War  |  Memory  |  Gratitude

The Story of Ellen Hannay and Lance Sergeant Robert Hannay

The Story of Ellen Hannay and Lance Sergeant Robert Hannay


Lance Sergeant Robert (Bob) Hannay 1st Battalion The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders was killed in action on 14th April 1944 at Zubza - just 10 miles short of Kohima as 5 Brigade of the British 2nd Division advanced up the road to relieve the Siege of Kohima - in the first set-piece battle between the Japanese 31st Division and the British 2nd Division. 

He had married in 1938 and when his regiment embarked for India in April 1942 he left his wife Ellen who was working in a munitions factory in Scotland.

News of his death in India was devastating for Ellen. Unable to work, and unwilling to face life in the house she had shared with Bob, she returned to live with her mother. Jim Gibson, son of Ellen's brother Joe, then a one-year-old, was told by his mother that he used to try and comfort Ellen in her desolation.

Some months after Bob's death, Ellen applied for a role in South East Asia with the Women's Voluntary Service - now the Royal Voluntary Service. Her first posting was Calcutta, where she immediately set about arranging a journey to Kohima to see Bob's grave. This was achieved with the help of friends in the Army and brought her great comfort.

It was the first of eight visits in the course of Ellen's long life. Her most difficult visit, aged 70, to Kohima was in 1985, because Nagaland had become a restricted area.

In 1989, the Royal British Legion started its annual pilgrimages to Kohima, six of which Ellen joined. She was a regular participant at the annual remembrance service at the Cenotaph and at the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall where, in 1989, wearing a specially-made dress with inserts of Cameron of Ericht tartan, she led the first ever parade of war widows.

Ellen Hannay never remarried. Her last pilgrimage to Kohima was in the year 2000. She died in April 2009 a few days before her 94th birthday.

In 2009 Ellen's nephew Jim, the toddler who had comforted her in the first months of her bereavement, returned to Kohima, undertaking her final wish, that her ashes should be taken to Kohima and placed next to her husband's grave. Sergeant Hannay's headstone in Kohima war cemetery is inscribed with the words chosen by his widow "Beatae Memoriae: Quis Nos Separabit" (Blessed Memories: Who will separate us?)

The below photograph, taken in December 1945, shows Ellen kneeling at the side of her husband's grave.  She may well have been the  very first British War Widow to visit the war cemetery at Kohima. 

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