Love Conquers All: The Poignant Plight of the 1940s War Brides May 14, 2016
World War Two saw much happening in the UK – bombs, rationing and conscription are some we know the most about but alongside all of the devastation and hardship of the time, love was also big news. Despite the difficulties posed by falling in love with someone who could be posted elsewhere at a moment’s notice, the marriage rate soared during the early 1940s and many many thousands of women became war brides…
In 1940 alone, 426,100 young couples were married – some spurred on to matrimony by the prospect of being split up thanks to service in the armed forces but many weddings can be put down to the fact that women were suddenly able to meet men in a way that just hadn’t been possible before the war. Away from controlling families and given a taste of relative freedom for the first time, dating, courting and falling became as much a part of service life as marching and uniforms.
Getting married in wartime was not an easy business by any stretch of the imagination. Men had to seek permission to marry from their superior officers and women had to overcome the natural family worry that widowhood beckoned. Even setting a date was difficult when leave, or time off, from active service was ‘a privilege and not a right’ and could be withdrawn at a moments notice throwing plans into disarray. Many weddings took place with stand-in best men and bridesmaids when couples’ first choices could not attend.
Images : Top Row Left via The Vintage Guide To London | Top Row Right via Tumblr | Second Row Left via Pinterest | Second Row Right via Getty Images | Third Row Left via BBR Club | Fourth Row Left via Flickr | Fourth Row Right via Flickr | Bottom Row via Chic Vintage Brides
Finding a venue was also tricky. Churches were very often targets for enemy bombers, being so easy to spot from the air, and many brides were married among the wreckage of their local churches. Registry offices in cities were of course another popular option, particularly when time didn’t allow for the traditional reading of the banns at a local church, but these civic venues were usually part of municipal offices and as such covered in sandbags. Of course, if an air raid siren sounded during the wedding, everyone had to adjourn to the nearest shelter until the all clear.
Once clothes rationing was introduced, finding something suitable to wear for a wedding wasn’t easy. With every item of clothing given a ‘points’ value and only so many points being allowed per person per year, there were no opportunities to shop for a bridal gown. Sometimes, women re-purposed dresses that had been used previously in the family or ‘acquired’ alternative materials and made their own. Butter muslin, curtain fabrics and even parachute silk made wartime wedding dresses. Further into the war, when young women were also drafted into the services, many simply wore their best uniforms. The ATS (the women’s army service) operated a wedding dress pool towards the end of the war so that women could borrow a dress from a centrally held store!
Rationing also hit every aspect of wedding planning. From the food for the reception to the decorations, photographs and even confetti and the bride’s make-up, wartime weddings absolutely encapsulated the ‘make do and mend’ spirit of the time. Families and communities pooled their food rations to try to have enough for a cake, some sandwiches and a small buffet. Gifting tins of food became a common occurrence and layers of wedding cake were quite often just cardboard! Women working in ‘admin’ saved the paper punched out from hole punches to use as confetti and nurses stealthily ‘borrowed’ sheets to use as tablecloths!
Images : Top Left via The Encyclopedia of New Zealand | Top Row Right via Elinor Florence | Second Row Left via National Media Museum | Second Row Right via Pinterest | Third Row via Flashbak | Bottom Row left via Pinterst | Bottom Row via IWM
War brides didn’t even have the happiness of a honeymoon to look forward to. Men (and women) were often just given a 24 or 48-hour leave pass for their weddings, only enough for a night or two away at a hotel. However, given how busy the nation’s trains were at the time and how much of the coastline was off-limits, even a night away at the seaside was hard to come by. There are many tales of newlyweds’ first nights together being ruined by the arrival of a telegram or telephone call summoning one or both parties back to base.
Despite all of this, the hardest part of any wartime wedding was the parting that inevitably followed. Lots of couples married quickly knowing that a solider, sailor or airman was about to be sent overseas to join the fighting. Then followed the months and even years of nerves waiting for letters or, worse, official notices. Wartime brides were brave. They loved, fought and waited for their men to come home and whilst some didn’t, those that did were assured of the warmest of welcomes and a proper start to married life, sometimes years after their wedding had taken place.