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Financial struggles of war widows

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Marks of courage: three medals that were awarded to a Bermudian soldier in the First World War. From left are the 1914 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal
Lest we forget: the memorial in Victoria Park that lists the island's casualties in the First World War

Yesterday was Armistice Day, a time set aside in Bermuda and elsewhere to commemorate and remember all who died during the First World War (now more than 100 years ago), and the Second World War, in the ever-continuing fight for democracy against the forces of global tyrannical domination.

Bermuda's Roll of Honour records a total of 544 Bermudians serving in the First World War in the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps, while others served in armed forces of other Allied nations, including Britain and Canada. Ninety Bermudian men were lost in that war, fighting for Bermuda and the UK.

Memorial services are incredibly important sign of respect; war monuments are an enduring tribute to those who gave their lives for their country. We need to be reminded each year of how lucky we are to be where we are because of their ultimate sacrifice.

Those left behind

Widows, mothers, children of those lost sacrificed, too. They were never again to see these patriots, both men and women gone, and even as emotionally and financially bereft, they had no choice but pick up the pieces of their lives and to “carry on” in some fashion.

How did they?

How could they with such overwhelming grief?

Economic conditions

The UK economy during the First World War was under stress: shipping losses, rationing and shortages, billions in loans due to the US by the UK government, and high inflation rates — from 16 to 25 per cent.

Bermuda’s economy was greatly affected as well. The country was placed under martial law at the beginning of the First World War with an immediate economic impact. Loss of shipping products and tourism, paying for our troops abroad and income tax reductions to the local economy led to a liquidity crisis with Bermuda government that for the first time, issued its own banknotes.

Social roles of men and women in 1914

These are general observations relative to the UK, Canada, Australia, and Bermuda. Specific terms and conditions varied by country.

Men carried the family financial responsibilities as the higher-income or sole earner.

Women, generally, did not work outside the home. And if they did, they were paid significantly less.

Families tended to be quite large and were particularly needed in agrarian communities. Families were dependent upon adult children’s earnings as well.

Many also did not own homes. Resources for secondary education were not always available, while emphasis on trades, apprenticeships, etc. were more prevalent.

Young men also had the option of a career in the armed forces.

War losses and aftermath

War widows were generally notified by telegram, or by an army casualty death list. Specific information was scant given that a single battle could leave thousands of dead. One widow received a poignant hand-written letter from her husband’s commanding officer, who paraphrasing “apologised for the tardiness, but noted that his unit had been moved meanwhile to another front-line battle”.

Some family numbers were absolutely decimated, losing multiple sons (five sons, in one family) and a husband to war.

Widows and families placed great value in obtaining their lost soldier’s belongings, keepsakes, and medals. The anguish is poignantly etched in one widow’s letter to authorities, hoping to find her late husband’s watch and the ring she had given him.

The loss alone of so many men after the First World War in the UK (an estimated 900,000 died, with almost 30 per cent leaving widows) meant there was a staggering absence of male partners able to return to family life with their earnings power.

National pension acts

Widows, with few fallback resources, received war pensions that by today’s standards were miniscule, barely at a survival financial level for the lower ranks. Those with children were granted an additional dependent allowance.

• UK – 19 shillings six pence a week (equivalent value today is 3,300 UK pounds annually, or $3,870), plus another 10 shillings for dependents

• Australia – 20 shillings a week

• Canada – approximately the same

• Bermuda - six shillings/ six pence (the source for this is a pension card of a Bermudian member of the Bermuda Artillery who lost his life. This payment is so low in comparison that it appears it may have augmented a UK war pension allotment to his widow).

Historical narratives of the first three listed countries note that these pensions came with considerable social and political constraints.

Widows were expected to exhibit proper respectable behaviour, appropriate mourning attire, etc.

Pensions could be withdrawn if the recipient was “behaving in the wrong way,” for example:

• Drunkenness,

• Neglecting their children,

• Living out of wedlock with another man,

• Having an illegitimate child.

• Remarriage also terminated pension benefits.

Grieving and coping in the aftermath

Many women:

• Never remarried, raised their children alone

• Moved within a financially supportive family unit

• Went to work

• Started their own businesses.

They survived, but never to forget this time in their lives.

Generation of surplus women

Mylearning.org stated, “the 1921 the Census of England and Wales revealed a significant change in population statistics with almost twice as many women (1.72 million) than men.

Young women could no longer expect to marry a husband whose salary would support their family.

Social change accelerated. Women went to work, began independent lives, and in 1928, gained the right to vote in UK.

Bermudian women were not able to vote until 1944 and then as property owners. We honour and remember again our lost soldiers, but there is so much more to the narratives to be remembered.

How did families survive? What were financial challenges then?

Dear Readers, despite hours of research, there is considerable information missing that may not yet have been digitised. I could only locate three original documents of war pensions paid to Bermudian widows, nor find any anthologies of Bermudian war widows’ financial survival challenges.

If you feel comfortable, Please share your family’s First World War history with me. I’d like to start a section on this very important segment in Bermuda’s community and economy by posting them on the Bermuda Islander’s Financial Perspectives website, http://www.pondstraddler.com


Bermuda’s War Veterans, http://www.bermuda-online.org/warveterans.htm

Bermuda in 1914 with forces overseas, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/first-world-war/a-global-view/the-caribbean/bermuda/

War Widows of the ACT: The Forgotten Legacy of World War One, http://womenaustralia.info.

War Widows, https://www.mylearning.org/stories/how-the-first-world-war-affected-families/797

The Western Front Association was formed in 1980 to maintain interest in the period 1914-1918 of the Great War, https://www.westernfrontassociation.com/

Martha Harris Myron is a native Bermuda islander with US connections. Author of Bermuda’s First Financial Literacy Primer – the Dawn of New Beginnings, and the Bermuda – Bermy Island Finance Blog. Contact: martha.myron@gmail.com

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Published November 12, 2022 at 7:55 am (Updated November 12, 2022 at 8:30 am)

Financial struggles of war widows

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