There are many stories told about the men at war, this is the story of the women who loved and lost their men to war. Shouldn’t it be my father who walks me down the aisle on my wedding day, yet the soft arm that I hold is my mothers’, she gently leans in and whispers ‘be strong my love’ which are the words my father spoke to her many many times over their life together, I blinked away a tear and lifted my head..As the heads’ of family and friends’ turn to watch first my flower girl delicately throwing petals of springs freshest pink roses then my little suited page boy who with eyes fixed ahead as if on a serious mission, I quietly gaze down at my wedding dress and touch every layer as it were the most precious possession I had and in many ways it was.
For this dress and its layers held many lifetimes of love and loss, I look up and see my great-grandmother, she may seem a frail woman bundled up in a wheelchair but I can still see the strength of a young woman who endured the biggest heart ache and here is where my story truly begins.
It was early 1914, my great-grandmother Alice May was barely 5 foot tall with jet black hair and sparkling blue eyes, at 15 she left the tiny mining hamlet of Tuckingmill, Cornwall where she was born and lived with her mother, father and two young sisters to become a seamstress for a shipping line. Arsons shipping was a large conglomerate of passenger steamers and freight ships and Alice worked long hours sewing linen and even uniforms for the staff and crew. It was early in June 1914 and there were rumblings of war and dark times, Alice was offered a berth to New Zealand a far off exotic land, she had heard of it but that was all she knew, it seemed a daunting thought but she was willing to see what life over there held. The six week voyage went by rather quickly she thought but it wasn’t without the odd scary moment with very rough seas, illness and even a quick midwifery lesson as she helped deliver two bonny babies, by the end of it she was very happy to see land. The ship landed in the port of Auckland a bustling city with a beautiful harbour many years later to be named the City of Sails, Alice tenderly made her way down the docks to find her billet family and begin her new life. The Cline family welcomed her with open arms and beaming faces, Alice relished the cosy feeling of being with a family; it soon put her feelings of homesickness for Cornwall to rest. And it was here right on the docks as the Cline family were fussing around her that Alice’s eyes fell upon Albert Henry Cline the Cline’s oldest son affectionately known as Bertie, he was 18, six foot tall and when he turned to welcome Alice she felt the blush rise from her toes to her cheeks. From that moment on they were together every moment they could, Albert was an enlisted man with the New Zealand Infantry Brigade and Alice found work in a factory making sails for tall ships. Then when word came that he was being shipped out to Gallipoli in November of 1914 he immediately asked Alice to be his wife, they married quickly and upon his departure Bertie gave her a beautiful lace handkerchief with both their initials embroided on it, her tears fell into it as she watched his ship with troops singing and waving to their loved ones leave the harbour, the wives, girlfriends and mothers cried long after the last echo of song was heard.
My great grandfather never returned to his beloved Alice, sadly he became one of the casualties of the war along with thousands of other soldiers from New Zealand and Australia but will always be remembered through Anzac Day a commemoration of the loss to both countries. My great grandmother along with my grandmother in later years made the long journey to Gallipoli to lay a wreath where Bertie and his fellow countrymen fell, a trip I hope to make myself one day.
From this love between Alice and Bertie my grandmother was born and also the first layer of my dress for at the very bottom and foundation is the lace handkerchief with two faint initials entwined delicately sewn on the front, a gift my great grandmother gave to me and I was honoured to receive.
