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Communicating between two worlds

Professor Mike Roper on the act of writing between home and the front.
REBECCA WHEATLEY: In “The 100 Stories,” we see a lot of communication between men on the front line writing home, or clergymen writing condolence letters to families. Could you perhaps talk a little bit about this process of writing and communicating between those two worlds?
PROFESSOR MIKE ROPER: Yeah. You know, when a man died, quite often the comrade who would have been with him at the time is one of the people who’ll write to the family. And one can only imagine what that must have felt like, to have had your own horrific experience, and then on top of that, to have to compose a narrative for somebody else. It strikes me that on the whole, men were very dutiful about that. Officers took that role quite seriously. And generally speaking, I think, quite a lot of care would be taken about that. But man often write home to their mothers, if they’re Officers, for example, and a man dies, just saying how awful the job is.
And you know, I think many of them were very young. They were only in their late teens, early 20s, and probably this is their first experience of death. And they’re not just having to deal with the consequences themselves. They say, ‘I feel rotten’. One man writes home to his mother from a pal’s battalion, saying, could you– could you go and talk to the mother? Because he just finds it so difficult to write himself. And men do it, and they feel rotten. So they were very difficult things to have to write. And I think what’s interesting is that they can be very different in their tone. And it partly depended on who the letter was addressed to.
I think you find, with letters to mothers, that men are often quite circumspect, and there are formulaic phrases they’ll use. And the most important of those is that he died a painless death. Now, many of us historians, where we do more close research on these cases, we find that these are not painless deaths. Quite often, they can be drawn-out. But there’s a lie there. They don’t want the mothers to feel terrible, worse than they already feel. Because for people at that time, a painful death was the thing that most people feared most for their loved ones. So you know, there’ll be, often, assurance that he died a painless death. There are also things about the man being brave.
One of the examples we’ve got in “The Hundred Stories” is about a “manful death,” I think it is. So they’re very keen to show that the death is not meaningless, that it’s a death that is a soldier’s death. Now– but what’s also interesting is that there are great varieties in these letters. So you might find that on the whole, the ones to the mothers, men are being quite protective on their behalf. But you know, that’s not always the case. Sometimes you’ll get letters which are very direct. I’ve had letters from rank-and-file soldiers who are probably not used to writing that much, and they’re very bold. They just give the message as it is. They don’t embellish and hide so much.
They don’t have the linguistic facilities, perhaps, to do that. The middle-class officer might have. But it also depends, as I said, on who’s being written to. And in “The Hundred Stories” collection, there’s a man called Crowle who has a letter dictated by the Army chaplain as he’s dying. And that letter to his wife doesn’t hold back at all. It tells her he’s dying. It says he’s nearly unconscious. It says that he wants to write a lot more. Now, when you read that letter, it puts– you know, makes your spine chill. Because even now, 100 years later, you’re back in that moment. And you’re imagining, what must it be like to be dictating a letter when you’re almost unconscious? You know?
What would that mean? What would it have felt like to receive a letter which was so poignant in the moment of his dying? So there’s a great variety in the way these things– in how they’re framed. And quite often, I think, also what happens is that there’ll be contradictory signals in the letter. In one of the examples in “The Hundred Stories,” the man writes of how the son’s very brave and so on, but he’s clearly had to carry this man– his legs are crushed– back to the dressing station. And you know, he might have wanted to say that it was a heroic death, that he was very popular in the platoon or whatever.
But at the same time, he’s also conveying that the man’s got crushed legs, and he’s carried him back. You know, that would be very difficult for a loved one, a mother or father in this case, to have read. So you know, there can be concealment and revealing, and things being revealed, in the same moment, almost despite the writer’s own best intentions.
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World War 1: A History in 100 Stories

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