The receipt of Army Form B. 104-81 was a moment of dread shared by a huge number of parents and wives during the Second World War. The form appeared perfunctory. This particular form was received by Mary in January 1945 and it indicated that her husband Bill had been ‘again’ wounded in action in the central Mediterranean. This wounding was very serious and Bill had received substantial burns to his head, arms, and hands.
Bill (1917-2010) and Mary (1922-1998) had been married since 1942, and lived in a rural village in South-West Scotland. The letters on which this post is based were letters home during early 1945. The initial letters Mary received were proxy letters, written by medical staff, Red Cross and Church of England representatives, as Bill was first unconscious, and then unable to use his hands. The second letter that Mary received informed her that Bill was on the ‘dangerously ill’ list; the third that his condition was not improving; and the fourth that he was suffering from septicaemia. However, by the end of the month his condition had improved markedly. It was at this point that letter authorship changes; Bill’s ‘great pal’, ‘Judge’ takes over and the tone of the letters change and become much more upbeat. What is interesting is that ‘Judge’ acts almost as a proxy husband to Mary: offering reassurance about Bill’s condition and frame of mind, reminding Mary of her husband’s admirable qualities and that he ‘deserves all the love and devotion a wife can endow upon him’. He sends Bill’s ‘10,000 kisses’ and mentions that he wouldn’t mind meeting Mary in the future, although he ‘loves [his own] wife more than anything else in this world’.
These modes of expression were perhaps drawing upon wider cultural conventions; the lyrics of popular songs, and dialogue from films of the period. Many films produced during the war had at their core couples and families rallying together despite the uncertainty that war brought. Indeed, Bill and Judge both enjoyed the films – mostly romantic fantasies – that they saw whilst in camp in Greece and Italy, and in a couple of Bill’s letters he reviewed the latest viewings.
Judge ends his final letter to Mary, in March 1945, with ‘Just one little kiss for you. Bill won’t mind’. How much Bill knew about the content of these letters at the time is difficult to determine but in a later self-penned letter Bill remarks that he understands his pal had been writing to her. So, is ‘Judge’ just simply informing Mary of the condition of her husband? No, it’s slightly more complex than that; he is emphasising close bonds. He is reminding Mary of the close, romantic bond between husband and wife. Why is this important? Bill suffered severe burns to his face, losing his ears, lips and hair in the process. These severe injuries are not mentioned in these proxy letters, or in the letters Bill himself penned later. Judge’s emphasis on loyalty, emotional closeness and unconditional love may have been designed to diminish the importance of physical love in the light of Bill’s injuries.
Bill was finally able to write to his wife in April 1945, and it is evident that his inability to communicate directly with her had been intensely frustrating: ‘I love you as always sweetheart and long for you more and more each day…I just live for the day when I shall once again hold you in my arms and kiss your sweet lips…our love will last forever…’. Mary was a little flustered by her husband’s passionate language and appears to have jokingly rebuked him, and threatened him with admonishment to the corner of the kitchen to sit on a wooden stool. Bill’s jocular reply was to plead innocent and to remind his wife of his condition: ‘I don’t think it’s fair to threaten a sick man…I shall have to be careful what I say from now on. Still, I think I would just about manage you even with my bad hands!’. So, Bill certainly didn’t tone down his passions and ends each letter with a variation of ‘I long for the day that I hold you in my arms and kiss your sweet lips’.
When Bill did return to Britain that summer he was confined to a hospital bed for some months and on her first visit Mary was unable to recognise her husband, having to ask the ward sister in the burns unit which man was Bill. At no time during his medical confinement in Greece does Bill mention to his wife the significant damage to his face inflicted by the injuries suffered. In fact his letters are remarkably positive, and often focussed on the promise of a return to domestic bliss: ‘Is the garden finished yet?’; ‘I’m looking forward to seeing the new house’; even showing his concern that their pet dog ‘Jam’ is having difficulty settling into the new home: ‘Has Jam got used to it or does he still cry at night?’ This emphasis on the domestic ignored the fact that Mary was, during the war, a lumberjack in the Women’s Land Army; something that her husband doesn’t appear to mention in his surviving letters. But Bill was aware of his wife’s propensity to fret; and many years later admitted that he had been uncertain of how his wife would react on seeing him for the first time since receiving his injuries.
It is notable that amongst the surviving documents that Bill brought home from hospital in Greece was this poetry corner newspaper clipping, simply titled, ‘Wife’.
For Bill, the return home was more than just an end to conflict; it was about re-engaging with his wife, a woman he had not seen in almost 2 years, and his uncertainties about how she would react to his physical change. His letters include reassurances of his love and desire for his wife; his emphasis on a return to domestic life; and frequent expressions of concern over the fate of Mary’s brother in Belgium, and her family back in Scotland, whilst downplaying his own health concerns. He needn’t have worried. They raised one daughter and remained married until Mary’s death in 1998.