Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 29 

"We are the women who mourn our dead": Australian civilian women's poetic responses to the First World War

Author:  Dr Jacqueline Manuel

{1} As a young child I used to visit an old great aunty who lived way up on a hill at place called Jilliby. I remember her rice paper hands pouring the teapot swaddled with a colourful hand-crocheted tea cosy. I well recall exploring the old cottage and outhouses to fill in time while the grown-ups drank tea and ate iced vo-vos and slices of jam roll. Although it was never spoken of, my grandmother had told me that my old great aunty's husband had died soon after they had married. He had gone to the Great War of 1914-1918 and did not return. They had no children. She had never remarried. She lived in the same house, alone, for more than 60 years.

{2} Many years later I undertook a doctoral thesis on women's grief and mourning. Part of that research focused on women's responses to loss occasioned by war. With very little access then to primary material from Australian civilian women, that study - for the most part - explored British and American women's writing. Having completed that research, I was eager to explore and gain insight into the experiences of those Australian women just like my old great aunty - women who had never seen a battlefield or a bayonet but whose lives were forever shadowed by the often unspoken pain of bereavement.

{3} I have often pondered the enormity of a loss that could shape, inhibit or even preclude - for all time - one's participation in daily, social life. A loss that could cause one constantly to live within, or even retreat from, the objective world to one sustained principally by memory and longings.

{4} While a great deal of scholarship, many publications, exhibitions, and days of remembrance recognise and celebrate the experiences of those men and women who served in a direct way during war time, there has been comparatively little attention accorded the writing of civilian Australian women - those so-called ordinary women who would "creep into bed in the dark and weep..." [1] for those sons, husbands, lovers, fathers and friends who would never return.

{5} This paper addresses some of the issues to emerge from Australian women's poetry of the First World War. It examines the more private utterances in an attempt to come closer to an understanding of how and in what ways women's lives were altered with the departure, absence and loss of a loved one.

{6} Like so many other themes that have long been considered tangential to the profound subjects of literature and life, a good deal of women’s experience of war has been neglected. In her Preface to one of the few volumes of women’s war poetry available in English, Scars Upon My Heart, Judith Kazantzis makes this very point as she asks:

Is there among men, not excluding editors of war-poetry anthologies, the atavistic feeling that war is man’s concern, as birth is women’s; and that women quite simply cannot speak on the matter - an illogic which holds sway even when women have done so with knowledge and talent? [2].

{7} It would certainly appear to be generally the case that the taking up of arms has typically been considered by men as "the highest good, the vindication of [their] honour. It [has] distinguished them from women, who [are] excluded from military pursuits and thus inescapably inferior" [3]. Indeed, Western literature boasts a long and proud tradition of writing that attests to such a valorisation of the heroic figure of conquest: from Hector, Odysseus, and Achilles to Napoleon, Nelson and beyond to modern figures like Montgomery and Patton. Our inherited myths and legends are corpulent with militaristic successes and the glorification of the ‘virtues’ of bravery and strength in battle, particularly the battle for a woman or women whether it be Helen of Troy or ‘Mother England’.

{8} But although women have not generally engaged in the physical act of combat, and have historically played a peripheral or negligible role in the decision-making processes of war, it clearly impinges upon and shapes their existence in profound and significant ways. S. Gertrude Ford neatly sums up this axiom of women’s historical relation to war in her poem "‘A Fight to a Finish’":

‘Fight on!’ the Armament-kings besought:
Nobody asked what the women thought. [4]

Similarly, another poet has observed:

Here we are mothers in the darkness
like a rare specimen
of other ages.
Without these words
being capable of changing
the decisions of the men
who keep the people in the shadows. [5]

But despite this, from the time of the Greek female poets such as Sappho in the sixth century BC and even earlier, women have insisted on recording in words the impact that war has made upon their lives.

{9} It is clearly the case that women have created history on the home front in remarkable yet often silent or silenced ways. Yet many literary and historical commentaries on war have been predicated on the assumption that it was only those who were there, as one writer has said, "in the blood and muck" [6] who have acquired a compelling or legitimate perspective. The letters home from the front, the diaries written at the height of battle, or the poems composed in the still of night on foreign soil, have for the most part captured the literary limelight.

{10} Too often, women's contributions to our literary heritage have remained unnoticed either because people have assumed women's writing does not exist in the same quantity and quality as their male counterparts, or because people have assumed that if it does, it is not different from the writing of men. Neither assumption is accurate.

