Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Alastair Massie & Frances Parton
Simon & Schuster, 6 Feb 2014
ISBN 9781 471102646
This is a compilation of letters to and from soldiers in the First and Second World Wars, to their loved ones. It has been compiled from the archives of the National Army Museum for whom Massie works. It is a welcome antidote to books of blood and strategy, showing as it does the human cost of war in the sense of the emotional stress it generates.
It is interesting to note the evolution in writing styles from the sometimes stiffly expressed emotions of those in WW1 to more modern and more freely written thoughts in WW2. Interesting too to note the different style of officers and other ranks. On which subject the preface records Kitchener’s exhortation that “subalterns may not marry, captains might marry, majors should marry, and lieutenant-colonels must marry”. I note he ignored his own counsel!
There is an overwhelming sense of decency in these letters (understandable that the authors did not include any other sort of material). Amongst the most poignant are those “last letters” to be opened in the event of death. Arthur Money’s note to his wife in 1915 would tug the hardest of heart strings.
In the current era of sat phones and emails that allow near-instant communication with troops in the most remote corners of the battlefield, it is difficult to imagine the importance of letters in sustaining relationships. In this book there is many a tale of troops going months without a letter, to receive a bunch all of a sudden, of wives waiting anxiously at home for the arrival of a letter, but not one of the dreaded cyclostyled missives from the War Office or Monarch informing them in cold officialese that they were now a widow. Kiddie and Sid provide an illustration of this “I had looked all week for the postman, and began to wonder what was the matter”. He wrote a letter on 14 June 1917, and died later that day.
As well as proving the adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder, many of the letters illuminate the living conditions of the troops in a way that few chronicles of battle manage. Rat-like living in WW1 dugouts comes to life so to speak, although the reader should remember that most men shielded their womenfolk from the worst of their privations.
As the book shifts to WW2, a new pre-occupation of the troops emerges – the potential infidelity of their women – which adds to the emotional stress when in combat. The ardour of the Americans is nowhere clearer in pursuit of the single Heather Taylor by Rick, a US airman. He failed.
As the war progressed, it is clear that some soldiers were able to enjoy a Rabelaisian progress across Northern Europe. One officer is remarkably frank in his communications with his mother, in noting his ever-growing list of conquests!
It is notable that there are no RFC or Navy letters in this collection – perhaps understandable given its NAM sources. However their inclusion would have created a more rounded presentation of the themes. Overall a most moving book, and well illustrated too.