Living Under The Shadow Of The Great War

The Great War (World War one) might have taken place a hundred years ago, but it has affected the world’s history as well as the lives of countless persons. And for people like Anthony Seldon, even though he did not witness the war, he has been living his life under its shadows.

Make no mistake, the Great War was not named so because it was wonderful or excedptional. Nothing is great about wars. It was named great because of how huge and involved it was. In Britain alone, about 900,000 servicemen lost their lives – while many were left withopen scars.

Sharing his grandparents’ tale of love, loss and courage – Anthony tell the tale of passion and sufferingthat existed between Eileen Stenhouse and Wilfred Willett. Two people world’s apart but brought together through love. While Eileen was from an aristocratic family that descended from Horatio Nelson, Wilfred was from a middle class family.

When the couple met in the summer of 1913 , Eileen was just 20. And because of their different social classes, Eileen kept her relationship a secret from her family whom she feared will not accept Wilfred. By early 1914, after many secret meetings and stolen moments together, the couple married secretly in a register office.

Soon after, it was difficult for Eileen to keep her relationship secret. Wilfred, who was studying medicine at the London Hospital has decided to sign up for the British army and fight for his country. Without telling Eileen, he secretly registered as a second lieutenant in the London Rifle Brigade.

According to Anthony, in her mother’s memoir titled Poppies & Roses, his mother described the bitter argument that went on between his grandparents when Wilfred finally told Eileen he’s signed up to go to war. Eileen tried to convince him he didn’t have to fight as he’ll be qualifying as a doctor in a few months, just like the war will be over in a few months. She told him his services as a doctor will be needed in England. But Wilfred insisted that was the more reason he wanted to go, that he wanted to do his bit for his country.

When Eileen realised her resistance was unsuccessful, she decided it was to time accept it. The couple also decided to inform their parents about their wedding as the consequences oftheir silence could be more severe if Wilfred was killed. A church wedding with special licence was then arranged by their parents who felt they needed a proper marriage even though already legally married.

While helping a British soldier wounded by the German’s, Wilfred was shot in the temple by a German sniper. Distressed from a telegraph message that say’s Wilfred was terribly injured, Eileen wanted to travel to France to visit her husband. But she was refused travel permit by the War Office as well as the Foreign Office.

Desperate to visit her husband, she asked to see someone important. With tears and charm, she was able to convince the officer to grant her travel documents. Her permit were signed by Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary.

Armed with her documents, she travelled to France where she  saw Wilfred loosing strength and consciousness in the hospital. Realising only wilfred’s professor at London Hospital could save him, she insisted they release him so he could taken him back to London.

After some resistance, the hospital released him and he started his recovery in London. But because the bullet wasstuck in his brain, his speech and body movement became restricted, the Mail Online reports.

It dawned on Wilfred that his career as a doctor was over. With that realisation came his frustration and depression. With many rejections as a writer, his ruined relationship with Henry Williamson who was a source of solace to him in the 1920s, strained family relationships especially with his son – Wilfred became a difficult man to live with.

Living with a father who has lost so much and changed so much took a heavy toll on Eileen and their three children. They all lived in anxiety. And according to Anthony, his mother transferred this anxiety to him. As a result, he has been living his life under the shadow of the Great War.

Many stories and books have been published about Eileen and Wilfred. While they may be some of the few people whose stories has been given a wide audience, many died, while others were damaged in mind or body as a result of the great war.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE