If You’re Reading This – Last Letters from the Front Line is a book that had its origins in a BBC radio documentary I produced more than three years ago. Working with a colleague called Siobhan McClelland, whose uncle had penned a farewell letter, it became a topic that developed into much more than a single programme. It sparked off a global journey for me as I spent more than three years of research across the world, looking for farewell letters and the stories behind them. Military farewell letters fulfilled my passion not only for military history (sparked by visits to the rows and rows of identical headstones in the immaculately manicured graveyards on the Somme) but also my fascination with the human story behind war. Behind every person felled in action is a story, a family and, overwhelmingly, there are letters.
One imagines that soldiers have been writing farewell letters since they’ve been literate and these final missives are incredibly moving. Upon reading these letters, one becomes privy to intensely private thoughts and emotions, poured out under the most unimaginable and difficult of circumstances. Over three years I’ve read more than ten thousand – dating from the mid eighteenth century through to very recent farewells from those in Afghanistan. All have moved me and all provide a captivating snapshot into the mind of men staring death squarely in the face. Amid these diverse voices, there is a surprising commonality to be found. Be it an epitaph dictated on a Napoleonic battlefield, a staunch, unsentimental letter written by a Victorian officer, or an email from a soldier in modern day Afghanistan, these voices speak eloquently and forcefully of the tragedy of war and answer that fundamental human need to say goodbye.
I wanted to paint a more rounded picture of warfare in the book rather than approach things from a solely British or Western perspective. There are more than seventy letters reproduced in their entirety in the book, covering the Napoleonic Wars, American Civil War, Zulu War, Boer War, WW1, WW2, The Falklands Conflict and Iraq and Afghanistan. Farewell letters are perhaps the one patent leveller when it comes to war – regardless of rank, nationality or sex, every single farewell was unified by a message of love. When telling people about the book I like to quote four letters and ask people if they can guess who may have authored them:
“Even though I cannot see you, I will always be watching you…Both of you study hard and help out your mother with work. I cannot be your horse to ride. I am a Godly person”
“Never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name….I shall always be near you; in the gladdest days and in the darkest nights amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours…and when the soft breeze fans your cheeks, it shall be my breath”
“I extinguish the lamp of my existence on the eve of this terrible battle. I cut myself out of the circle of which I have formed a beloved part….Until your last days remember me, I beg you, with tender love. Honour my memory without gilding it, and cherish me in your loving, faithful hearts”
“You are the beat of my heart, the soul in my body; you are me because without you I am nothing…I really did love you with all that I had, you were everything to me….Never forget I will always be looking over you. I love you”
In order they were written by Masanobu Kuno (a Japanese Kamikaze pilot killed during WW2), Major Sullivan Ballou (Killed during the American Civil War), Otto Heinebach (a German soldier killed during WW1) and Gunner Lee Thornton (a British 22 year old, killed in Iraq). Each are beautiful letters and each are a snapshot into the emotions that consume men in battle – regardless of the side on which they are fighting.
There is something incredibly beautiful about reading the intimate thoughts of men who knew they might die. Contemplating the possibility of not making it through has forced them to say things they might not normally express in their wildest dreams. The hardest ones to read are the ones written by young men – full of exuberance and a feeling that ‘it won’t happen to me’. In writing the book I wanted to shine a light behind the grim statistics of warfare and bring human stories to the foreground. I also wanted to give a voice to those left behind, so they could articulate just how crucial these letters are in coping with death, but also in celebrating the life of their loved ones. They become treasured family heirlooms, passed through generations or bequeathed to archives to serve as valuable reminders to us all of the painful ripples caused by the bloodshed of battle.