8/23/12 - she slept beside her husband's uniform

In today's encore excerpt - with the millions of deaths in World War I, the British and French governments decided to bury dead soldiers in mass graves at the battlefield instead of returning them home. This left tens of millions of grieving relatives with no sense of closure and an overwhelming desire for one last moment with those that had died:

"Spiritualist societies, already popular before the war, doubled in number. The relaying of comforting messages of reassurance from loved ones reaching out to their families from beyond the grave were seized on in particular by the middle and upper classes who could afford the expensive connections to the spirit world. 'Mysticism' became a household word in salons of grand houses. But as in the Ancient Greek kingdom of death, the Hades of Homer's poetry, the spirits had no substance and a reaching out to their elusive nothingness simply increased the hopelessness of the mourner. ...

"If tangible evidence of the presence of the dead was difficult to find, reminders of their existence became important. One young woman would sprinkle Ajax, a man's hairwash, on to her pillow each night. Another dressed a tailor's dummy in the full uniform of her dead Grenadier Guards husband and slept with it every night beside her bed. The clothes carried his smell and for a brief waking moment she could imagine her husband had returned. The widowed Lady Ailesbury would only allow herself to be kissed on the left cheek, the other remaining 'sacred to the memory of my dear Lord Ailesbury'. ...

"There were other ways to raise oneself from the stupor induced by the ending of the war. Long before the war was over an urgent need had developed to establish the precise manner and exact place of death of those lost on the battlefields of France. Many wished to see these alien, other-worldly sights before they were covered over. Personal columns ran advertisements offering photographs of individual war graves in France and Flanders costing thirty shillings for three prints. Enterprising companies accepted commissions for placing flowers and wreaths on graves. The French Government announced that widows, children and parents of French soldiers who had given their life for their country would be offered a day's free excursion to visit the graves of those they loved. Pilgrimage trains left Paris each morning for Albert, Arras and Rheims.

"In England newspapers carried advertisements for guided tours to the battlefields much as pre-war tourists had been enticed by special deals to seaside towns. Prices for package trips to the 'Devastated Areas' included hotels and cars and even an officer guide, if so desired, promoting an eerie holiday atmosphere. Visitors were recommended to bring their own food and to ensure they were dressed for the cold, while ammunition boxes that lay discarded everywhere conveniently suggested themselves as picnic tables, upended and laid with sandwiches, in the middle of this silent wasteland. ...

"There were almost daily casualties among the visitors from unexploded bombs as if the ghostly enemy was taking revenge from beneath the soil. ... While unexploded shells made it a dangerous place to be, unburied bodies made it a distressing place to visit even for the ghoulish. ...

"Women searching for a trace of comfort in the devastated landscape were seen plunging their bare hands into the earth and rummaging in the soil looking for any little token of evidence, however macabre. Raymond Asquith had described the sight of
'limbs and bowels resting in hedges'. But flesh had rotted over the months and another visitor, William Ewart's sister, who had lost her husband, failed to find him in the mud at Bapaume. However, the experience of looking at the precise landscape, the very trees and mounds of mud that her husband had seen in his last moments, brought her an unexpected and welcome relief. William Ewart reported that his sister left that place transfigured and that she 'went laughing into the world again ... nor has the dancing light ever left her gay blue eyes. Her ear responds, she laughs, she lives.' "


Juliet Nicolson


The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War


Grove Press


Copyright 2009 by Juliet Nicolson


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment