# War widows: the homeland despite it all!

War widows carried a particular status, one that was often hard to bear. (Francisco Goya - Mournful Foreboding of What is to Come)  - Public domain ©

War widows carried a particular status, one that was often hard to bear. (Francisco Goya - Mournful Foreboding of What is to Come) - Public domain ©

They've lost their men, the pillars of their homes. They are the war widows. Spouses of the men killed in combat or of civilians killed at the hands of the enemy in an occupied country, they are the symbol of a country's pain. They will also be living witnesses of the barbarity of war while bearing perpetual mourning, and society sometimes has trouble, at least in the immediate after-war period, allowing them to "rebuild their lives", even though this is allowed. Fewer in number than the French "sorrow-stricken sisters", given the smaller number of Belgian men who had gone to the front, their profiles differ: from the young bride of a few weeks before the general mobilisation to the mother of a numerous family, there are as many war widows as there are men who have cut down by the bullets, but they all share the grief of having lost a spouse due to war. Let's have a look at how they lived.

War widows: becoming a widow and bearing the mourning of the brave

The change of a woman's status from wife to widow most often involves the arrival of a letter or telegram. In the occupied zone, communication is difficult, letters are checked and most of the time have to be smuggled. Information therefore comes slowly, and several weeks and even months can go by between the time when a soldier is killed and his family is informed of his death. In the absence of recent news, some people only learn of the death of a relative after the armistice, not to mention the women whose husbands will succumb to injuries or illnesses and will become widows after the signing of peace treaties.

As such, a simple note informs the spouse of her loss and, often without even having a body over which to cry right away, the spouse becomes the widow of a soldier killed in combat. This absence of a body can be represented by a picture of the lost, placed on the mantle. To express her grief and as an external sign of her loss, the widow dresses in mourning clothes and locks herself into an image from which some will have difficulty escaping. With time and circumstances, she will sometimes, but not without difficulty, manage to relieve herself of this heavy label, but many of them will remain "the widow of soldier X", especially for the companion at arms of her spouse. Any honours that she receives, will only be by proxy. It is the soldier fallen for the Homeland who is being honoured, not so much the suffering wife. But there is a much greater number of women who have lost their spouses: in addition to the widows of soldiers, there are also the widows of war invalids. They will have the additional burden of having to care for their soldier's illness or infirmity, without necessarily having the "aura" assigned to the widows of soldiers who have fallen in battle.

As such, a simple note informs the spouse of her loss and, often without even having a body over which to cry right away, the spouse becomes the widow of a soldier killed in combat. This absence of a body can be represented by a picture of the lost, placed on the mantle. To express her grief and as an external sign of her loss, the widow dresses in mourning clothes and locks herself into an image from which some will have difficulty escaping. With time and circumstances, she will sometimes, but not without difficulty, manage to relieve herself of this heavy label, but many of them will remain "the widow of soldier X", especially for the companion at arms of her spouse. Any honours that she receives, will only be by proxy.

Widow of a civilian: a difficult status

For the families of civilian victims of the 1914 invasion, mourning begins very early, sometimes immediately for spouses or mothers, and becomes part of the mourning for the country's occupation: some spouses remain in the country, others flee or are taken in by their families, often with their very young children. Their image as martyred wife will also be extensively used in the Allied propaganda in order to strike an emotional chord and solicit funds from donors.

The wives of civilians executed for resistance receive, from the priest, the few personal effects of their late husbands: a watch, a signet ring and sometimes a final letter, often distressing and containing the last recommendations of a husband or father.

Léonie Houdret, widow of Charles Simon, executed for being part of the Lenders resistance network, is told to be brave, with the underlying message that she should marry again: “You're still young, think of the education of the children” he writes in a final heart-wrenching letter signed “Your husband who loves you unto death”. The letters from people sentenced to death very often convey this concern for the educational and material future of the surviving spouse and children. The executed think a great deal about the material future of their spouse. At the start of the century, women generally look after the household, while men generally look after taking care of the family's needs.

In addition to these two major categories of widows, there are also the women who lose their civilian spouses due to illness or after deprivations related to the circumstances of the war. These women, impossible to count, will have also lost their family support due to the war, but the national symbolism does not apply to them, and they will never be considered as war widows.

Widow and mother

Widows with children also have the burden of responsibility for their education, and especially the choices for their future. They will be assisted by the O.N.O.G. (National War Orphans Charity), the mission of which is to organise guardianships or placements, material and moral support, as well as monitoring the health of orphans. The social and economic situation of widows will also of course have a great effect on the lives of these women after the war. Some women, given their social setting, will have no material problems and will "only" bear the weight of mourning, while things will be more difficult for other widows, especially from a material viewpoint, and for still others, who will have rebuilt their lives; still, it's hard to say to whom reference is made in the sentence:

Let us think for a moment about the moral misery of children whose spirits are wakening to life, and who are raised by mothers living dissolute lives

The letters from people sentenced to death very often convey this concern for the educational and material future of the surviving spouse and children.

