This question was asked by 14-18 NOW, a major cultural programme taking place across the United Kingdom to mark the centenary of the First World War. Now, a selection of the 20,000 letters written in response are featured in a new book.
Published by William Collins, Letter to an Unknown Soldier: A New Kind of War Memorial features letters from celebrities, schoolchildren, pensioners, students, nurses, serving members of the forces, and even the prime minister.
Here, we bring you some of the highlights…
Dear Unknown Soldier
If only I could talk to you rather than writing a letter – but then what would we say if we were face to face? You would surely find me strange – an old woman by your lights, and one who is wearing trousers and doing what you would see as a man’s job. Worse, I fear that you would find me obtuse, tactless and insensitive.
I want to ask you so many questions but would you want to answer them? Soldiers in your war – and I suspect that it is true of most – find civilians intensely irritating with their talk of glory and heroism, their unwillingness to accept that war is so often boring, dull and mindless when it is not about killing or being killed. Civilians are full of hate for the enemy. I suspect you are more likely to feel sympathy for those soldiers across No Man’s Land. Those poor sods, I can imagine you saying, they’re caught up in the same mess.
Let me start with an easy question. Who are you when you are not a soldier? Where do you come from? From remote farms, in the Welsh hills perhaps or in deepest Cornwall? Is the war the first time you have been in a city or seen a big railway terminus like Paddington? Or are you a clerk from a City office, snatched from your comfortable routine of train in, train out, rain and shine? When you go home what is it like? I so wish I could place you. Is it a farmhouse kitchen, a pretty house in the suburbs, or a London flat?
Can we talk about class? Do you have a rich father? A university education? Unlikely I suppose given that the upper classes are such a small section of society. It’s more likely that you are from the middle or working classes. They’re so many more now. Perhaps you belong to a union. They’ve been getting quite militant lately, haven’t they?
I can’t help but be more personal still. You look very young to me. Have you been in love? Oh please tell me that you have. You are reading a letter – let it be one from someone you love and who loves you. I do so hope that you and your loved one – girl or boy, we don’t care so much about that these days – have had time to throw yourself into each other’s arms. OK – I’ll stop there because I suspect that I am making you blush but I have to tell you that it is so unfair if you have been swept from the earth without enjoying some of the pleasures of being human.
War isn’t fair of course – I scarcely need tell you that – and we rely on the young like you to fight them. Old people do not make good soldiers. The young do because they are full of energy and readier to be brave and reckless. You went off hoping you would come back. Forgive me for being blunt but you haven’t. Nor have millions of others.
Whether it was worth it I will leave to others to decide. I just wish we could talk about it all.
PS I don’t want to call you Unknown any more.
Enough time has passed now for us to think only one thought: that we will never see you again. The last I heard you were cheerful and funny, as ever.
Remember when I told you that I was going to declare myself a conscientious objector? I saw a look in your eye. ‘My brother, a coward?’ It nearly killed me. I would give anything to be in your place, a hero respected and at peace – and not just because of the insults, beatings and stones hurled at me from bus conductors, shopkeepers and children in the streets.
Every night Ma and Pa sob as they try to swallow their food. I eat in another room. They cannot look at me. I try not to feel sorry for myself, but I do believe it is wrong to kill. I made my decision. You made yours.
For eternity your image will stand for unquestioning courage. I will die proud of you and ashamed of myself. And that is in spite of me being right.
I write this letter to briefly thank you for your service, your efforts and your sacrifice which you and your friends made 100 + years ago.
Having served in the British Army for twenty-two years myself, I can identify with some of the things you have experienced. The boredom, the routine, the camaraderie and laughter, and all the other things soldiers can and do share worldwide as they go about their duties.
I thank you personally for the things you experienced and went through so that my generation and others didn’t have to experience them. The fear, the noise, the horrors that were yours during the intense fighting and shelling of the war you were sent to.
I thank you on behalf of all my generation for what you done for us.
All the best
59, Hereford, Security Adviser, Veteran
I served twenty-two years in the British Army and can partly
identify with the Unknown Soldier.