{11} One of the notable outcomes of the research upon which this present paper is based has been the identification of the sheer volume of material written by Australian civilian women during the First World War. Much of it exists in discrete volumes, published and unpublished, in private records, newspapers, and magazines and has yet to be scrutinised or anthologised in anything like the manner of British women's war literature [7]. There is a great store of work by writers such as Mary Gilmore, Freda Vines, Violet B Cramer, Winsome Jennings, Dorothy McCrae, Esther Nea-Smith, Agnes Rose-Soley, Dorothea McKellar, Ella McFadyen, May Kidson, Agnes Littlejohn, and many others, that contributes to a rich record of Australian civilian women’s perspectives on war.

{12} Australian civilian women's poetry of the First World War constitutes a substantial component of a wider body of writing that includes a range of contributions from the verse of the "In Memoriam" columns to the more sustained reflections contained within letters, memoirs and diaries.

{13} When considered as a body of written responses to the First World War, several thematic trends began to emerge from the poems collated for this study. There is, for example, the consistency with which Australian women writers during the war relied upon identifiably Australian landscapes in imagery and in metaphor; the affirmations of nationhood through tropes of endurance and stoicism; and the breadth of perspectives from the exuberantly nationalistic to the anti-war sentiments expressed in the anti-conscription verse.

{14} Much of the writing, of course, addresses the themes of the loss and pain of war as seen through a woman’s eyes. What is particularly compelling here are the ways in which women through their writing have constructed or sought out a meaningful context for their grief. Why? Because unlike any other event in the spectrum of human experience, war concentrates death and bereavement in an unparalleled way. Yet, paradoxically, it robs the bereaved loved ones at home of the supporting rituals and comforting rites of mourning that are so crucial in our attempts to make death meaningful and to assuage our grief. Suddenly the established, reliable patterns of grieving are stripped away by war.

{15} For the women waiting at home on the other side of the world, a shadow of apparently random death becomes a daily reality. There is the sickening magnitude and scale of loss. But the nature of that loss could only be constructed in the imaginations of the mourners. Those at home had no detailed sense of where, when or how their loved ones died, except that they died during or as a result of battle, in a place the mourner had never seen, and probably would never see. In our age of extensive and immediate multimedia and telecommunications it is worth remembering that those at home during the First World War did not have the same degree of access to images and information that many in the late twentieth century have come to rely upon. A widow such as my great aunt, for example, lived in the country, with no telephone, television, video, library, Internet, and so on, to provide the kinds of details about their loved one's death that we know are important to the process of mourning.

{16} When a family or an individual were informed of a loss, there were no grief counsellors or crisis help-lines. There could be no funeral in the traditional form. As one woman wrote of the war dead, "their grave-turf is not wet with tears" [8]. The impact of loss was so profound and wide-reaching, barely would there have been an Australian family that was not depleted by the war. Yet the processes that normally imbue an individual’s death with meaning were threatened by the seemingly unending toll of loss. The old rituals and contexts of mourning were subjugated by new ones - new ones generated by a specifically war-time experience of loss. Not only did women at home have to find alternative consolatory patterns; they also had to negotiate the very complex moral and political territory associated with the sacrifice of human life during war.

{17} One part of creating new contexts for grief is evident in the many poems that identify the actual process whereby families received the news of a death. In his history, Australia During the Great War, Ernest Scott observed that

The time was to come ... when women were to hide themselves and sometimes faint at the approach of the clergyman of their faith lest he should bear the news of the death of a son or husband ... when lamps burned late in solitary rooms where sleepless women prayed and suffered. Such is women's part in war, how bitter and hopeless only a woman knows. [9]

In Mary Elizabeth Fullerton's poem "Next Door" the speaker tells of how

The European wave reached her heart -
The parson came and brought the news last night. [10]

So women were made to endure a cruel purgatory of waiting and if the news came of a loss, they personally and as a community, had to redefine and reconstruct their context for mourning. In their writing they accomplished this, in a number of ways and here I will explore two of the more significant of these.

Consolation for death through received moral, nationalistic or religious paradigms

{18} A substantial group of poems deals with large scale death and grief by relying on the widely-accepted moral paradigms that redeemed death through the championing of the imperialist cause, through the glorification of the ennobling nature of suffering and sacrifice, or through the celebration of patriotic notions of loyalty, sacrifice, maternal duty and stoicism. Principally, these poems are public in tone and often didactic in their approach to the theme of loss in war.

