Who Is a War Widow?

Who is a war widow? This may seem an unnecessary question, but who is classed as a war widow in the eyes of the government has changed considerably over the years. When we think of war widows, we usually imagine their husbands died on a battlefield during active service. But what if a woman’s husband dies after his service, as a result of injuries he sustained in battle? How many years until his death can no longer be attributed to those injuries? What if a traumatised soldier commits suicide? How does the law consider civil partnerships in this context? Some of these questions are distressing, but they have been key to definitions of war widowhood for centuries. It’s worth taking a closer look at who defines war widowhood and how.

Perhaps the most obvious and most telling definitions of war widowhood can be found in the documents that dictate who is eligible for war widows’ pensions and benefits. In the Victorian period, when no state-funded war widows’ pension scheme existed, each branch of the armed forces had different, inconsistent, and insufficient processes in place to help war widows. In 1830, for example, to be eligible for any support from the army, a widow’s husband had to have held at least the rank of officer, and had to have served for ten or more years on full pay, or been killed in action. Many charities also applied moral criteria to whether a war widow was eligible for their assistance or not, and this moral policing of war widows became even more pronounced with the introduction of state-funded war widows’ pensions during the First World War. Despite the minuscule payments women were awarded under the new scheme, Angela Smith finds that “women applying for a war widow’s pension appear to have regarded it as very much a badge of pride in the absence of any other form of public recognition for their loss”.

Today the eligibility criteria for War Widow(er) Pension and for Armed Forces Survivors Benefits are much wider, and acknowledge that war widowhood can look different from person to person. For a War Widow(er) Pension, the criteria are as follows:

One of the following must apply. Your husband, wife or civil partner:

  • died as result of their service in HM Armed Forces before 6 April 2005
  • was a civil defence volunteer or a civilian and their death was a result of the 1939-1945 war
  • was a merchant seaman, a member of the naval auxiliary services, or a coastguard and their death was a result of an injury or disease they got during a war or because they were a prisoner of war
  • died as a result of their service as a member of the Polish Forces under British command during the 1939-1945 war, or in the Polish Resettlement Forces
  • was getting a War Pensions Constant Attendance Allowance at the time of their death, or would have been had they not been in hospital
  • was getting a War Disablement Pension at the 80% rate or higher and was getting Unemployability Supplement

You may be entitled to a pension if you lived with a partner as husband and wife or as civil partners.


Those widowed after 6 April 2005 are eligible for Armed Forces Survivors Benefits rather than a War Widow(er) Pension. The Ministry of Defence explains the relevant eligibility criteria as follows:

A surviving adult dependant is someone who is cohabiting and in a substantial and exclusive relationship with the deceased serviceperson, was not prevented from marrying or forming a civil partnership with them, and was financially dependent or interdependent on them. The serviceperson must not have been in a relationship with someone else.

These regulations provide us with a much more liberal definition of the term “war widow”. As marriage rates have been in steady decline in Britain since the 1970s, matrimony is no longer the sole defining criterion for who can call themselves a war widow, and neither is heterosexuality. As we can see from the second definition, though, monogamy remains a key factor; a person could lose out on their Armed Forces Survivors Benefits if their partner also had a simultaneous, long-standing relationship or affair with someone else. According to the eligibility criteria for War Widow(er) Pension, women whose partners were killed during the Second World War as civilians also classify as war widows.

Yet, if we hear about war widows in the news at all, an often sensation-hungry media usually directs our attention to women who lost their husbands as a result of heroic battles on land, at sea, or in the air. Implicitly, we are told that these women are worth listening to because their spouses were heroes. But we must not forget that war claims its victims in all kinds of ways, and over long periods of time. We must not forget that war widows’ stories are worthy of our attention in their own right, and that all of them are worth hearing and worth remembering.

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