1914-18: the war of the words

By Ben Macintyre (THE TIMES, 10/11/06):

ON CHRISTMAS DAY 1914, from a trench in northern France, a British soldier who signed himself “Boy” wrote a letter to his mother: “My Dear Mater, This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent . . . just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans . . . It all seems so strange.” Boy was merely doing what so many soldiers of the Great War did as a matter of routine: putting his thoughts and observations into words, and committing them to paper. He knew he was recording history, but he cannot have suspected that he was creating an artefact that would one day be worth a small fortune.

This week, Boy’s Christmas Truce letter was sold at auction for £14,400, after the singer Chris de Burgh trumped 14 rival bidders.

Letters from the trenches are now commanding “Titanic prices”, as one First World War historian told me, with some regret, after the auction. The Imperial War Museum has built up its unparalleled collection of original letters, diaries and manuscripts from the Great War, relying almost entirely on donations. The expanding market in First World War letters means that these are increasingly likely to pass, for sums beyond the reach of most museums, into private hands.

But in another sense, the extraordinary value and interest attached to Boy’s letter is a reflection of our unique cultural relationship with the writings of the First World War.

The Great War forged a greater literature than any other conflict, from sublime poetry to the scribblings of the humble private in his dugout, for this was the first war in history in which the majority of combat- ants were men of letters, however rudimentary.

British soldiers in the trenches read voraciously, and wrote regularly, to their families and for themselves. The introduction of universal primary education ensured that very few in the ranks were wholly illiterate, while such institutions as the National Home Reading Union encouraged the working man to better himself through reading the national literature. Before going over the top, officers would recite stirring passages from Shakespeare or Walter Scott. The process of picking lice out of the seams of a uniform was known, in trench slang, as “reading one’s shirt”.

The boredom helped. In the long, dreary gaps between battles, reading and writing offered temporary escape from the horror, the noise and the stench.

The postal service from the front was so efficient that a letter written in the slime of Ypres could be on mater’s doormat two days later. The war was absurdly close to Britain — Rudyard Kipling could hear the guns of Passchendaele from his study in Sussex — and the steady stream of letters from the front brought it closer still.

Even the letters that deliberately revealed nothing spoke volumes by their restraint, as satirised by Robert Graves: “This comes leaving me in the pink which I hope it finds you. We are having a bit of rain at present . . .” This war was not only more literate than any other, but avowedly literary. When a slim volume by the poet Edmund Blunden was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, his commanding officer read it and immediately ordered that he be removed from frontline duty. Poets were too valuable to risk in the trenches.

Even the simplest message might aspire to literary lyricism. On the outbreak of war, an unknown soldier placed this notice in The Times: “Pauline — Alas, it cannot be. But I will dash into the great venture with all that pride and spirit an ancient race has given me . . .” Education, the belief in literature as a vehicle for moral improvement, boredom and the knowledge that a ready audience was waiting in Blighty just a letter away, all combined to ensure that the written word was not the preserve of an upper-class officer corps, but embraced by men of all ranks.

The simple beauty of the prose in Boy’s letter is representative of a literary style peculiar to the trenches. Even more striking is the diary of James Beatson, to be auctioned next month. A private in the 9th Royal Scots Regiment, Beatson, who would die in the Battle of the Somme, wrote with stark eloquence of the “slow, fat, waddling rats”, the “hellish hurly- burly” and the longing for “ten minutes in front of the fire at home”.

The diary was written so that Beatson could “more faithfully recount” his experiences. He intended it to be read by posterity. This is the other distinguishing feature of Great War writing, from Wilfred Owen to James Beatson: soldiers set out to leave a testament. Boy knew that he had seen something remarkable on Christmas Day 1914, and must bear witness by leaving a written souvenir.

From the outset, participants in the Great War scrambled to collect mementos: enemy cap badges, shell casings, spiked helmets and, above all, words. My great-uncle was shot at St Eloi in 1915 (the bullet passed straight through his chest and killed the officer standing behind him). He returned to the front in 1918, taking an inch-thick diary to record what he saw. He was shot again while advancing at Cambrai: thanks to the diary in his breast pocket, the bullet passed under his ribs but missed his heart. “The thickness slowed up the bullet and deflected it,” he wrote. My great-uncle kept the holed diary in a display case: the words that had saved his life.

Our age may be a less obviously literate one, but the soldier’s urge to tell his story, even if only to an audience of one, is as powerful as ever: witness the remarkable outpourings, some of them deeply moving and articulate, in the military blogosphere.

Sadly, those writings will not endure like the literary legacy of the Great War. The war to end all wars remains anchored in memory by words preserved in the unpublished diaries and letters of ordinary footsoldiers, in published poems and novels, and in the anonymous account of an unknown soldier, a Boy without a name.