{19} Each poem in this category subscribes in one way or another to the view of war as the ultimate vehicle for the preservation of the moral good. One writer asserted that soldiers "have died to give us gentleness" [11]. Another declared:

O dauntless manhood and unflinching soul
That over me have flung their splendid shield;
Howe’er the tides of that grim battle roll,
Your line may swerve and bend but will not yield!
Knee-deep in blood and mire, steel-like you stand,
That I may walk secure in this fair land. [12]

{20} These sentiments are echoed in other poems as women writers sought to come to terms with the pain of loss in war through a reliance on a shared set of beliefs and ideologies about the fundamental value of sacrifice and suffering. The speaker of Marion Knowles’ poem, "A Tribute to the Memory of Peter Campbell" believes that

Honourably he died,
Doing his "little bit";
None stand his grave beside,
And yet, because of it,
The world is nobler far,
And liberty more great;
More clear is Honour’s star,
Less mean, ignoble Fate. [13]

The meaning of large-scale anonymous loss is perceived in terms of its transcendent purpose for the benefit of those who survive:

His rotting, fruitless body lies
That sons may grow from other men. [14]

{21} In order that some meaning and value be extracted from the countless lost lives, some women wrote poems that depend upon this kind of consolatory vision and which embrace the powerful view that the aim of war is the preservation of civilised values in the face of perceived evil and anarchy. Without embracing such logic, the millions of war dead lie in "graves still unredeemed" [15].

{22} There are many poems which promote, or implicitly depend upon, the archetypal and stereotyped maternal figure who stoically sends her sons off to battle in the name of duty and honour. The willing sacrifice of sons by the literal and the figurative ‘mother’ was perceived to be a crucial index of Australian women’s loyalty to their country and commitment to war. The speaker of Nora McAuliffe's poem declares:

On wings triumphant shall my swift heart rise
That I have known the glory of your worth:
And pride and joy are wed within my eyes
In that my womb bore hero-fruit to birth! [16]

{23} So often, women were caught between the imperialist propaganda and moral arguments that appealed to them as mothers, and the moral guardians of the nation, and a deeply-felt commitment to, and love for, their menfolk. They were caught in a terrible moral bind of wanting and not wanting their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers to go away to war. Australian women were particularly conflict-ridden in this respect since Australia’s unique refusal to impose conscription left open the real option that their loved ones did not have to be sacrificed. The consequences of this internal conflict are expressed in a number of poems. One such example, Mary Gilmore’s "The Woman of Five Fields", is a cogent rendering of one woman’s poignant grief:

"I weep but mother's tears: my sons
Were my sons, bone of my bone:
And, though in my heart I heard the guns,
They went - and I made no moan."
She took her bonnet up in her hand:
Its silken folds hung over the land. [17]

{24} It is as if the woman of this poem feels she has failed as mother because she could not "protect" her sons, yet the propaganda of the time appealed to women's maternal pride as the loyal citizens and providers of men for battle: the "ravenous engines must be fed/Endlessly with the father and the son" [18]. Australian women were at once publicly celebrated for sending their sons to war and privately racked with a deep sense of inadequacy as they mourned the loss of their 'children'. They were at once the archetypal good mother/culpable mother, and powerful creatrix/powerless bystander as they sought to come to terms with their loss or losses.

{25} Despite the often buoyant celebration of the themes of patriotism, duty and loyalty, most of these poems convey a sense of the enormity of war and its startling impact on almost every aspect of individual and collective daily life. Even those poems that urge their readers stoically to endure and to face the challenges of war-time imply the immensity of human beings enmeshed in a mighty conflict and its consequences.

Bereavement as a profound personal experience

{26} While many poems by Australian civilian women, particularly at the beginning of the First World War, depend for their consolatory visions on appropriated Christian or high-romantic notions of spiritual transcendence and the redemptive value of suffering for the individual, as well as a clear distinction between the good soldiers and the ‘enemy’, another significant group of poems does not so readily rely on these strategies for resolving generically defined grief. The second distinctive category of poems dealing with the theme of death and mourning in war are those which articulate a profound grief for their personal, individual loss.

{27} The specificity of the grief in poems within this group renders the approach to death somewhat different from those which deal with large-scale, more anonymous death. Poems on the death of a known individual are far more tenuous about, and uncertain of, both the reasons for the loss and the possibilities of assuaging grief. These poems are characterised by a more intimate register: by a deep pathos and sense of inner struggle with the personal consequences of loss and mourning.

