14-18 NOW are asking members of the public to write a letter to an unknown soldier. In this guest post, marking the British declaration of war on 4th August 1914, Dr Jessica Meyer of the University of Leeds addresses herself to the unknown soldier in the statue at London Paddington, and to the many others who lost their lives in the conflict.
Dear Bill, or is it David?
It could be either, couldn’t it: ol’ Bill, still and stoical in his endurance of all the laughable horrors that war throws at him; young David, so beautiful in his youth and ‘all the glory of his joy’ and sacrifice. You might be either, or indeed both.
Is that too simplistic, asking you to stand for two figures emblematic in their own right? How can we ask you to embody the experiences of 5 million men, the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant, those who served on the front lines and those who worked behind them, those who survived and those who didn’t? As has been pointed out to me, and as I fully acknowledge, speaking of the men of this war only in terms of unity can never be a full reflection of the huge variety of the experiences encompassed by so many men over four and more years of a world war.
And yet… And yet, after a decade and a half reading the words you wrote, in letters, in diaries, in memoirs, some intended for public consumption but most written only for the loving, private eyes of friends and family, your voice speaks to me in tones at once both varied and familiar. Each fragile sheet, telling its unique story, does so in a voice so completely of its time that I could not mistake it for anything else, that I recognise it the moment I see it, scribbled in indelible pencil, poorly typed on flimsy forms, etched in elegant ink penmanship. Its tones, by turns mundane, flippant, horror and grief struck, or simply relieved, groping for words to describe the previously indescribable or relishing the simple pleasures of life as only young men can, has invaded my own, shaping my thinking and my writing as surely as the images described have shaped my understanding of war and how it was experienced.
I do not always like you. You are, inevitably, of your time, with all the attitudes towards women, class, empire that this implies. But for every statement of belief in a eugenicist solution to a predicted post-war crisis or casual patronising of those not of your class, there have been twice as many to remind me of your common humanity, your youth, your idealism, your sensitivities to sight and smell and taste, your artistic impulses, your lust for adventure, for experience, for life. You have made me laugh and made me cry, yes, even in the public space of the archive. You have moved me beyond measure and you continue to do so.
I would like to believe that, after all this time, these 15 years in which you have become my profession as well as my obsession, that I know you. Or at least that I know you better than most. I have read the counter-examples to the clichés, can cite the exceptions to any generalisation about you or your experience, even as I try to pin you down by making generalisations of my own.
Yet that sense of knowledge is as much a myth as any, isn’t it? I can never know you any more than you would understand me and my interest in your story. You remain standing there, aloof and ultimately impenetrable, leaving me, as always, with more questions than answers.
And still I long to know. Who were you? What was it like? How did war shape you and through you the society you left behind or, for the majority of you, in which you had to carry on living? These are the questions that define me as a historian, and my search for the answers, hidden in your millions of words, in those stories that made it home to the attic and the archive, waiting to be uncovered, has helped define me as a person, too. I have been shaped and changed by all that I have read and heard, by all that I now think I know. I hope it is for the better; I believe it cannot be for the worse than I might have become in other circumstances. I may not know you, but you have made me and will continue to do so until the day I stop asking questions. And for that knowledge, for all that you have done for me and continue to do, for all the inspiration you have granted me, the tears you have provoked, the insight into men and mankind that you have provided, for all the lessons you have taught me, I thank you.
Yours, with affection and gratitude,