Afghanistan veteran with medals and child
30 June 2014

There for them then, here for them now: why we must not forget Forces families

In this blog David Murray, Chief Executive of SSAFA, explains why World War One commemorations must include the families on the Home Front.

There for them then, here for them now: why we must not forget Forces families

By David Murray

Chief Executive of SSAFA. Before joining SSAFA, David served in the RAF from 1979 to 2012. As Assistant Chief of the Defence Staff, he provided strategic oversight of world-wide welfare support to serving families.

The centenary of the start of World War One in August will be a time to remember all those men and women who played their part in that conflict. Like many, I have a personal interest in their sacrifice as my own great uncle Private Samuel Wakeham was killed during the Battle of the Somme in September 1916.

The British collective memory of The Great War recalls the death and destruction in the trenches of the Western Front. However, there is another story that should be remembered; the story of the Home Front and the families, the women and children left behind by those who went off to fight. In 1914, hundreds of thousands of men walked out of their front doors, often at short notice and many for the last time, to answer the nation's call. Families suddenly found themselves without a father, a husband, a partner, very often the sole breadwinner in the family, leading to fears that wives and children could be left destitute.

And it wasn't long after the outbreak of World War One before the government recognised the practical impact of sending so many young men away to war.  In 1914, SSAFA (then the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association) was the only charity caring for the families of troops sent to the front line. Without a welfare system in place the government turned to SSAFA and asked for help to fill the gap that quickly appeared in support to the servicemen's families.

Within a few weeks SSAFA branches throughout the land were ordered to recruit and the charity grew from 7,000 to 50,000 volunteers in a matter of months. A specific charitable fund was also quickly established. Known as "The National Relief Fund", it struck a chord with the public who were fast to respond and money poured in. Within 15 months a staggering £5million had been raised which enabled SSAFA to assist more than 1 million people in 1914 alone.

Mrs Wood, a SSAFA volunteer in 1914, said, "When the bugle call rang out ...there were two sorts of recruiting going on, men answering the country's call, and the non-combatants who came in their thousands to serve under the banner of SSAFA." From the very beginning of the war, SSAFA worked tirelessly to support military families. It not only addressed the vital issues of accommodation for those made homeless and healthcare for soldiers and their families, it also helped to boost morale through providing the little things in life and thousands of children's toys were distributed at Christmas 1914. As well as practical face-to-face support for families, SSAFA was also leading the way on some very modern issues, fighting and defeating the more reactionary elements in the Church and the Government who felt that the families of unmarried partners should not be provided for.

Through two World Wars and every subsequent conflict involving Britain, SSAFA has been here for our servicemen and women and their families. Today we still support some 90,000 current and former Forces personnel and their families each year. Many of the challenges of 100 years ago remain unchanged and families continue to need our help on issues ranging from injury, disability and bereavement to housing, finance and transition. The ability to adapt quickly to their needs remains at the heart of everything SSAFA does. We never stand still, so our new services provide vital support wherever and whenever it is most needed.
For example, over 900 people are now members of our Family Support Groups which play an important role in supporting those who have been bereaved or are coping with life-changing injury to a loved one. In addition, our pioneering mentoring scheme is providing one-to-one support to those who have had to leave the Forces earlier than planned due to injury or ill health.

The bottom line for us is providing support - support for those who have done or are doing their bit for our country, and their families, making sure that when they are in need, we are there for them. They have made their selfless contribution and the least that we can do is be there for them in return.

SSAFA in World War One