{28} A poem such as Nellie Evans’ "Greeting: Easter 1918" describes a bleak private world in which the memory and presence of the deceased loved one shadows the mourner’s daily life. The speaker wonders if her grief will ever subside and allow her once again to enjoy the "sweep of misty mountains" [19] and the land "robed in summer sheen" [20] without feeling the sadness of her loved one’s absence. She concludes the poem thus:

Oh, I think you know, as memories of the dead days gather o’er me,
That I speak your name this morning with a passionate pride: and yet
Bitter tears of hopeless longing blot the blue hills out before me -
Pride is mighty, Heart’s Beloved, but it cannot curb regret. [21]

This poem, like many others, relies on the traditional conceit of nature or the landscape being dulled by the death of the subject. By its use of the first person and by its direct address to the deceased, the poem is suffused with a sense of wistful recognition that such grief and longing may never be resolved nor ameliorated by the public tropes of nationalism and noble sacrifice.

{29} One of the more well-known poems of the time "Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy" by Zora Cross is fine example of the tenor and mood of the poems in this second group. The speaker’s loss is starkly expressed as she undercuts the mythology of "Mother England" and rails against the sacrifice of her loved one:

I have not heard the Channel waters roar
Nor seen the old Thames go by
Brown-barged and shouting from full shore to shore
Her hoarse commercial cry;
But I can hear the waters of the creek
Where we played Nelson’s fight,
And all the memories of our childhood speak
To me this blue, still night. [22]

The terms of reference here are deliberately shifted from the general to the personal, from the alien terrain of England to the profoundly significant Australian landscape of childhood and lived experience. She goes on:

England! Her name is as a knell to me
And shall be till I die.
Outside the gum-leaves whisper wistfully
And the faint night-winds sigh.
Brother, I know how utterly she keeps the souls of her great men.
And are they greater than her starlight sweeps
Than you by field or fen? [23]

{30} The paradigms of consolation that depended notions of noble sacrifice are firmly rejected here. The sacrifice is a "cold, brown kiss ... from that stern Mother land" [24]. There is no easy path to attenuating the pain of death and sacrifice. The bereaved creates her own context for mourning that relies on personal memory, "old dreams" [25] as she refers to them, and the consolatory power of the particular landscapes of youth and adulthood. The speaker invests the subject’s death and life with value and meaning by metaphorically withdrawing him from the foreign, destructive and rejected landscape and reaffirming his spiritual presence in his homeland. The actual burial rites, impossible under the conditions of war, are replaced by poetic ones. The speaker, through her poetry, attempts to reclaim that which has been lost and to empower herself in the face of the personally disempowering processes of war. The act of writing, becomes, in itself, a riposte or an antidote to the terribly dehumanising impact of war. The constructed context for mourning apparent in this poem is identifiable over and again in poems that deal with a profound personal bereavement.

{31} In a similarly moving way Mary Gilmore expresses bitterness and disillusionment in her poem "War":

Out in the dust he lies;
Flies in his mouth,
Ants in his eyes ...

I stood at the door
Where he went out;
Full-grown man,
Ruddy and stout;

I heard the march
Of the trampling feet,
Slow and steady
Come down the street;

The beat of the drum
Was clods on the heart,
For all that the regiment
Looked so smart!

I heard the crackle
Of hasty cheers
Run like the breaking
Of unshed tears,

And just for a moment,
As he went by,
I had sight of his face,
And the flash of his eye.

He died a hero's death,
They said,
When they came to tell me
My boy was dead;

But out in the street
A dead dog lies;
Flies in his mouth,
Ants in his eyes. [26]

{32} The simple rhythms, unadorned language, sombre tone, ironic and bitter mood, and the unsettling linking of the dog’s unremarkable and insignificant death and the death of the speaker’s son, contributes to the bleak futility and subversive flavour of this poem. Once again, there is a clear rejection of the tropes of noble sacrifice in favour of a more cynical perspective on the value and meaning of death in war. Poems such as these clearly challenge the imperialist jingoism, and moralistic justifications proffered in the face of human carnage of obscene proportions. For the speaker of this poem, any victories in the "galleries of the world’s reconstruction" [27] are bitterly hollow ones.


{33} What has emerged from this reading of women’s poetic handling of death and mourning during the First World War is the inappropriateness of neat conceptual theories or proposals which bundle these responses together in an homogeneous and harmonised way. Clearly, there were many factors which impinged upon and shaped women’s treatment of untimely loss and grief in war. Public perceptions and attitudes shifted between the onset of war and after the public learned of some of the horrors of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

{34} Much of the jingoistic, and what we now evaluate as naively patriotic, poetry was written and published prior to the revelations about the events of July-August 1916, and was composed within a strict ideological context of national loyalty and commitment. Challenging authorised views of the war was simply unconscionable for the majority of those at home.

