Remembrance Day: Lasting pain of love that never dies
I walked down the stairs. My heart was beating, I was shaking. I opened the door, and I said: 'He's dead, isn't he?' The man came in then and told me. It seemed to take a long time. I was, like: 'Come on!' I needed to know what had happened. And he just said…" She trails off, shakes her head apologetically. "I can't remember the exact words he said."
Shock thwarts memory. The stuff that seems important, you can't remember; trivial things, you can't forget. But even if Donna Barber could recall exactly what the soldier said, it wouldn't change the cold fact of losing the man she loves and learning about it in the dead of night.
Donna is 22 and lives in a small valley community near Bridgend in South Wales. She was 21 when her husband Craig Barber, a private with the Royal Welsh, was killed. He was shot in the head by an insurgent in Basra, Iraq, on August 6 last year.
Fragments of a bullet ricocheted off the Warrior armoured vehicle which he was driving and entered his left temple. Private Barber was on his second tour of Iraq with the Royal Welsh and had he lived, he would shortly have returned home on leave to celebrate his first wedding anniversary. His bed space in Basra was decorated with pictures of Donna and their three-year-old son Bradley. Now their home is decorated with pictures of Craig.
It's a sad story and sadly common. Donna is one of 72 British women widowed by the fighting in Iraq since 2003. Another 41 have lost husbands in Afghanistan since 2001. These statistics are dwarfed by the 300,000 British and Commonwealth wives bereaved by the Second World War, but the sadness will be the same, as will the jarring oddness of becoming widows in their twenties.
Today, Remembrance Sunday, we remember in silence and solemn ceremony those who died in conflict in the service of their country. It is an acknowledgment of that ultimate sacrifice. Less acknowledged is the ongoing sacrifice of the women who lost their men and who must live, sometimes for many decades, with that loss. They carry on, raise fatherless children, and they never forget. For them, every day is about remembrance whether they want it to be or not.
Yet it is the dead men whose heroism is praised, while the everyday courage of the women – of being a single mother, of sleeping in a bed that's too big, of being alive and in pain – is often ignored. War widows sometimes live in the shadow of men who stopped casting shadows long ago. Catherine Drummond describes herself and her fellow widows as a "forgotten race".
She is 86 and lives in Dunfermline. There's a black and white photograph of Catherine as a young woman on one wall of the living room. She's with her brother Charlie and her husband John Boyd. They are wearing uniforms and look happy. Charlie was in the Black Watch. Catherine was in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. John was a wireless operator in the RAF, flying bombing missions with 114 Squadron during the Second World War. She met John, from Londonderry, while they were posted with Coastal Command in Oban. She was 20; he was 22. They worked together in the wireless operators' room until he decided that he wanted to be up in the air and retrained for the inside of a Boston bomber.
"He was a very nice person. A right gentleman. I always said he was just too good for this world."
John and Catherine married on October 15, 1943, at the Holy Trinity Church in Stirling. She shows me the official photograph. "We had no wedding cake, no wedding dress. I had to borrow coupons to buy that pink suit. I'm sorry now that I didn't get married in uniform, but I wore it that often I wanted to be in civvies." They went to Edinburgh for a three-day honeymoon, after which they were posted to opposite ends of the country – John in Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, Catherine in Alness.
Catherine realised she was having a baby when she fainted at work. A naval surgeon in Invergordon tore a strip off her for getting pregnant. Didn't she know the government had spent a lot of money training her? She was given a discharge and went south to see John.
"We only had three seven-day leaves together in the 10-and-a-half months we were married," she recalls. "It was heartbreaking to spend so much time apart. He was always on standby for being posted abroad. I went down to Melton Mowbray, and we had two or three days together, and then he said: 'Right, that's it, we're off.' I stood at the door of the B&B, his plane flew over the house and dipped its wings, and that was the last time I saw him. I never knew where he was after that."
That was May 25, 1944. On August 25, John's plane crashed off the Tuscan coast with the loss of all crew. On September 25, Catherine and John's daughter was born in Stirling Royal Infirmary. John's body was never recovered, and as a result Catherine has never quite come to terms with his death.
One aspect of war widowhood that distinguishes it from other widowhood is that there can be a comfort to be had from the fact your husband died doing something noble. It's not always the case, of course – plenty of people in war zones die in mundane or tragic ways that have nothing to do with enemy combat – but the wives of those who have such deaths can sometimes use heroism as a painkiller.
Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Jones, known as H, received a posthumous Victoria Cross for the bravery of his actions during a British attack on Argentine positions in the Falkland Islands. He charged an enemy trench in the hope of rekindling the British advance and to save his men, who were pinned down under fire, from sustaining further casualties. He was killed – aged 42 – but his example inspired the troops to renew their efforts, and settlements in Darwin and Goose Green were liberated. This was May 28, 1982, and is regarded as a decisive moment in the conflict.
His widow Sara Jones, 67, lives in Wiltshire. Asked how she feels about the manner of her husband's death, she answers: "Well, to begin with you think: 'How dare you! You didn't give us a single thought when you stormed that trench!' But, of course, there's consolation in thinking he did something brave and was awarded the highest gallantry medal. Had he died in some ridiculous way – shot in the back or something – it would be more difficult. Then again, in the final analysis, I've lost my husband, the person I loved."
It's important not to consider war widows as a homogenous group. For one thing, they range in age from their late teens to very advanced years. Also, there seem to be unofficial hierarchies among some of the widows. According to Professor Joy Damousi of Melbourne University, who has written extensively on the subject, there can be tension between those women whose husbands died in battle and those whose husbands died at home, sometimes much later, from their injuries.
