07/07/2023 War Widows’ Stories: Women, Conflict, & Welfare in Post-War Britain

Military Welfare History Network Conference, 7 July 2023, University College Dublin.

In the public imagination, a war widow is a woman whose husband was killed in active service, during battle. Yet, this description only applies to a minority of today’s war widows, a diverse group of women who face complex circumstances following the death of their spouse. Few sources document their experiences, and their voices and experiences are an essential yet largely absent part of British history in general, and British military history in particular. Their lives, and especially their experiences of the welfare system, provide invaluable insights into attitudes towards women, war, and the family.

This paper builds on the work of War Widows’ Stories, a participatory project that, in partnership with the War Widows’ Association of Great Britain, documents, analyses, and raises awareness of the lives of war widows in Britain, past and present. I will consider the life narratives gathered in two dozen extensive oral history interviews as well as those captured in the squares of the War Widows’ Quilt. Made from second-hand armed forces shirts by over 100 war widows and their families, the War Widows’ Quilt is a moving piece of participatory art, each square telling a different story of love, loss, and grief. Drawing on these sources, the paper discusses both the project’s findings so far, including war widows’ identities as a group on the periphery of the military community, and the challenges of capturing women’s experiences of war widowhood and the military welfare system.