The history of women in the Great War tends to be told in terms of nursing, munitions work and other new directions for young women. Many, like Edie Bennett of Walthamstow, had a war that largely goes untold: getting by and waiting for her husband’s return. The story of her war, her love and her pining for her husband seems fitting for Valentine’s day
Edith Ellis married Edwin Bennett in August 1912 in St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow. Three years later, their daughter Ruby Winifred Bennett was born in September 1915. A few months later, Edwin signed up for the Derby Scheme, under which he was called up for military service in August 1916, leaving mother and baby back at home at 34 Byron Road.
Through the letters exchanged between them, we get a picture of a nervous and dedicated wife fretting about the fate of her family in the Great War. While Edwin (whom she referred to as ‘Welsh’) was in training as a Royal Artillery gunner, she clearly missed him greatly and hoped that the war would be over before his training was over. Sadly, it wasn’t and in August 1917 he was sent to Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) – a mixed blessing for Edie since he was safer there than in France, but his letters took up to four months to arrive, rather than the four or five days post from the Western Front normally took.
Through the last two years of the war, Edie lived through air raids that further rattled her nerves and frightened her daughter. She left Walthamstow for holidays a few times and talked about moving away permanently, but remained at Byron Road. In her letters she tried to put a brave face on it with talk of ‘fireworks’ and occasional light comments on the raids, but she clearly suffered greatly from the fear they inspired.
Another major worry was the increasing price of food and, as 1917 came to an end, shortages of tea, margarine, meats and other products. Like many Londonders, she spent hours queuing for these basic necessities – standing outside a butcher’s for two and a half hours in January 1918 and only being able to buy sausages and tinned meat once she did get to the till.
Along with the air raids, the shortages reinforced her hatred of the Germans, who seemed to be tried to starve her and little Ruby to death. Friends took her out to the theatre to relieve her stress but it didn’t really cheer her up as she still worried about Edwin off at war.
At the end of February rationing was applied to a range of foods in London, though, largely resolving the problem of queues at least. Still, the war continued with no sign of an end – although Edie pinned her hopes on each new development to bring the war to an end and to bring Edwin back to her. Her feelings can hardly have been helped by Ruby’s questioning about why her father didn’t come home, while most other men they knew came back from France at some point on leave or wounded.
Eventually, the war did end. Edie wrote hoping that Edwin might be back by Christmas – a wish shared by their three-year-old daughter. In fact they had to wait longer, but eventually he did return safely in the summer of 1919. Hopefully Edie’s life returned to normal and the nervous wife of the war years was able to relax and enjoy life with Welsh and Ruby.
If you want to read Edith Bennett’s letters, they are the major part of the collection catalogued under Edwin’s name at the IWM, along with his letters and some from other people.