life, until she died in 1987, she lived with my parents and me. I adored her. If asked why I’m interested in history, I say it’s because I knew her and because she had known her grandmother, Grandma Prince, born in 1815, whose parents had known life before the French Revolution.
As the country dredges up the horror and pathos of the Somme a hundred years on, I have been remembering how, more than thirty years ago, I first came to hear of the First World War. I was seven, or thereabouts, and going about my first paid job – taking my great grandmother (or Nanny, as I called her) her morning tea. I was paid 10p a week for the task – a great sum of money for a seven-year-old in 1985 – on condition that I did not tell my parents that I was adding whisky to the mix (years later, I discovered that they knew). This, itself, was an act of familial historical significance – as a girl, Nanny had been employed to lace Grandma Prince’s tea with gin.
Nanny would take tiny sips from her huge cup and saucer as we talked with the curtains still drawn. Most of the time she’d tell me stories. One morning I asked her why her friend, Miss H., had never married. And she told me about a terrible war in which all the young men had gone away and had not come back. It made me cry. It makes me cry now.
My great grandfather, Harry (or Gramp), who died shortly before I was born, had been exempt from military service on account of a heart murmur. This marked an odd quirk in evolutionary history whereby biological weakness made it more likely that your DNA might be passed on. So it was that Sybil and Harry had each other and a daughter and Miss H. had no one, or at least no one of her own. She worked for the local butcher and when he died, much to the shock of the town, he left her – and not his wife – the shop. We never knew whether this was love – but if it was, it was symptomatic of an age in which there were not enough men to go round.
The Somme and its war are largely masculine in their imagery. Men in uniform, men in mud, men in death. Young men in black and white caught in the teeth of an industrial atrocity. The 744,000 British men whose names are writ in stone were all sons, and many were brothers to sisters and husbands to wives. But a great multitude were not married and the women they never married, never married either. A generation of maiden aunts were widowed before they were wed.
In 1917, a senior mistress is supposed to have said to a sixth form girls' school: "I have come to tell you a terrible truth. Only one out of ten of you girls can ever hope to marry. This is a statistical fact. Nearly all the men you might have married have been killed. You will have to make your way in the world as best you can". By the census of 1921, after Spanish influenza had torn through post-war Europe, there were 1.9 million more women than there were men in Britain. Press and politicians came to call them, somewhat coldly, the Surplus Women.
These women did indeed make their way as best they could and, in so doing, set in motion a world in which their sex was less defined by marriage. But if, as D. H. Lawrence wrote, mutual love is "like a magnet’s keeper / closing the round", then, for very many, the decades that followed were incomplete. Their sacrifice deserves no less remembrance.