‘If you’re reading this’

E18 of Collected Articles

‘If you’re reading this: last letters from the front line’ – a review of the book by Sian Price

The leaving of life is seldom brought into focus by historian except in the form of casualty lists. Their interests traditionally have laid in the planning and the conduct of wars, the campaigns and the battles. More recently the social dimensions have gained ascendancy as the image and reality of war has been set in terms of the individuals participating, the relationships with comrades, families and the cultural groups of which they were part.

In her new book, ‘If you’re reading this’, the author Sian Price focuses on the thoughts of those addressing the possibility of leaving their life. Expressed in the letters written whilst waiting for actions she seeks to draw out the range of thoughts that the writers considered of importance to them. They did so believing that when the letters reach usually loved ones the messages in them would bring closure to the living relationship and become a memorial to the vitality of their relationships.

Sian has sought out these letters from the time of the Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago to modern wars such as Afghanistan in 2008. Though understandably focusing on warriors in the British and Commonwealth armed services, she has also sought out letters from Frenchmen, Italians and Americans and those who fought against the British, namely Germans and Japanese. She seeks to analyse the psychological commonalities between men of different races and cultures. I mean men because there are no examples of women warriors even though women fought in the Russian armies in World War II and now serve in the American and British in active fighting roles though not in the infantry.

This book may not appeal the classical historian but is a social commentary which fits in with the training of the modern officer. Understanding what motivates and drives men at war can help to get the best out of them especially when morale is being affected by reverses and unplanned events.

Addressing the construction of the text.: the theme of each example of the chosen wars and individuals is similar. A broad description of each war into sections is offered. This is helpful in providing the reader with a framework for appreciating the experiences of the individual warriors. In each section there is a sub-section compiled of ‘Last (or Farewell) Letters – Common Themes’ from which conclusions can be drawn about the changes in the writers’ motivations. In the 19th and 20th centuries, love and religious faith were the powerful uniting forces, especially where faith was the means of looking forwards to being together again in the after-life. In the more agnostic world of the 21st century the power of faith has declined especially in the United Kingdom. However expressions of love remain strong. Other general motivations are: patriotism, pride in being a warrior, performance to the best of one’s ability and stoically doing one’s duty. The letters are legacies left to the grieving. Other sub-sections include topics as leaving for war, daily life during campaigns, witnessing death and injury, warfare and peacekeeping.

Not all those writing the letters assumed they were shortly to be killed, writing was an insurance policy if they were. However two faced the certainty of death, one an Australian in the Boer War executed for war crimes, the other a Japanese kamikaze pilot Though most letters are from those that were killed, some were written by warriors who survived: Jan Smuts was a Boer General, Major-Gen John Headlam a British artilleryman and Friedrich Spemann a Captain in the German army of World War II. Unusually Carl Korner, a Prussian officer and supremely talented poet, remains known by the poems he composed mostly before each Napoleonic battle. His poems are truly his legacy.

With battles normally taking young adults their thoughts are usually limited and not by their experiences which would have normally been gained over a long lifespan. Nevertheless some express deeply felt emotions. Hence the letters range “from the hauntingly and desperately sad to the rip-roaringly comedic or angrily polemic”. Some are very articulate, some of limited intellect.

The provision of photographs and short biographies of the men themselves and photographs of their letters helps to give a rounded picture of the individuals – which reinforces what they are writing. Without them the letters would have lost much of their immediacy.

There are some quibbles which might irritate historians, such as the title of the book. Not all cases are of men in front-line action who were killed in action or survived. A few died from disease, illness or accident through drink. The Argentinian warship ‘General Belgrano’ was not bombed but torpedoed by HMS submarine ‘Conqueror’ and its sailing pattern remains controversial and debatable as to the extent of the menace it posed to the British fleet at the moment of its sinking.

Overall, a worthy examination of a facet of military action whose emotional content I can see appealing more to women as mothers, wives and lovers.

Review by George Bailey, 19 March 2012