War’s long shadow

One hundred years since Anzac, and the men and women who fought the Great War are no longer with us. The last Anzac was Alec Campbell, who died aged 103 in 2002, and the last Australian World War One soldier was John Campbell Ross, who died in 2009 aged 110. Wikipedia has a list of the longest-lived veterans of the First World War from all countries, but after the 2012 death of Florence Green, who had served in the Royal Women’s Air Force as an officer’s mess steward and lived to the age of 111, no person who saw active service in World War I remains alive.

Yet the Great War still has a first-generation effect, because there are 115 living widows of World War One veterans surviving in Australia. I don’t know how old the oldest of these widows might be, but it seems clear that most of the survivors hadn’t even been born at the time of the Great War — they married returned soldiers who were much older than themselves, many years after the war. The Department of Veterans Affairs knows their names, because most of them will still be receiving war widows’ pensions, revealing how long the costs of war linger.

Ten of these WWI widows will travel to Gallipoli this year, representing those too frail to fly, and creating a link with the men who fought and fell there. I feel a little unsettled when I read that most of the widows say their husbands never spoke about the war, as they’d moved on with their lives and chose not to remember. Thinking of the widows’ presence on Gallipoli gives me a feeling of bones being rattled, of something new and not quite right entering these old marriages, but then if anyone has a right to rattle those bones it’s the women who took the old soldiers and sailors on and loved them while they lived out the rest of their lives. I guess the cameras will pan over their tear-stained faces when they broadcast the Dawn Service there, and I might end up shedding a few myself.

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