Letter From The Front

Letter from France 1918 with original envelope.  Photo credit: thanks to Felicity Matthews.

Whilst going through some old family papers and photographs I stumbled upon a small wooden box and in it found a real treasure: a letter, dated July 6th 1918, from my grandfather in France to my grandmother in Australia. It was dog-eared, the ink faded and the paper thin and fragile after ninety-nine years and obviously many readings. So I decided to transcribe it, eager for insight into the mind of a man writing from his camp on the Western Front, after years in a war zone, separated by time and distance from his loved ones. And as I worked, it was as if his voice reached out over almost a century and spoke to me.

I found it very sad because it is obvious that at this point in the war, my grandfather believed that one of his brothers had been killed and that he himself would most likely not survive to come home. He was not in a very positive state of mind and also felt the need to go into battle and avenge his brother’s death.

It is interesting to note that this was at the height of the escalation of World War I because the Germans had come back from the Eastern Front after the surrender of Russia and were concentrating their might against the Allies on the Western Front. No wonder he felt that it was never going to end!

I also found it a point of interest that the United States Army clearly looked after their men a lot better than did the British. So, good on you, Uncle Sam!

Here is the letter, faithfully transcribed, except for a few personal items that can have no meaning for anybody but the writer and recipient:

France

July 6th 1918

Dear Violet,

Just a short note in answer to your three letters I received yesterday and the snapshots of Ernie (21/2 year old son).

They are very nice. He does look well in those photos. He ought to be good company for you. I wish I was back. I would take him everywhere. You say he is a hard case and my word he looks it.

It was a great day here on the fourth of this month. The Bakers that were here, the Yanks I mean, did not work at all that day. No matter what Holiday we never get a day off.

I could go out every night here but it don’t suit me. I have made my promises to you and I will keep them. There (is) only one I will break and that is staying with the Bakers. I am only waiting for a letter from Len (brother) and then I will put in my transfer to the 19th Battalion. I think poor old Ern (brother) has been killed and I must get even for it. I have not heard from him for over three months. I am going to write to Headquarters today about him.

This place gets terrible monotonous. No wonder people go mad here. We have sent two men home mad.

I got those two snapshots of Ernie, the dear little fellow. He is a fine Boy but I don’t suppose I will have the luck to see him again. I don’t think this war is ever going to end. It seems to be getting worse instead of better.

I wrote to you last week asking you to send 5 pounds to the Bank in London. I expect to be going on leave in about two month’s time. 5 will be plenty. I am not drawing any money here at all so you can see I never go out of the camp. I am sick of this place.

Well, Dear, I will close with the best love and kisses to yourself and Ernie

Yours lovingly,

Jack

Fortunately, things improved for my grandfather after he went on leave in September. To his great joy and relief he found his brother Ern recovering from serious shrapnel wounds in a hospital in England. His transfer to the 19th never did eventuate, perhaps because he found his brother alive; was needed at his field bakery; or because the war ended a short time later (11 November 1918). However it was, he was still the Temporary Sergeant in charge of his bakery on Armistice Day and until they went home in 1919.

A Muse on Character

Queen Desideria of Sweden – image courtesy of Wikipedia

As with many in our language, the word character can be interpreted in several ways and mean different things to different people.

For example: It may be used to describe someone with a distinctive individuality and/or eccentric personality.

Or it may be used to define the quality of a person’s moral fibre; the essence of an individual’s psychological make-up. People requiring a reference would naturally be hoping to be spoken of as being of good or strong character rather than bad or weak.

To a calligrapher or scribe it may mean one of a set of symbols used in a language.

To a writer it means a person or personality portrayed in a novel or drama. And in this case, developing a set of believable characters is everything. No time or energy is too much to spend on this essential building block.

However, the character of some of them, as in real life, can leave much to be desired.

Even one word can be enough to bring a character to life: Machiavellian, wolfish, foxy, warhorse, porcine, ox-like: all conjure up images that need no clarification.

Phrases such as the lift of an eyebrow, the quirk of a lip: all help to paint a picture of character (the character of the character, so to speak).

In real life there are people so evil that it takes your breath away and people so heroic and self-sacrificing that it is equally hard to comprehend. But most of us and our fictional characters fit somewhere along the spectrum of these two extremes: slightly flawed but lovable, just the same.

There are many such fictional characters and one I will always have a soft spot for is the Earl of St. Erth created by Georgette Heyer in her Regency romance The Quiet Gentleman.

Amongst the real characters of history, I am especially drawn to the gentle, tragic Earl of Derwentwater, whose only crime was loyalty; and vibrant and loving Katherine Swynford, both brought to life with amazing clarity by Anya Seton in her novels Devil Water and Katherine respectively.

Recently, I reread Désirée by Annemarie Selenko, the story of a real life heroine: Désirée Clary, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was loved by two of the most important statesmen of her day, finally becoming a queen: Desideria of Sweden.

She must have had plenty of character to have attracted the interest of an Emperor and a great General whom a country invited to be its King; and if you look at her portrait above you can see that she has it in spades.

Character and character: the one so forgettable without the other.