War widow Bessie thinks of husband Harry this Remembrance Day
Great-grandmother Bessie Holden shares her story about the day she was told her husband Harry wouldn't be coming home.
The impact of war on those called up to fight can leave a lasting mark not only for those on the front line of duty, but also for those whose battle continues long after the final shot rings out.
As weapons are put to the ground and the fallen laid to rest, a battle of a different kind begins as those left behind fight to live on amongst the memories of those they have lost.
As silence falls this Remembrance Day and the nation bows its head in memory of those who gave their lives, we remember too those wives and mothers, sons and daughters, who showed bravery of a different kind as they carry their families through the legacy of war.
“You just kept going, it’s what you had to do,” insists Bessie Holden gently. In her hands she holds a black and white picture of a mother with her little girl in her lap. In the girl’s arms, a teddy bear sits poised while behind them a father stands in uniform, smiling proudly.
“That’s Harry, my husband,” smiles Bessie. “It’s a very good picture of us.”
Bessie passes the photograph over to her daughter Pearl who laughs at the memory of what was her teddy bear. “I left him on the train to Fife,” she says. “It’s such a pity we no longer have him.”
It’s been many years since the family portrait was taken, but the eyes of the mother and daughter in the room now seem as bright as they were on the day the picture was taken and it’s only the birthday cards on the mantelpiece behind Bessie that give away the full length of time that has passed.
“I’ve just celebrated my 98th birthday,” admits Bessie shyly. “The cards are from the grandchildren. I went for dinner with the family. It was lovely”
Born in 1914 in the First World War into a family of eight children, Bessie has lived in Edinburgh all her life.“I grew up in Restalrig and got a job at the age of 14 in a printers folding boxes shortly after my father died,” explains Bessie.
“I had to do it to bring money into the home as we were just living off my mother’s widow’s pension. Life was hard but there was a lot of fun too.
“When I was a little older I did old time dancing on a Tuesday which was the ‘two-step’ and I went roller skating on the Thursday. We used to strap them onto our shoes and skate around on big metal wheels. Then I did the Marine Drive dancing on the Friday and sometimes we went up town dancing again on the Saturday. That was just when I went with my chums of course.”
It was Bessie’s love of dancing, however, that found her love in the city as well as life and laughter.
“I met my husband in the Marine Gardens, they used to have a lovely big dance hall there,” smiles Bessie remembering. “I think it’s a bus depot now, down by Seafield.
“I thought Harry was handsome enough at the time. I don’t know what drew me to him, I just liked him.
“He asked to see my home after I’d finished dancing but I said ‘Aye, that’ll be right’ and left him there. I never waited. I never believed him; I thought he was just being funny.
“The next night I ran into him again and he asked me to the pictures. I said I couldn’t because I was going with a friend but he said that was alright so he took the two of us.”
Bessie chuckles: “I couldn’t tell you now which movie we saw. I was 20 at the time and four years later we were married.
“I don’t know what it was that made me know he was the one for me. I just knew. We got married in the Lockhart Memorial Church in Albion Road. It was just a quiet wedding, only four of us and I just had outdoor clothes on – nothing fancy.
“We moved into rooms that we rented and then my daughter Pearl was born in 1939.”
Bessie pauses before continuing: “On the day war was announced I was at Pearl’s christening. My husband joined up so I moved back in with my mother.
“He didn’t want to get put in the infantry so he signed up to the artillery because he thought it would be safer. He did his training in Aberdeen and stayed back down in Edinburgh for a year after that.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the year he and the others were waiting to be sent somewhere.
“I don’t know who put the letter through the door eventually, but we got a note saying that what was expected had happened and he left.
“And we never saw him again.”
Bessie falls silent and looks away. “He was sent to Cairo first and then the Middle East. He sent letters all the time and I was able to write to him too,” she says.
“He was then sent to Africa and he wrote to say that he would be home for Christmas. But then he got transferred to Italy instead in the infantry.
“He was only there six weeks and then he was killed.
“Pearl was only five years old and had just started school. I’ve been told that he was killed up in the mountains. They don’t tell you anything else.
“He was killed on the fourth of October. My birthday was the 13th. I got my birthday cards and the telegram in the same post. The cards were from some of the boys he had fought alongside. I think he must have asked them to send them.
“I just felt like the bottom had dropped out of my whole world.”
Bessie falls silent again and gazes out the window.
“The worst thing I had to do was go through and tell his mum and dad,” she says. “I went to school and picked up Pearl and told her teacher why she wouldn’t be there and then I had to go to my work and tell them too.
“Then I went through to tell Harry’s mum and dad. That was the hardest thing of all, to tell them.
“His dad had fought in the Boer War and the First World War. And then I had to tell him that he had survived both wars but his son had not survived this one.
“We didn’t have a separate memorial service. Harry was just one of a crowd really. He wasn’t the only one. A lot of Edinburgh men were lost.”
Buried in the mountains of Italy, Bessie has since travelled over several times to visit the grave of her husband.“The last visit I made there was eight years ago now, when I was 90,” explains Bessie. “The British Legion took me over with Pearl.
“I didn’t feel angry about what happened. It was just what you had to do. You couldn’t do anything about the war that happened.
“I went back to work and my mother looked after Pearl. She helped keep her wee socks and pants clean and I did the big washing at the weekend.
“We just worked hand in hand with one another. I went back to work so we could have more money between us and not just the widow’s pension.
“We got through.”
Decades on and Bessie is now the proud grandmother of three grandchildren and the great grandmother of four great grandchildren.
“I don’t go to parties very much now though,” chuckles Bessie. “But I’ve got my wee sewing class this afternoon and I’ve just finished knitting 50 Santa Clauses for the Brownies. I like to keep busy.
“I’ve not planned my 100th birthday; I’ll just take what comes.
“I don’t know what would have happened if everything had been alright. I don’t know whether or not I would have stayed or left Edinburgh.
“I never married again. I always wondered if there was anyone who could actually be good enough for Pearl. She was my priority. I’m very proud of her.
“A lot has changed. Life’s changed a lot. When have I been happiest though? I think when I got married. I think that’s been my happiest time, even though it didn’t last that long.”
The story of Bessie and Harry was kindly brought to our attention by the Living Memories Association located in Leith, Edinburgh. Their reminiscence centre is staffed by volunteers who are working to gather the memories of our local residents. If you have a story you would like to share with them or know of someone who does you can contact them directly on 0131 553 4580 or visit them at 5 Quayside Street, Edinburgh EH6 6EJ.