Letter to an Unknown Soldier
It has been a hundred years since Prime Minister Asquith declared that Britain had joined WWI. Very public memorials and commemoration ceremonies will take place around the country to ensure that those who gave their lives are never forgotten. But how do those of us who didn’t live through it and no longer have family who can share first hand stories honour the fallen with real feeling?
Letter to an Unknown Soldier is a project attempting to put the nation’s thoughts and feelings on a cruel but increasingly distant war into a very special, modern kind of memorial. We’re all invited to write a letter to the unknown soldier who stands at Paddington Station reading a letter from home. To date, he has received almost 18,000 letters and all submissions will be archived at the British Library, where they’ll be made permanently available online.
The death toll for WWI was so immense that it became almost impossible to summon the resources to return soldiers’ bodies from the Western Front. So they stayed there, buried without headstones displaying their names.
What’s nice about this project is that apart from the 500 word limit, you can tell him whatever you like. There are no rules. Reading through some of the letters already submitted, few people have taken the same angle. Some have retold stories belonging to their own heritage. Others have expressed their sadness that he and so many other young men died such painful deaths, seemingly without reason. Children have drawn pictures or written poetry. Some have chosen to tell him how the world has changed since he departed it, while others have just wanted him to know that his bravery has never been forgotten.
My interest in social history has always been in the finer details of everyday life. An ordinary day in someone’s life is infinitely more exciting to me than a spectacular one. What did they eat for breakfast that day? What did they talk about at work? What did they worry about or laugh at? Over 12 million letters passed through the Army Postal Service every week. That’s a staggering figure, but it was all they had. It was their only way of communicating with the people they loved. There was no television or social media or mobile phones. We forget, these days, what a luxury technology is. It often feeds us too much information. In 1914, there were just letters. I wonder what was written inside these millions of letters. Which pieces of news did they pass on to each other? Were they honest or did they aim to spare each other’s feelings?
As a writer I’m a storyteller first. When I looked closely at the soldier I didn’t want to tell him what the world is like now or how sorry I am that he didn’t make it home. I wanted to know what was written on the piece of paper he’s holding. My letter is from Elsie to Edward. The reality of what this war means is beginning to sink in for Elsie and she’s caught in a moment of desperation and panic when she writes to him. She’s a clever woman. She knows that what little she sees of the war isn’t the full harshness of it. Whatever she suspects Edward sees every day, she knows it must be far worse. That doesn’t stop her wanting the reassurance that her imagination is running away with her though.
You can read Elsie’s letter here and listen to me reading it by clicking the audio player below. I’d love to know what you think of their story. If you want to write him a letter of your own, you can do so by clicking here and submitting before 11pm on August 4th.
Are you safe and well? I ask, not knowing when these words will reach you nor how soon the paper touched by your hand will find its way back to mine. But please do write, darling.
Days are so long knowing you won’t be opening the door of an evening. The nights even longer without your hand brushing my shoulder. I never imagined it possible to miss the rumble of your snoring. I do.
I keep busy. Though, I’m told to rest. I don’t like to sit mithering. I picture terrible things. When I’m fretting I read the Beatrix Potter book you gave me. That naughty fox! I read the note you wrote inside, “Happy Christmas to my Christmas angel.” If I read your handwriting out loud I hear your voice crystal clear, telling me to stop being daft crying at a children’s book. I’m laughing thinking about it. Are you smiling too, Eddie? I’m hearing your laugh as if you were here. Please, love, write back so I can read your words aloud and hear your voice again.
You are so very brave. I’m proud knowing my husband is fighting to keep us safe. This war will be finished soon. It has to be. When it’s over, you’ll come home. They will call you a hero. People will hold doors open for you, buy you beer and tell you how grateful they are to you. I know it.
What’s it like there? Tell me honestly. I asked one of the injured boys who got sent home when we had a tea for him. He didn’t tell me. He wouldn’t. Do you eat enough? Can you have a bath? Is it cold? I knitted a scarf so you’re not chilly. You know how tight your chest gets. I put a touch of my violet perfume on it to remind you of me. It’s the one you like. The one that makes you quite silly.
Forgive me for saying, but Annie got the dreadful news that her brother was shot. It tied a knot in my stomach. They can’t even bring him home. He will lie there forever. Can you imagine? Of course you can. My heart breaks for her. That’s why I had to write to you today. I knitted all night. I will write every day and knit a hundred scarves if I must. Don’t be cross that I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t settle while thinking of poor Annie. At least my hands were useful.
How to close these letters when I don’t want them to end? I want to talk to you about tittle-tattle until you kiss me to stop me bending your ear, like you always do. It’s curious what you miss. Do you miss home? I know you do, but I want you to say it. Write it, rather.
Be careful, Eddie. Do what you must but don’t be foolish. The little angel growing inside me needs to meet its father.