History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

The soldier's revenge

Published: September 16, 2011 at 7:27 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

This week's Friday funny, brought to you by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, tells the story of a 'Dear John' letter, of the type many men serving in the forces have received over the years. The story itself has appeared in many different forms, but what is the truth behind it?


The story

A royal marine was on a tour of duty in Helmand province, Afghanistan. Months before he was due to go home again, he got a letter from his girlfriend in England. She said she was seeing another bloke. She was sorry, but their relationship was now over. Could he please, she added, send her back all the photos he had of her?

The marine was angry and upset, but like true comrades his mates rallied round in his time of need. They got together and pooled all the photos they could spare of the various women they knew. These they then presented to the marine, so he could send them all back to his former girlfriend in England with a note saying:

"Sorry, but I can't remember which one you are. Could you please pick out your picture and send the rest back to me? Thanks."

The truth

It's interesting that this one's doing the rounds again. It might even be a true story, or at any rate it's the sort of stroke that a jilted soldier, serving far from home, might have pulled in the past, and might still be doing.

The joke is much older than the present-day British deployment in Afghanistan, and its origin is probably American. It was a common enough yarn in the 1970s for the scriptwriters of TV comedy series MASH (set in the Korean war) to use it as a gag, and it was certainly commonplace in the US forces during the Second World War.

Serving for several years in Europe or the Pacific, a long way from home and the wives and girlfriends who had promised to remain faithful, American servicemen dreaded getting the "Dear John" letter announcing that a sweetheart was seeing someone else.

One Second World War American variation has a US marine in the Pacific getting the letter, and using his camera to take shapshots of his ugliest comrades, monkeys in the trees, oil-covered ships' stokers and even Japanese prisoners; he sends these back along with his ex's photo saying: "Dear Mary, I can't remember which of these pictures is yours."

When you think about it, there would be no particularly pressing reason why the young lady would be that bothered about wanting her photo returned. So her ex-boyfriend has a picture of her? So what?

... Well it's because this story pre-dates the Second World War by a long way. There are much older, non-military, versions going back to the late 19th century in which the woman asks her jilted lover to return her photo and in which he gains his revenge by sending her loads of different pictures.


In one case, the man sends photos of 52 different women explaining he uses them as playing-cards – and she's the two of diamonds. Back then any respectable woman would indeed want her picture returned because her photo on the mantlepiece of a guy who wasn't her fiancé would call her honour into question.


Sponsored content