Family Mourning and the First World War

Public institutions are increasingly using personal stories from the First World War to provide an empathetic and personal access point to what could otherwise be an overwhelming conflict. Often, although not always, these tales include ones of profound loss; a last letter home displayed alongside details of the author’s death. While these stories illustrate the pathos of war, it is only recently that investigations into what these items have meant to families over time have begun.

During the conflict and in the immediate aftermath people mourned. Many people instinctively sought to remember their personal losses in as traditional a way as possible. Immediately upon the death of a soldier, comrades wrote letters to grieving parents, offering an epistolary comfort that would have been physically relayed to the bereaved at a funeral. Families continued to print obituaries in local newspapers, some yearly upon the anniversary of their loved one’s death. Printed ‘In Memoriam’ cards with biblical verses and portraits of the deceased were produced as a memento to send to friends and family.

When Next of Kin Memorial Plaques were released by the government in 1919 they were often framed and hung on a wall, sometimes with the accompanying scroll. Commercial frames were produced to house them but many families created a way of hanging or preserving the plaque themselves. For example, some made embroidered bags, homemade frames, and even soldered chains to the back of their plaque to hang it on a wall.

Each soldier automatically received both a Victory and a Defence medal for having fought and these too were sometimes included in the memorial tableaux being created in the home. Cards that were sent home might be framed, and portraits of men, often in military uniform, were hung above mantelpieces and in hallways. Personal items, sent home by the War Office, might be kept in a secure place and used as an additional way to help remember a loved one.

These printed memorials, official and unofficial items, were in some cases passed down through the family line, in other cases donated to museums, or were sometimes discarded in a move or upon the death of the one who kept them.

The centenary of the First World War is a time where families can look back: do they have a relative who fought in the war? Did they survive? The centenary has allowed us to pause and reflect on what we know, and what we still need to record for future generations.

In light of this, several initiatives have formed to try and document family stories before they fade away. Projects such as the Great War Archive and Europeana 1914-1918 have conducted ‘Antiques Roadshow’ type events where people bring their family items and have them digitised for others to learn from. For those unable to attend in person, there are now several online platforms where one can share their family story, such as the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website.

The amount of information that family members know about their ancestor’s life is highly variable. Sometimes they retain a very clear vision of their ancestors and can discuss at great length their significance to the family. They know how their memorial items have moved house, when, with whom, and to where. Often, although certainly not always, what is passed down between the generations are a couple of items, alongside an anecdote or two. Others know almost nothing and some only know that a family member participated in the conflict.

Some prefer to share their stories within local communities instead of globally. In communities across the country, with the recent resurgence of interest in the war among local history groups and the support provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, more people than ever are aware of their military forbearers. Some groups provide what could be considered a ‘family military history service’ and research names on a local war memorial, sharing what they find with the living relatives of the deceased and allowing the family (if they so desire) to create a new memory of them, one complicated by the common perception of the war that has been built over the last hundred years.

At a time when many families are visible because of their contributions to these remembrance initiatives it is worth briefly noting that not everybody wants to share their story. Many families see their history as highly personal and so do not share their tales.

People choose to remember in whichever way best suits them and their family: globally, locally, privately, or a mixture of the three. Because it is such a personal matter people react differently to it. As a result of this there are a lot of ways of remembering family members from the First World War. As we look to the future, family memory is currently changing again in reaction to the centenary and the public press it has received. Memorials are being dug out of cupboards and half-forgotten stories re-emerging. People are re-remembering. The family is here to stay.

The image above shows a Next of Kin memorial plaque sent to the mother of William Hugh Owen(s), which was framed and polished by her every day. The plaques were designed to dull over time, representing the quieting of grief, but some ritualised the cleaning of the plaques as a personal memorial act to the deceased. It can be found in the Great War Archive.