If You’re Reading This . . . Last letters from the front line by Sian Price, Forward by Saul Kelly (2011) Frontline Books, London, 292 pages including Bibliography and Index
Found on the Adult Non-Fiction shelves at 355.00922 PRI
A collection of farewell letters written by soldiers as they faced the possibility of imminent death.
Starting with the Napoleonic wars and coming up to the current war in Afghanistan via the American Civil War, the Zulu and Boer Wars, World Wars I and II, the Falklands War and Iraq Wars Sian Price gives us the background to each conflict, an overview of the kinds of letters the soldiers were writing – very religious in those early wars, more intent on relationships and in different formats as we come nearer the present day – before giving us some examples of letters written to loved ones by soldiers who were killed, and by those who survived.
With these letters we get the story behind the impersonal ‘another soldier killed in combat. Next of kin have been informed’ report. Even though, in those early conflicts especially, conditions could be very harsh, often there was a shortage of paper, it was difficult to carry ink and pencils broke. Nevertheless the last thoughts of soldiers as they faced the possibility of imminent death was of their loved ones and of home and they made arrangements to ensure these thoughts were conveyed to their loved ones.
“Now sweetheart goodbye for the present if it comes to handfighting later, I hope I shall not disgrace you and you will know darling that if anything happens to me I thought of you and loved you to the last.” Major-General John Emerson, Whatron Headlam (Boer War) , survived, (p112)
Another constant theme is that soldiers believe strongly in what they are doing and were prepared to make that supreme sacrifice for the sake of their country and their families. I know this is true of modern day soldiers too, Australian soldiers in Afghanistan have no doubt their mission is an honourable one and they are carrying out the jobs they have been trained to do, and which they love, to the best of their ability.
“It may cost me my life and a many more. That will only be the fortune of war. My life I set no store by at all.” – Private Charles Stanley, killed at Waterloo, 18 June 1815 (p.32)
This is a very poignant read. I found it more and more difficult to read the nearer we come to the present day. I am the daughter and grand-daughter of soldiers, wife of an ex-soldier and mother of an Army Reservist. These letters came very close to home. You may have seen me some days, on the verandah of Braemar, sniffling away. They are also oddly uplifting as they also show soldiers on both sides of a conflict behaving in a dignified, loving way.