Remembrance Sunday has a particular significance this year as it marks the centenary of the First World War armistice, yet few remember the First and Second World War widows who following the foundation of the War Widows’ Association (WWA) in 1971 campaigned to be allowed to take part in remembrance activities held at the Cenotaph in London. War widows’ pension was introduced in 1914, but this campaigning organisation gave widows a voice.
Widows found their exclusion from the Cenotaph Service of Remembrance particularly hurtful. This exclusion had come about, as Adrian Gregory points out, when the Armistice Day commemorations were amalgamated into Remembrance Sunday, in 1946.[i] Consequently, Remembrance Sunday produced a variety of emotions among WWA members; the ceremonies were an outward sign the country had not forgot their husbands’ sacrifices. However the ceremonies also highlighted successive governments’ hypocrisy, as outward displays of honour to the dead ran alongside the penury of many war widows.
The leaders of the WWA utilised the media spotlight on their loss in the first two weeks of November to persuade newspapers, radio and television to cover their campaign to get income tax removed from war widows’ pension. After all, men disabled by war received their pensions tax-free. War widows, excluded from the official ceremony, began holding their own ceremony in 1972. On the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday they laid a white cross on the Cenotaph, which was removed and discarded by officials before the official service the next day. War widows returned and retrieved their cross after the Remembrance ceremony, one year finding it thrown over nearby railings.
In 1973 two war widows, Laura Connolly and Francis Willis[ii] interrupted the two minute silence at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday, by shouting ‘What about the war widows?’ According to the Daily Express report: ‘Police scrambled through the crowds and put hands over the women’s mouths as they led them away.[iii] The incident caused a furore and many within government, service and ex-service organisations such as the Royal British Legion (RBL) condemned the action. The predominantly hostile reaction to the widows’ interruption of the two minutes silence at the cenotaph illustrates expectations on war widows to comply with gender specific behaviour, to be both passive and respectable.[iv] The actions of Laura Connolly and Francis Willis struck a discordant note at a ceremony intended to display a nation united under the monarch, paying homage to their dead and apparently showing solidarity with and care for their surviving spouses.
Even some war widows felt ill at ease and uncertain how to respond to the two women’s direct action. The Chairman of the WWA Jill Gee, was at first sympathetic but eventually condemned their tactics, as harmful to the WWA’s campaigns: ‘because a number of influential people were offended….however well intended, it is necessary to choose our plans of campaign with care’.[v] WWA members writing letters to their MPs to demand their inclusion in the service was considered a less contentious tactic. Most of the replies they received have not survived but Shirley Summerskill, a Junior Minister at the Home Office in 1976 explained that :
…The Cenotaph ceremony is strictly confined to Parliamentary and national representatives…I am afraid that it would not be possible for an exception to be made so as to permit the participation of war widows. [original emphasis] The wreath laid by the Queen at the Cenotaph is, however, a tribute on behalf of all the peoples of this country and throughout the Commonwealth, and this includes war widows and others who have suffered bereavement as a result of war.[vi]
This letter was used by the WWA to attract public and newspapers, radio and television companies took up the story.[vii]
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, the WWA used their exclusion from the Cenotaph to highlight their fight for both higher and tax-free pensions. Eventually the publicity around the widows exclusion the Cenotaph service forced the Home Office and the RBL to propose a compromise. This would allow a limited amount of war widows to march to the Cenotaph as part of the Women’s Section of the RBL and for the WWA’s wreath to be laid by a member of the RBL Women’s Section. Unsurprisingly, this was not a compromise the WWA felt able to accept and the RBL displayed some resentment at war widows rejection of their traditionally passive role and taking matters into their own hands. Hence the WWA largely remained outside the ex-service community, regarded by both government and the older more established groups as interlopers.
The War Widow’s Association style was often confrontational and sometimes critical of the RBL work for the welfare of war widows. There is evidence that the RBL responded by both ignoring and deploring the WWA activities and alternatively attempted to incorporate them into the mainstream official ex-service community, thereby silencing their confrontational stance during the 1970s and early 1980s. However in 1982, ten years after the war widows’ campaign began, it was finally agreed they should be represented at the Cenotaph and allowed to march, as they still do. Nevertheless, they continue to hold their own service and wreath laying ceremony on the Saturday before the official ceremony. Their wreath is still removed, but now it is taken care of by officials and carefully replaced at the Cenotaph once the official ceremony is over.
Janis Lomas has worked as a lecturer in social and women’s historian for over twenty five years ending her career at the University of Birmingham. She has been associated with Women’s History Network since its inception; having founded WHN-Midlands Region and served on the National Steering Committee of the Women’s History Network for several years.
[i] Gregory Adrian. The Silence of Memory, Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford Berg, 1994) p.215
[ii] Francis Willis, a Second World War widow, whose father had been killed in the First World War, was also charged with criminal damage in February 1981, when she sprayed red paint on the Cenotaph to protest against the treatment of war widows.
[iv] Something I have discussed elsewhere see – Lomas, Janis. “‘Delicate duties’: issues of class and respectability in government policy towards the wives and widows of British soldiers in the era of the great war.” Women’s History Review 9, no. 1 (2000): 123-147.
[v] WWA Newsletter, March 1974, War Widows’ Archive, Staffordshire University.
[vii] The media took up the story from 1973 onwards therefore there must have been a previous letter from the Home Office stating that war widows could not be included. Mention of such a letter is made in later Home Office correspondence, but the letter itself appears not to have survived.