Children of the Great War

By Denise Winterman

9 November 2007 / BBC News

World War I saw the biggest loss of fathers in modern British history and those that did return carried the mental and physical scars. But what of the children haunted by the heroism of dads they barely knew?

"She told me my father was dead and I would have to be the man of the house. I thought 'mum, I'm only five years old'. But I had to stand up and be counted - and I did."

To this day being told the news of his father's death is still vivid in Donald Overall's memory. Over 500,000 children lost their father in World War I. It was the biggest loss of fathers in modern British history. Those who did return carried the mental and physical scars.

The impact on their sons and daughters was devastating and never forgotten by them. For 90 years many have been haunted by the heroism of fathers they barely knew and in some cases never even met.

Remembrance of the 750,000 British soldiers who lost their lives has long been one of the nation's most important rituals and will be marked on Sunday, along with Armistice Day.

But the impact on their children is an aspect of the tragedy that's rarely explored. So how did they cope? And for those who did get their dad back, could home life ever return to normality after the horror of what their fathers had been through?

When war began in 1914 more than two million men dutifully volunteered to serve King and country. Fathers enlisted alongside young, single men in a wave of patriotic fervour.

Treasured memories

As the pressure on the British forces increased, the government was forced to introduce conscription and raise the upper age limit for service from 38 to 41. It meant even more fathers went to war.

Back home families waited anxiously for news. Home leave was unpredictable and was generally granted around once a year. It usually only lasted three days, but could be every bit as good as the propaganda films suggested.

Home leave meant Mr Overall's father could put him to bed for the first time ever and it remains one of his most treasured memories.

"To me he was everything, he was a man that I wanted to be like," he says. "He carried me upstairs on his left shoulder... my head was against his face and I can remember seeing his ears, and smelling his khaki and smelling his tobacco."

But many fathers were virtual strangers to their children and had to work hard to win the trust of a young child who they had yet to establish a bond with.

Returning to the front after was hard. The awful carnage of trench warfare was often left out of letters home. The men chose to deny the horror by putting on a brave face and clinging to comforting events at home, like birthdays.

Lost for words

"My mother had told my dad that my second birthday was coming along and I wanted an engine," says George Musgrave. "He'd been injured at the time and somehow... he drew me an engine and that is an engine that's remained vividly in my mind and has always linked me to him."

From 1916 onwards the numbers killed on the Western Front increased dramatically. The bad news arrived by telegram or by letter and the impact was devastating.

"Mother opened it, she read the telegram and collapsed on the floor... I was holding on to her skirt," recalls Mr Overall.

Some mothers found it impossible to tell their children of their father's death and they were left to find out elsewhere. Fathers themselves were also lost for words when it came to telling their families they were close to death. Last letters home often remained stoic and cheerful despite the hopelessness of the situation.

But for children with no, or little, memory of their fathers, the effect of their deaths was incomprehensible.

"I boasted about it to my friends I'm afraid," says Charles Chilton. "I didn't know my father, I didn't have any feeling for him, he was a photograph hanging on the wall. I'd never seen him, never touched him."

The worst news of all for a family was to learn that their father had been shot for cowardice. It was the fate of 306 British soldiers to be shot at dawn.

'Hard to cry'

Harry Farr was shot at dawn on 18 October 1916. For his daughter Gertrude Harris, and her mother, the tragedy was compounded by shame. Her father's war pension was stopped and they were asked to leave their rented accommodation. They were homeless and penniless.

They went to work for a wealthy family in Hampstead, and were treated well. But their situation always felt precarious and Gertrude was told to behave and never to cry in case she was heard.

"Now as an adult I find it very, very hard to cry," says Mrs Harris. "I think that was something that was suppressed in me when I was little."

When the war ended in 1918 the soldiers who returned home were feted as heroes. But carrying the scars of fighting in the trenches often made their reintegration into normal family life difficult. The full horror of their ordeal often remained unspoken.

"I remember asking my mother why my father slept in the way he did," says Mabel McCoy. "I don't know how he managed but he wrapped the sheet and the blanket completely round his head... covering his eyes with just his nose sticking out.

"My mother's answer was that he had to sleep like that in the war because he was very afraid of rats.

"It was very difficult for me as a small child to understand why my father never spoke about his experiences in the war."

The returning soldiers had been promised homes fit for heroes, but with the post-war economy in turmoil many had to endure further hardship and poverty.

New breadwinners

It was most difficult of all for war widows, who had to get by on a meagre army pension. Some remarried, often for the sake of the children. But the loss of so many men in the war meant that competition for their hand in marriage was fierce.

Even when a woman was successful in finding a new breadwinner it was often difficult for the children to accept their new father, as Mabel Howatt's mother discovered.

"From now on we are a family and he's your dad and he's the breadwinner, so you've got to be thankful that we have somebody to look after us," she told her daughter.

For some the battles continued. Gertrude Harris campaigned for the pardon of the 306 men shot by firing squad for cowardice. It took 15 years to win the case.

"I was so happy for it to be proven that my father was not a coward and he was a brave soldier as my mother said," she says. "Every year when she watched the Armistice she used to see the veterans walking along and say 'my Harry should have been amongst them'."

For others, they are still mourning the loss of their father and always will.

"I miss him, I missed him when I was a boy and now I miss him as an old man," says Mr Overall. "I've never forgotten, I never will, never will."

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