In these days of instant messaging, WhatsApp and texts, the pleasure of writing and receiving letters is perhaps in danger of being forgotten.
Nobody would consider me a great letter writer by any stretch of the imagination. However I used to enjoy writing letters to friends, and especially enjoyed receiving them. There is something about the long form nature of letters which isn’t found in any other kind of communication. Conversation has an immediacy to it which is great, but letter writing gives you a chance to weigh your choice of words. To carefully plan out your thoughts. To make sure that you are saying what you really mean (and without interruption!).
A letter received can be a treasure which lasts for many years, picked up and reviewed. A connection which lasts across time. I remember when my mother in law handed down an old jewellery box that used to belong to her mother. Investigating it, we found a hidden compartment at the bottom containing three treasures: a love poem written by my wife’s grandfather, and two little thank you letters written by my mother in law when she was about eight years old. It is hard to believe any of today’s modern communications reaching that level of longevity or associated affection!
In Some Detail
The editor Mandy Kirkby has brought together a collection of touching letters written between soldiers on the front line and their loved ones back home. They are collected from all fronts of the Great War and arranged in the following logical sections:
- Cheerio blue eyes
- Somewhere in France
- Separation and longing
- Après ale Guerre
- Silver linings
- The longest goodbye
- Dark days
- The end of the war
The collection includes letters from the home front as well as those from the front line. For many of them, Mandy has done additional research to tell us whether there was a happy ending after the war or a tragic conclusion. I was also pleased to see that there are letters from many nationalities. I had expected British, Australian, and American letters, but there are also French, Indian, Russian, and German letters too.
This glimpses into peoples lives sometimes have happy endings and sometimes tragic ones. Often the soldier at the front died, but sometimes the relationship died at home. On some occasions the soldier kept writing but his letters went unanswered and you can only imagine the hopelessness they felt. On other occasions you can see drawings which a soldiers small children sent to them, covered with little ‘kisses’. Wilfred Cove was killed in 1917 and one such drawing along with a photo of his daughters was found in his breast pocket, close to his heart.
It is a helpful reminder, if we need one, that while nations go to war, the soldiers are all people with the same hopes, fears, loves and loved ones.
I bought this book as historical research for my upcoming game “Love & Barbed Wire” and I’ve been delighted with it. I hadn’t expected it to cover such a breadth of nationalities, and the arrangement of chapters follows a clear sequence that takes you through the war.
It has been really useful to me for the examples of language which was common in those days - some of the phrases, particularly the terms of endearment sound strange to modern ears. God and prayers were probably more frequently a part of everyday life for more people back then too. This informs the guidance that I want to give in the game; I would like people to be able to write in a way which feels of its time.
Why you might want to read this book
If you enjoy glimpses into history and the real lives of real people you may find this book interesting. It isn’t a long book, and the bite-sized nature of the letters means that it is easy to pick up and put down if you are a browser rather than a studier.
The book can be a bit of an emotional roller-coaster to read. The expressions of love can be lovely and even sometimes bold, but the tragedy of war is ever-present.
I purchased the kindle version on Amazon, although I imagine that it is available in a variety of formats and stores.