If You’re Reading This - Last Letters From The Front Line
5th March 2012
Just over three years ago, I started work on a Radio 4 documentary with a colleague Siobhan McClelland. It was to be a montage of soldier’s farewell letters –partly inspired by a letter Siobhan’s uncle had written before deploying to Northern Ireland. I’d grown up with a passion for military history and had made a number of military history programmes so it was a subject that immediately gripped my imagination. In the 3 years since that programme, it has utterly consumed me. I realised that farewell letters had a much longer history than I’d imagined and that soldiers had been writing these poignant missives for centuries. It led me on a global journey in search of farewell (or ‘in the event of my death’ letters) and the stories of the men who had written them. I searched for letters across the world – in public record offices and libraries, regimental archives, and military museums including the Imperial War Museum, National Army Museum, Australian War Memorial, the Chiran Peace Museum and Canadian War Museum. As well as British letters, I included those from America, New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Italy, Germany, South Africa, Austria, France and Japan - it became a world-wide quest to find unpublished letters and tell all sides of the war story. I also appealed to individuals and families who would share their letters with me, and found families coming forward with letters they had never shared – from WW1, WW2, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan and even Vietnam. Finally I was lucky enough to talk to hundreds of servicemen and women who had written farewell letters (and survived) about the emotions of penning a letter like that.
Discovering the letters was a difficult and emotional journey. Many of these letters were never intended to have a public audience and most men fervently hoped they would never have to be read. Upon reading these letters, one became privy to intensely private thoughts and emotions, poured out under the most unimaginable and difficult of circumstances. Meeting families and being there as they re-lived their loss was both powerful and humbling. All talked of the farewell letter not only as priceless but as a tangible link with their loved one. To touch a physical piece of paper was to touch their loved one. I featured letters from different ranks and different nationalities. Whilst each conflict over the three centuries on which I focussed produced farewell letters with distinct themes, every single farewell was unified by a message of love - the simple words ‘I will always love you’ capturing a lifetime of memories in a single line.
It would be impossible to single out a favourite letter. All are incredibly moving, offering a remarkable and unique snapshot into hearts and minds. In writing the book I wanted to shine a light behind the grim statistics of warfare and put human stories at the foreground. In doing so, I hope I paid tribute in some small way to the fallen. Back to Articles