Ella Rennie, 78, runs the Edinburgh branch of the War Widows Association. Yet her husband, William, died long after the Second World War ended. A sergeant in the Queen's Own Cameronian Highlanders, in 1941 he was almost killed at Kassala in Eritrea; strafed by an Italian plane, he lost the use of his right leg and seriously injured his neck and right arm and hand. He spent over a year in hospital in South Africa, so close to death that doctors didn't tell him that his younger brother had been killed in case it made him give up. Eventually he was moved to Hairmyres Hospital in East Kilbride to recover.
I ask Ella about this notion that she isn't a proper war widow, and she points out that "my husband had 50 years of absolutely daily suffering. He was never without pain". When William died in 1991 of a heart attack, the family doctor told her that his heart had been 20 years older than the rest of him; the strain of coping with his injuries, and perhaps the trauma of what he had been through, had aged it. Ella is in no doubt that the war killed her husband some 46 years after it ended, a skeletal hand reaching out from the past. She was shattered when he died, and when she talks about him, the years drop away. "I was extremely proud to be with Bill anywhere we went," she recalls. "When he introduced me, I never got over the thrill of him saying: 'This is my wife.' Never."
It's this undying love that makes interviewing war widows an uplifting rather than depressing experience. War widowhood always begins with an act of violence, but there can, eventually, be a sense of peace in it too.
I drive to Ayr to visit Raqual Harper-Titchener, whose husband Major Matt Titchener died in Basra in 2003, aged 32. An officer in the Royal Military Police, he was killed alongside two colleagues when their unmarked jeep was attacked by Iraqi gunmen.
Raqual is 34. She was 19 when she met Matt at Manchester University and 29 when he died. "We had 10 wonderful years together," she says.
When told about Matt's death, she was in shock initially, and it was only when she had to tell her two-and-a-half-year-old son Matheson that the enormity of what had happened hit her. The boy had come downstairs and sat beside her on the sofa as she was being told the news. "He said: 'Is daddy coming home?' And I had to say: 'No, he's not.'" That made everything seem more real.
"Prior to Matt leaving for Iraq, we had a conversation about what he wanted from me should anything happen to him," she recalls. "I always referred to it as Matt's Mission Plan, and that kicked in for me. I knew I was to phone his mum and dad and tell them. Nobody was to go to their door. So I did that within five minutes of being told myself. I will never forget the reaction at the other end of the phone – a mother being told that news.
"Initially, I had a lot to do," she says. "I was busy and focused, and that's what got me through that first stage. I was 20 weeks pregnant with my daughter, so even though I wanted to go upstairs and close the door and never come out again, I couldn't do that." She wanted to appear strong for Matheson. "A lot of my crying was done in the shower because nobody could see the tears."
Raqual surprises me by revealing that being pregnant was a comfort. "It gave me something to focus on. Matt had always been convinced that I was carrying a girl. It was a kind of joke between us, and I would laugh and say: 'No, I'm carrying a boy'. That's why she's called Angel – because he used to refer to the bump as 'Daddy's little angel'.
"After I got the news about Matt, I was taken for a scan to check everything was OK. Before, I hadn't wanted to know the gender of the baby, but I asked and they told me they were 99.9% certain it was a girl. And I remember thinking: 'Thank God.' Because it was like Matt knew her. It was almost like he had a connection there. That gave me a lot of comfort, and I can now say to Angel: 'Your daddy knew you.'"
With a new baby, the first year following Matt's death "swept over" Raqual and she felt she was handling the situation. But in the second year after his death, buried feelings of anger and sadness began to surface.
"I'm now at the level of acceptance," she says. "I have a new partner now. That was something that Matt and I discussed. I went through a few guilt issues when I started to date again, but I was lucky that Matt had said: 'I don't want you to be on your own.' The new relationship has to be completely different. It also has to be with someone who is very understanding."
It's different from starting a new relationship after a divorce; she feels no animosity towards Matt and feels he is still in her life. "I love my husband and I will always love him, and he will always be part of me and my children. At the same time, somebody new has come into my life. I believe he's come in to it for a reason, and I love him. But I love him in a different way, if that makes sense."
She has always been upfront with the children, who are now seven and four, about what happened to their father. There are pictures of him around the house, and when Iraq comes on television, they will talk about that and how their father was out there helping people but was killed by bad men.
"I hope I've done the right thing," says Raqual. "Some people might say I've been too open, but I've got to do what feels right, and they are two brilliant children who love life and have a great sense of humour. They both say they speak to Matt. Whether that's a thing they do, like adults, in their heads, or whether they do have some connection to him, I don't know. Whatever makes them happy is fine by me."
The sky is vivid blue when I leave Raqual's house. It makes me think back to Donna Barber and what the sky must be like over the mountains near her home. She and Craig lived in army barracks in Tidworth, Wiltshire, but she couldn't stand to be there without him, so she decided to go ahead with one of their future plans and move to the Welsh valleys where he was born. "In a sense," she told me, "I've fulfilled the dream we had together."
On August 6 this year, the first anniversary of her husband's death, Donna – together with friends and family – climbed the mountain on which Craig had played as a child and put up a pole from which they flew the Welsh flag. His mother can see it from where she lives. Donna can't quite, but she likes the idea of that red dragon high up there, keeping his memory alive. She's only one year into widowhood and is nervous about the long years ahead.
Catherine Drummond, Sara Jones and Raqual Harper-Titchener might tell her that the pain gets easier but never quite goes away, that the love endures like a mountain and flies in the heart like a flag.
• For further information contact the War Widows' Association (0845 241 2189, www.warwidowsassociation.org.uk) and the Army Widows' Association (01980 615 558, www.armywidows.org.uk)