With most of us asking the same questions, among them: did you receive this letter today or weeks or even months ago and produce it now to refresh your memory of what it says; is it a love letter, a letter from home, or lines from a friend you are happy to know is alive; who knitted that scarf untied round your neck, the only piece of non-regulation kit and a clue; is that a smile on your face or is it just the way your mouth curves when it is settled in repose; is it possible you never in fact received the letter but composed it and now are reading it through one last time before dropping it in the postbag; if so, is it a love letter, a letter from home, or lines to a friend who will be happy to know you alive; yes with most of us asking these same questions we forget to think this might not be a letter at all but a list of questions you have prepared for us, among them: what makes it possible to end now our conjectures and leave perfectly free and easy, heading into town or out to Oxford and the West, with it making no difference to anything apparently whether we notice you watching us or fail to notice.
I never knew you, but my Grandfather, Fred, joined up, like you. He’d been a miner and worked at the pithead at Senghenydd – leaving just before 440 died in the explosion on 14 October 1913. He’d left the colliery to go and work in Dundee, where he also joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, before emigrating to New Zealand in 1911.
Three years later, war broke out in Europe and after working as a gold-digger and miner in New Zealand, Fred joined the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) as a field artillery driver. This involved driving a team of horses pulling a gun carriage into the field of battle.
A few days after joining up there was an explosion on 12 September 1914, at the Ralph Mine in Huntly, where he had been working, claiming the lives of 43 men. He must have sensed then that he had some form of charmed life.
Fred served at Gallipoli and at the Somme, where he was injured and hospitalised. Like so many others he never spoke of it aft erwards. A million soldiers died or were wounded during the Battle of the Somme, and 100,000 died at Gallipoli, so it’s incredible that Fred survived both campaigns, albeit with injuries.
After being evacuated to England on medical grounds, Fred was visited in hospital by Sarah Jones, who was raised by his half-sister after her own mother died. They fell in love and wanted to marry, but Fred was forced to New Zealand before he could be offi cially discharged by the ANZACs. Before he returned to the UK he worked for the Wellington City fire department.
Fred made it home to Britain safely and married Sarah in 1919. They settled in West Chislehurst, a suburb of southeast London, and had six children, the youngest being my father. Never one to shy away from danger, Fred joined the London Fire Brigade and received a bronze medal in recognition of his ‘long and zealous service’. Fred served during the Blitz of the Second World War and must have faced considerable danger most nights. He suffered a number of shrapnel wounds while fighting fires during the war.
In 1944, Fred was discharged from the fire service due to injuries, but he continued to work in the theatres of London’s West End as a fireman – responsible for lowering and raising the curtain during each performance.
Fred died in 1967 when I was nine and I wish I’d had the opportunity to talk through his life with him. As I write this, Frederick and Sarah’s legacy is six children, 16 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren – 67 and counting. History has come full circle now that three of his 2 x great-grandchildren have been born in New Zealand.
So although I never knew you Tommy, I knew one like you and you and all your companions, whether they died or survived are remembered. Thank you.
56, Haverfordwest, Grandson
To let Tommy know my Grandfather’s story.
Dear Darlin’ Man,
– for that is what you are. A man. My man.
Presently you are needed to be a soldier my love, but soon, when it is over and you return to me, you will be needed to be a man.
To them, you are one of many. To me, you are only you, and there is not one other in all this world who can be the you, you are to me. Who else knows where you hate to be tickled? Or where you love to be kissed? Or how you want to be touched? No-one else. Just me.
Please carry me in your heart, and when it’s so dark and difficult, remember the soft days and the sunshine to come. Remember that I shared myself with you. Remember it all, the moan, the sweat, the smell, the wet. Remember the tremble. And the yelp. Remember that we are alive together. The most alive.
Above all, amongst the black mess, remember the love. Let it fill you up. Let it be your energy and our engine. Let it bring you home. I am only some of me till you are here again. The rest of me is with you. Take a peek. You’ll find me there.
Warm. Clean. Ready.
God Bless You.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier: A New Kind of War Memorial (William Collins) is now on sale. To find out more, click here.
To read more about 14-18 NOW, click here.