The next layer holds some very precious mementos but to get there we have to go back to mid-1915 when Elizabeth Ann Cline was born to Alice and the late Albert, Alice was offered a place of residence in the small township of Thames a booming gold mining town and there was much need for seamstresses. There were many women in the same circumstance as Alice, widowed far too soon and either with child or with new babies, it made for a close knit group of women who were a strong support to each other. Elizabeth was a happy child who grew up around the gruff mining and logging men who spent many an hour or two at one of the hundred pubs in the town, despite this Elizabeth was a lovely gentle soul and at the age of fifteen fell in love with a boy who lived on one of the farms on the outskirts of town. Farmers’ were considered wealthy at that time and the backbone of the nation and Jack Seymour was not too happy that his young son Connor had fallen in love with the daughter of a sewing woman and did all he could to keep them apart, even sending Connor off to military camp. But Connor continued to see Elizabeth even taking unauthorised leave to see her as well as writing to her at least twice a day. Elizabeth became affectionately known as Betty and soon gained Jack’s approval by joining the red cross as a nurse as the world fell into yet another war when Germany invaded Poland in 1939.Connor had already enlisted and was at the Papakura Training Camp, he was in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and knew he had little time with Elizabeth before he was sent to foreign lands to fight in the war. He never wanted her to be a war bride so he made her a promise that on his return he would marry her and they would settle on the farm, his unit was then sent off to Greece and then later Italy where he fought in the Battle of El Alamein and was involved in defeating the Germans there. Connor wrote as often as he could and Elizabeth treasured those letters of promise and hope until his return in 1944, they married with his father’s blessing and Jack had become a little enamoured with Alice. After a brief honeymoon Connor was retrenched as part of the forces that occupied Japan in 1945 and sadly this is where Connor was to lose his life killed by a Japanese sniper as the war was coming to a close, Connor was hailed a hero as he had just carried several fellow soldiers to safety before taking that fatal shot.
Elizabeth was devastated to learn that she lost her love on the eve of the end of the war but she was not alone, many widows were sharing her grief, when this news reached Elizabeth she fell to the floor clutching her stomach and telegram with one hand as she was eight months pregnant with my father Peter and never had the chance to tell Connor he was to become a father, the sadness never left her eyes.
This layer of my dress is the heaviest because within the layer and hidden by stitching are the medals my grandfather received posthumously, one is the Victoria Cross (awarded for possessing supreme courage, a disregard for danger and complete devotion to duty) and the New Zealand War Service Medal, my grandmother wanted there to be some part of my grandfather with me, we both drenched that layer in tears as she meticulously hand stitched the medals in and Alice watched on with little pearls of wisdom of what stitch to use and it is with honour and pride that I carry his medals with me.
The second to last layer and closest to my heart is from my mother Holly and as importantly my father Peter,the story of how they met is as romantic as the rest and as tragic for my dad as his dad before him became a soldier and like his father an infantryman. Australia and New Zealand joined the allies in fighting in Vietnam in the year of 1966 as part of the 1st Australian Task Force he was barely 21, my mother being raised on neighbouring farm was very much a flower child and the war was a million miles away from her free thinking mind until she met my father while she was helping deliver fresh milk supplies to the armed forces, she decided then and there he was the only one for her.
From the letters I was later to see that he had written her from Vietnam and ones she had sent to him she was a strong willed girl and had her heart set on being married to him. My mother Holly was impatient and terrified every day he was gone but he calmed her with the words ‘be strong my love’ and those were the words that she used to calm me to this day from skinning my knees from a fall to my first heartbreak. My dad did two tours of Vietnam and came home a tortured man who never really smiled again, they married after his first tour and his letters were so joyful for the future especially when he now had me his baby daughter to come home to, he named me Alice May after his grandmother but when he was away that last time his letters showed a broken man and deeply sad ,my mother would read them and weep, I would curl up next to her and whisper be strong my love, be strong.
My dad came home in 1972 as they pulled all the troops out of an unwinnable war with a sickness that could not be cured he was very thin and deteriorated before our eyes. We had a few more cherished months with him before the cancer took him from us and as my mother lay her head on his chest for the last time I heard him utter those few precious words that were special to the two of them and then his chest rose and fell for the last time. So here hidden in a pocket inside this lace panel of my wedding dress are some of those treasured letters that he wrote to my mother all those years ago, fading pages that still hold dreams and wishes for the future reminding me of their forever love.
And now as I walk down the aisle on the arm of my treasured mother Holly, I look and see my grandmother Betty and great-grandmother Alice with a twinkle in her eye taking in all of my dress and seeing their own life and loves in every layer of my dress. I then see the heads of our guests turn and there little gasps of shock and surprise and I can tell you that are because the final layer of my dress is a bright red military cumber bund that is my waistband on my white gown. It belongs to my future husband and love of my life Lance who awaits me at the end of the aisle in full military uniform for yes he is also a soldier, a navy man in fact and with pride and no prejudice I will take his side as his wife and when he is sent to serve I will as my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother have done before me hold our children close and gently say ‘be strong my love’ for our generations of men who have been and yet to come.