The survival of widows

For widows who still have family, their solidarity comes into play: we see grandparents – already very present in the extended family cell – take on an even more important role. The less fortunate depend on public institutions The laws providing rights to war widows and to widows of war invalids are quite complex. All family-related situations must be envisaged by lawmakers. If minor children resulted from two marriages, the pension must be shared between the progeny of both. Natural and adopted children must also be taken into account as beneficiaries of the pension. The pension will also be different depending on whether they had married before the war, or if they married a soldier after the conflict

In the case of widows of invalids, for example, women who married a war invalid after the period of the war can claim the deceased husband's pension provided that the latter had filed a request for this purpose before the end of 1928, and provided that this request had been considered admissible. In the opposite case, the widow will have to prove that the failure to submit the request resulted from a force majeure situation. If the husband's request was not considered to be admissible, the widow will first have to seek a reversal of this decision, in the absence of the deceased, before being able to claim anything at all. If the marriage occurred after the disability, it must have lasted for at least one year. Lawmakers are severe in hopes of avoiding abuse at all costs.

What about the other family members?

In the absence of a widow or of legitimate or natural children, the parents of a deceased soldier can claim a war pension. If the parents are no longer alive, the grandparents can claim this pension right if they are still alive.

Widows in the after war period: the Homeland despite it all!

During the war, these widows are draped with the courage of the conflict: one must be brave and think of the soldiers still at the front. The official communications say nothing else, depicting these widows as courageous mothers and holding them up as the ultimate example of selflessness and sacrifice.

However painful it may be, this sacrifice is presented as the final step in the duty assigned to women, given that they cannot also participate in the combat.

The time for organisation comes after the war. They gather into federations. Their mourning becomes standardised, they form a block: "the war widows", and they are present at patriotic events.

Condemned to life with a ghost

What happened to the widows once the cannons fell silent? Having met with some of the descendents of these widows, they talk about women wearing black for their whole lives, never making a new life for themselves, always living with the memory of the lost. It is said that they're condemned to life with a ghost. But it's difficult to say if the above is a reconstruction or reality, given the many different personal situations. In terms of family histories, generalizations are not acceptable.

It is clear, however, that the widows organise themselves in order to press for their rights. The armistice brings the creation of the Union des Mères et Veuves de Guerre de Belgique, the motto of which is The Homeland despite it all! and the aim of which is to help them (the widows) with the procedures that they may be required to undertake in order to obtain pensions or allowances or for any other reason. Based on the organisation's possibilities, efforts are made to find a position or a job for the women looking for one." This organisation will receive its official statutes in 1924, and by 1933, it has 3000 members and sections in Antwerp, Bruges, Gand, Liège and Namur.

For these widows, the Belgian State organises compensation: a law from 1919 entitled them to a pension, but with conditions. A widow can lose her pension in the event of misconduct, for example if she is found guilty of a crime. If divorce proceedings are in progress, she is entitled to nothing, but her children are considered as orphans in order that they may receive this pension. She does not lose her pension if she remarries, unless she marries with a national from a country that was at war with Belgium, which, in the symbolism of the post-war period, is basically considered to be the same thing as misconduct. Clearly, the target here is Germany. It wasn't a good thing to be a mixed Belgian-German couple during the war, or even after it, and this also applies to Belgian women who had lost a husband of German origin.

Everything supports widows in their status: some will live their entire lives while remembering their husbands, others, still young, will find comfort in the creation of a new household, but little is known about their new emotional lives in view of the dominant image that has become part of the collective imagination, especially in France but also in Belgium, i.e. that of an eternal widow spending her life in mourning for a sacrificed life. When compared with the other Allied losses, the "low" number of Belgian soldiers killed at the front will not have a great impact on the country's demographics.

Everything supports widows in their status: some will live their entire lives while remembering their husbands, others, still young, will find comfort in the creation of a new household, but little is known about their new emotional lives in view of the dominant image that has become part of the collective imagination, especially in France but also in Belgium, i.e. that of an eternal widow spending her life in mourning for a sacrificed life. When compared with the other Allied losses, the "low" number of Belgian soldiers killed at the front will not have a great impact on the country's demographics.

A vote for their man

Of course widows are entitled to honours, but only by proxy: they represent their husbands who have fallen for the Homeland. They are granted voting rights in 1919 in view of the loss that they have suffered, but not for being women. Also, they can make decisions regarding the future of their children, but often in agreement with the other paternal figures present within the family. As such, it is indeed their status as a widow that provides them with additional rights. Modest compensation for these women who have lost a husband, the father of their children, with this situation sometimes placing them in dire material straits, while the war has left them with a label that can at times be difficult to remove.

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