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WWI letters project offers window into brutality of battle

01/02/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 03/03/2015 05:59 EST
One hundred years ago, soldiers from all over the world were spending the holiday season huddled in the muddy trenches of the First World War, dealing with combat, death and separation from their loved ones. For many, mail was their only link to home.

The war, which began in the summer of 1914, was not over by Christmas, as so many had thought it would be. Instead, it dragged on for four years.

The world is now in the midst of marking the centenary of the conflict, prematurely dubbed "the war to end all wars." In Britain, the past year has seen a series of initiatives meant to ensure public remembrance of WWI, which claimed the lives of more than 880,000 soldiers, including Canadians, who were killed while fighting for the British empire. 

Many of these commemorations were extremely well-publicized, such as the ceremonies attended by members of the Royal family and the sea of poppies planted around the iconic Tower of London to honour the fallen.

One of the lesser-known projects to mark the centenary, called Letter to an Unknown Soldier, invited members of the public to write a letter to an often-unnoticed statue of an unknown soldier reading a letter at London’s Paddington Station.

People were asked to write what they would say if they could talk to a soldier who fought in the war. In just over a month, the project received more than 21,000 letters.

It also gave the public a chance to learn more about the vast number of letters exchanged between soldiers in the trenches and those on the home front.

An average of 12.5 million letters crossed the English Channel headed to soldiers on the Western Front each week during the height of the war.

“Mail was so important for morale,” said Chris Taft, head of Collections at Britain’s Postal Museum and Archive. “The imperative was always to get post to the troops. It was so important for troops to get those letters, to get that connection and that contact with home.”

Getting mail to the front

Getting mail to the troops, however, was a complex operation.

Letters would arrive at the Home Depot, a massive sorting office covering five acres of Regent’s Park in central London. Employees there, mainly women, would receive daily updates on troop movements to ensure the letters reached the right destination.

The mail would then be sent to army depots on the northern coast of France. From there, the letters would be loaded onto supply trains that would take them to staging posts close to their relevant destinations, under the cover of darkness. The letters would be handed out with the soldiers’ evening meals.

'Letters are my only thing to live for now' 

Remarkably, letters from the U.K. would usually be delivered within just two or three days of being posted.

Letters from Canada took longer to arrive, given that they had to reach England first. But no matter how long it took for the letters to be delivered, many of those on the front wrote about how much they were buoyed by receiving communication from home. 

Patricia Tuckett, a Canadian nurse, wrote the following while stationed in the Mediterranean in 1915: 

“My Dear, I had not had Canadian mail since I left England and was surely glad to get your letters …. Give my best to all the family. Letters are my only thing to live for now, so write often.” 

Another Canadian on the front, Hart Leech, talked about the feelings that came when soldiers wrote their families before going into battle.

“In a way it’s darned funny. All the gang are writing postmortem letters and kind of half-ashamed of themselves for doing it. As one of our officers said: ‘If I mail it and come through the show, I’ll be a joke. If I tear it up and get killed, I’ll be sorry I didn’t send it.’”

Leech was killed soon after writing the letter. It only reached his mother 12 years later, as it became lost for a time in his belongings after he died. 

A window on 'war to end all wars' 

Dr. Stephen Davies, a professor at Vancouver Island University, has been archiving Canadian letters from WWI for 10 years. He says the importance of mail is a common theme throughout the thousands of letters he’s read. 

“What we see is soldiers writing about how much they valued their letters from home,” he said. “The letters kept them connected both to their past lives and future dreams." 

Today, the letters provide the world with the best record of the traumatic experiences that came with serving on the front lines of the first truly global conflict. 

One of the most harrowing is British soldier Arthur Hubbard's account of being ordered to kill three wounded German soldiers.

“They was bleeding badly, begging for them to be put out of their misery,” he wrote. "It makes my head jump to think about it.”

Hubbard took his own life after suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock, as it was known back then.

“The letters are the only way for us to truly grasp the human cost of war,” Davies said. “The soldiers had hope, dreams and love and ambition, and all of that was lost with them."

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