Helen Shaw. Wife ,mother, war worker, patriot
My name is Helen Shaw and I am the wife of George Shaw, now a carpenter, but before a sergeant in the Black Watch. I am the mother of George Shaw, now in 1st Battalion, Black Watch, William Shaw, now in 4th Battalion Black Watch, Christina Shaw who works in the ammunition factory on Mains Road in Dundee, and Janet, who is still at school. I work in a jute factory in Dundee making sandbags for the front. My younger son, William has kept a journal of his experiences in the Black Watch and Has invited me to contribute to it. I was unsure at first, but such changes are taking place, both here and in France, I feel it a duty to record events as I see them. I am not very good with words, but I shall do my best.
There was a notice pinned to the board in the lodge at the jute mill today. It was an appeal to ‘Every British Woman’ to provide funds for the building of a Home for our ‘Incurably Helpless Soldiers’ – men of our country who have become incurably disabled due to suffering incurred whilst serving in the present war. Give whatever you can, the article said. Give even the littlest amount, as every penny would help. The appeal was on behalf of the British Women’s Hospital – Lady Cowdray is its Treasurer, and the notice said the building was being gifted by the consent of Her Majesty, The Queen.
I blinked a wee tear when I read it. I don’t like showing too much emotion; not for now, not during this awful war. But nobody can read an article like this without thinking of their own, over there, and it just sets off the helpless feeling that those who are left behind have to endure. You thank the Lord that your own are still alive, but, in thanking the Lord, you are faced with a feeling of guilt. Just last week Mrs McDonald, who works here too, got the worst news – her son, wounded at Loos, has died. He fought the great fight, but the wounds were too much to recover from.
Jessie Todd, Mrs McDonalds neighbour and friend, was the one who told us about it. Jessie was distressed herself; hadn’t she looked after Jamie herself so often that he was like a son to her as well? And we stood and listened in silence, for what else can you do. And whether or not you try, the vision of your own comes to you. I thought of George, and I thought of William – both my sons are out there, but I don’t think it doubles the worry and the torment, because it is as deep as it can be even if you have only one at war. But we are all so good at putting on the brave face. We have been putting it on, all of us, for so long now that it has become practised.
There is a sense of unity in the mill, and around the town, and I’m sure it is all around the country. I try consciously not to talk about the war, and I know many think the same, but it is so difficult to cast it from your mind, even for a few minutes. And, while it may be all the harder when you have a loved one over there, it effects everyone the same way. This appeal notice, no matter how honourable, and how well-intentioned, just brings the thoughts back to the forefront of your mind. Every newspaper, every day, carries news of the conflict that we all crave to read, yet we all cower away from.
The women in the mill talk at length about any local gossip or tittle-tattle to take our minds off it, and I daresay I know more about their home lives now than I ever would have before, but we all know that avoiding war talk is a short-lived experience. But we are women together, and the bond that creates somehow lets us share loss, support each other, and talk to each other. This, I think, is so much harder for our menfolk at home.
My husband, George, finds it difficult to talk on these terms. Oh he’s a self-appointed expert on this war, and how it should be fought, and all the men at home seem to be the same, but he finds it so difficult to talk about families who have been affected by loss, and even harder to consider how we might cope if it comes closer to us. Heaven forbid. So when he comes home after his day at the carpenter’s shop, we only talk about George and William in the most general of terms. He’ll ask if we should be sending more socks – I’ve sent enough to keep their feet warm for years – or he’ll ask if there’s been any letters, though he always lets me read them first, but we don’t speak about what they might be facing or where they might be at that moment. I’m certain he thinks about that constantly, but it’s rarely talked about in our household.
Mrs Benzie came to visit last night. She runs all sorts of events in and around the town, and is a Godsend in that regard. She wants me to volunteer to help at a Bazaar she’s planning, and of course I agreed. The funds are to help Cupar and District Voluntary War Workers’ Association who are looking to provide materials for the comfort of our troops in the field. Mrs Benzie attended an event just last week in Cupar, and she wants our Bazaar to follow the same lines. She told me about one event, described as the living waxworks, where some sixty ladies and gentlemen dressed as historical personages. Some of the characters were from fairy tales, or Indians, or even gypsies, and a great deal of fun was had. We discussed who, from our town, might play some of these portrayals and laughed at some very obvious mismatches. Mrs Benzie explained that the funding helped the troops, but it also helped to engender the spirit of our whole country being united in our efforts. The thought of me and George dressing up for it made us both blush, but I’ll be too busy at my stall for that kind of thing, and I’m sure George is grateful for that.
We heard news about Willie Rintoul, and old friend and schoolpal of my husband’s. He farms at Blebo Mains, and we’ve been told he has been badly hurt in Cairo. Although he’s over fifty, he rejoined his old regiment, the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, just after the war started. They made him a corporal, and isn’t he a great example of the spirit that swept the country when we got into this situation. Willie was always an outspoken lad, and brave as they come, so we hope that he is well enough to get home soon, and that he mends well enough to get back to his old ways.
I’ve made meatpie for supper. I never make it without thinking of the boys – I easily remember how they would wolf it down when we all sat down together. But our daughters, Christina and Janet, will enjoy it and mealtimes are a fine time to speak to each other. Quite the young lady is Christina, and her skills as a dressmaker are well talked about in Abernethy. We’re proud of her, though we wouldn’t tell her that for fear of embarrassing her. Janet is speaking about being a nurse, but she’s not even twelve yet, and doubtless she’ll change her mind a few times before she’s the age to start working. We talked about the pantomime in Dundee, at the King’s Theatre. A friend of Christina’s was there, and Miss Florrie Forde herself is appearing. It’s Jack and Jill, and it’s supposed to be an excellent production. I’m not sure whether I envy the people around Dundee or not. They have the theatre, and the picture houses, to while away the time, and it must help to take your mind off other matters, but it’s a dark and dreary place to live in so they say. I’d love to go over to the La Scala in Dundee sometime though; they say it’s marvellous. But there’s other things I’d like even more – especially the whole family fighting over the last bit of meatpie.