Not long after my arrival in St. John’s, I discovered two short stories by Tryphena Duley. “A Pair of Grey Socks” and “Mothers of Men,” written and published between 1916 and 1918, were designed to bolster women’s home front support for the soldiers fighting as part of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. As literary works, they’re not particularly amazing. Rather, they are conventional in form, tone and structure.
The first intertwines the stories of a young Newfoundland woman knitting socks for soldiers on the home front and an Irish soldier stationed on the battlefield next to the Newfoundland Regiment. Predictably they get married and produce two lovely children. At the end, the family is gathered around a tattered grey sock and presumably, they live happily ever after.
The second is much darker. Published sometime after Newfoundland’s stunning losses on July 1, 1916, it is the story of a mother trying to come to terms with the death of her son. As she drowns in her sorrows, she is taken to the a heavenly space where her son is happy and fulfilled. The story is about loss, despair, grief, and resignation, yes, but it is also about hope, redemption and living once more. It can’t be a coincidence that the story appeared around Easter.
Both stories can tell us much about the experience of war, particularly on the home front. They open the spaces of the imagination, allowing us entry into the culture, language, thoughts, hopes and dreams of women on the home front. As I note in an article I wrote about these stories:
Jane Potter’s aptly titled Boys in Khaki, Girls in Print … expresses the idea that women experienced war vicariously and through imaginative fiction, much of which was authored by women. These works might be best understood not as literature, but as cultural artefacts (4). As Potter observes: “Novels that exploited the Great War … were part of the public’s fantasy investment in the War … there was a continuing demand for stories that brought order where there was chaos and allowed the reader vicariously to experience life as she would like it to be lived” (91). Such works not only comforted women at home, but also often functioned as propaganda designed to foster support and commitment to the war effort.
I am, at a a personal level, much more drawn to “A Pair of Grey Socks” than I am to “Mothers of Men.” Perhaps it is the hopeless romanticism, the naive belief that everything would turn out all right and that nothing would change after the war. There is an innocence in this story, and perhaps that’s the result of the wilful blindness necessary to survive the uncertainties of the wartime period, and the sorrows that were certain to follow. Happy endings were necessary – vital even – to the success of the war effort on the home front. If a happy ending wasn’t possible, then why were we fighting at all?
In one of the central scenes in “A Pair of Grey Socks,” a young woman named Mary, encouraged by a friend, places a photo of herself, together with a short verse, in one of the pairs of socks that she has knitted for the soldiers. She chooses a large pair, for “she didn’t like small men” (!). This photo finds its way to an Irish soldier stationed next to the Newfoundland Regiment, who carries the photo near his heart as he continues the battle. Mary’s smiling face and gently flirtatious words sustain him through the darkest days of the war. But they also serve to support and encourage his adherence to wartime masculinity: looking at the photo, he imagines that Mary is “just the kind of girl who would want a chap to be a man.” Of course, the two later meet and marry and in the final scene of the story we see them together with their children – a son and a daughter, natch – congregated around the tattered grey sock.
Imagine my delight, then, to see this story about a wartime message sewn into a Scottish kilt during World War I:
A secret note has been discovered hidden in the folds of a kilt destined for a soldier heading to the front in the First World War.
Economic historian Dr Helen Paul, of the University of Southampton, found the hand-written message when she was removing the packing stitches from the kilt, which has been passed down her family over decades.
The message reads: “I hope your kilt will fit you well, & in it you will look a swell. If married never mind. If single drop a line. Wish you bags of luck, & a speedy return back to Blighty.”
Underneath was the name of Helen Govan, of 49 Ardgowan Street in Glasgow.
How many young women put messages and photos in the garments they crafted for the soldiers on the front lines? And how many soldiers carried those messages with them in the trenches? There are still so many more stories waiting to be told.