Book review: Love Letters of the Great War

Love Letters of the Great War- Mandy Kirkby
World War I broke out 100 years ago, on 28th July 1914 so the bookshops are filled with WWI-themed books. I'm not usually a reader of war texts, whether fiction or non-fiction, but I am a bit of a history geek. I was always much more interested in the lives of everyday people, rather than political or royal history, so this book, a collection of love letters written to and from soldiers in the trenches, seemed right up my street.

The letters presented here, which have been collected from various sources, are categorised into 8 sections, which include letters sent shortly after the commencement of the war and those sent after peace was declared. It also includes a section on how soldiers found happiness during warfare and one with letters looking towards the future.

Of course, it's expected that there are going to be a lot of sad, traumatic letters. This is indeed the case, with some soldiers detailing the horrors of the war, letters from wives cutting short their relationships and several letters sent from sweethearts when their partner had already been killed in action, unbeknown to them. There are a few occassions of letters being published from the same couple more than once in the book, which means you get some understanding into how their relationship developed under the conditions.
My favourite letter... although I don't think you could call it that. The letter that moved me the most, shall we say... was that sent from Phyllis Kelly to her boyfriend Eric Appleby. During a period of two years, the couple sent over 200 letters to each other, two of which are published in this book. Eric was enlisted in 1914 and sent to Ireland for training, where he met Phyllis at a dance. They conducted their relationship entirely through letters to each other, until 1916 when Phyllis learns that he has been dangerously wounded. She sends him a panicked letter praying for his recovery, but three days later is sent a telegram to inform her of his death. There is a note in the book explaining that, although Phyllis and Eric had only known each other for 2 years and had a relationship based purely on letters, she never married and had his photo hanging above her bed for the rest of her life.

However, it's not all heartbreak and tragedy. One brilliant letter, from a German lady to her husband's commanding officer, politely asks for her husband's leave of absence "just once for the satisfaction of my natural desires". The commanding officer replies and very generously explains that he will place her husband's name on list for leave.

Another favourite of mine was a brusk note written by Private Horace Humpage to his girlfriend Patty. In it, he rather matter-of-factly explains that "I think when I get settled, I would like to get married". Despite his tone of emotional disconnect, Horace and Patty were married sixty years. 
As well as the letters from everyday couples, there are also some from couples who went on to become rather famous. In 1915, Winston Churchill writes a goodbye letter to his wife to be opened in the event of his death and a nurse named Agnes von Kurowsky writes a letter breaking up with her fiancé: Ernest Hemingway. 

Another thing I found really interesting was the occassional inclusion of photos and letters that the soldiers had on their possession. It was really interesting to have that glimpse into their lives.

I found this book a fascinating look into the lives and relationships of ordinary people during the First World War. Although it was often heartbreakingly sad, there were also many happy moments and it left me with a real belief in the strength of love. 

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  1. Oooh this book seems right up my street too as I also love the history of the normal people, especially during the wars.

    As my other half is out in Afghanistan at the moment, the mention of the lady requesting leave for "natural desires" made me laugh. I don't think that'd work for me unfortunately. Damn it.

    I think I'll have to get this book myself, but I might wait until Rich is home otherwise I think I'd spend most of it crying!

    Rachel x
    The Inelegant Wench

    1. I really recommend it but, yes, probably best to wait until Rich gets home. I can't imagine what it must be like having him out in Afghanistan! I have a lot of respect for you!


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