{35} But with the eventual exposure of some of the abominations of the war, women’s negotiation of the experience of grief in poetry displays marked and telling changes. A refusal to accept without scepticism and suspicion the propagandists’ line, begins to replace the enthusiasm and consolations of the earlier verse. It is possible to identify a shift from contexts that were, at the outbreak of war, predominantly public, patriotic and nationalistic, to contexts that were more introspective, personal and questioning by the end of the war. The narrowing of focus from the public to the private in women’s writing is also indicative of the increasingly difficult burden of hardship and bereavement that women faced as the consequences of loss outweighed the initial spirited enthusiasm for the war.

{36} While it is possible and important to identify these larger thematic trends in women’s writing, I have, from the outset, tried to avoid the tendency in some historical accounts to seek out or construct a hegemony - the seamless and the unified - when in fact the diverse and often dichotomous promise to yield rich insights. I have sought to let the voices of the writings themselves speak, rather than impose upon the material too many preconceived views. What has emerged and continues to emerge from such an inductive approach are fascinating and moving insights into the nature and depth of Australian civilian women’s experience of war.

{37} It is, for example, too simplistic to categorise women at home during the First World War as the passive, supportive, powerless, archetypal and stereotyped 'mothers' while the soldier men were the warriors, protectors, adventurers and creators of history. Such stock binaries of male/female, battlefront/homefront, active protectors/passive supporters, makers of history/victims of history are often inadequate in the context of the personal conflicts and crises that many women and indeed many men, experienced during that unsettling and tumultuous time.

{38} The American poet and literary critic Marge Piercy has claimed that the emergence of women’s writing into the public domain marks the delivery,

not so much [of] a woman’s culture as a contribution to a culture that must now be for and of women’s experiences, as well as men’s, [and] that must change to accommodate such rich, diverse and powerful work [28].

One of the most profound consequences of war is grief and mourning by and for those who survive. Yet it is this very experience that is so often acutely private and, as a consequence, silent or invisible in wider public contexts. In exploring those records written by and about Australian women not only do we extend and enrich our understanding of the complex and layered impact of war. Importantly, we recognise and acknowledge the value, roles and indeed sufferings of all our grandmothers, mothers, sisters and even old great aunts, whom Mary Gilmore tried to redeem from silence when she declared:

We are the women who mourn our dead.
Yea! Let us weep for them. [29]


[1] Mary Gilmore, "These Fellowing Men" in The Passionate Heart, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1918, p. 2.

[2] Judith Kazantzis, in Catherine Reilly ed., Scars Upon My Heart: Women’s Poetry and Verse of the First World War, London, Virago, 1981, p. xxiii.

[3] Angel Flores and Kate Flores eds., The Defiant Museum, The Feminist Press, N.Y., 1986, p. xiii.

[4] Reilly, p. 38.

[5] Raquel Jodorowsky, "Here We Are", in Flores and Flores, pp. 101-2.

[6] Rose Macaulay, in Reilly, p. 12.

[7] I wish to acknowledge with genuine gratitude the support of the Australian War Memorial. Its John Treloar Grant-in-aid scheme has enabled me to undertake and sustain this research.

[8] Reilly, p. 51.

[9] Ernest Scott, Australia During the Great War, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1938, p.31.

[10] Mary Elizabeth Fullerton, The Breaking Furrow, Sydney, 1921, p. 4.

[11] Reilly, p. 34.

[12] Nora McAuliffe "Mater Triumphans", in Dark Somme Flowing, ed. David Holloway, Robert Andersen & Associates, p. 87.

[13] ibid., p. 79.

[14] ibid., p. 45.

[15] Reilly, p. 20.

[16] McAuliffe, p. 87.

[17] op.cit., p. 68-69.

[18] Eleanor Farjeon, Reilly, p. 36.

[19] Nellie A. Evans, in Holloway, p. 43.

[20] loc.cit.

[21] loc.cit.

[22] Zora Cross, in J. T. Laird ed., Other Banners: An anthology of Australian literature of the First World War, Australian War Memorial and Australian Government Publishing Service, 1971, p. 124.

[23] loc.cit.

[24] loc.cit.

[25] loc.cit.

[26] Mary Gilmore, "War", in Under the Wilgas, Robertson and Mullens, Melbourne, 1932, pp. 102-103.

[27] Reilly, Scars, p. 83.

[28] Marge Piercy ed., Early Ripening: American Women's Poetry Now, London, Pandora Press, 1987, p. 2.

[29] Mary Gilmore, "These Fellowing Men", in The Passionate Heart, p. 5.

© Dr Jacqueline Manuel

About the author

Dr Jacqueline Manuel is a lecturer in English education at the University of Western Sydney, Macarthur. She is engaged in a research project on Australian women's war poetry.