This letter, written on August 6th 1914, was never delivered. Soldier Joseph Ditchburn is reported to have died from war wounds nine weeks later.
If Ditchburn were a soldier today, it’s likely he would have phoned his mother. He might have sent her an email or had an instant message conversation with her. Perhaps he would have Skyped her. But the idea of soldiers using Skype to video-call their loved ones would have sounded like science fiction to the troops of World War I.
WW1 wartime letters unveiled
One hundred years ago, letter writing was the only option available to our troops. It was stirring to learn in 2013 that 278,000 handwritten wills and letters by soldiers fighting in the war were to be unveiled to the public. Many of these letters were locked up in a sealed government archive until now, Ditchburn’s letter included.
The reason his letter — and the other 277,999 — never made it to their recipients was because they included details about troop morale and military movements. The military censors deemed it necessary to keep such information under lock and key in case it was intercepted by enemy forces.
Now you can search for and obtain these fascinating fragments of history from the government’s probate website. In addition, the government has published the first batch of a huge collection of war diaries on the National Archive website.
Letter writing in 1914 was an extraordinarily important process — not just personally for the soldiers and their families, but for the war effort as a whole. The British Army believed that the most effective weapon against the enemy was morale. Writing and receiving letters provided the crucial boost soldiers needed to carry on.
- Letters from soldiers’ families began their journey at a sorting depot at Regent’s Park.
- They were shipped from Regent's Park to Le Havre, Boulogne or Calais.
- The Royal Engineers Postal Section had to get the mail to the battlefields.
Letters took two days to reach the front line and by the war’s end, two billion letters and 114 million parcels had made this journey. (BBC, 2014)
Communicating — less is more?
You might be thinking that waiting two days for contact is an agonisingly long time, in an age where instant communication is so readily available. However, some couples who would argue that today’s technology allows for too much communication, that being in touch constantly makes it more difficult for partners to be physically apart. If soldiers are kept in the loop about every tiny little thing going on at home, they might worry more. Parting at the end of each Skype conversation or email chat might deal a new blow every time, and make troops lose focus. And there’s more scope for misunderstanding.
A letter, on the other hand, is a delicately thought out piece of communication. A person can sit down, carefully mull over the things they want to say, and produce something much more beautiful and heartfelt than if they knocked out a quick email. Ultimately, the letter could deliver the bigger morale boost.
I expect most soldiers nowadays subscribe to the first argument, that the more contact they have — via email, Skype and instant message conversations — the better and stronger they feel. But letter writing does have another unique attribute, one that we’re forgetting more and more each day.
Handwriting — the personal touch
I have to admit, I get more comfort from reading a piece of writing in my late grandmother’s elegant script than I do from reading a typed-up version. It is more personal, more real. Every person’s handwriting exhibits a small facet of their personality, which is unseen on a computer. In this respect, is the pen not mightier than the keyboard?
As we reach the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, the unveiling of all these handwritten letters, wills and diaries really strikes a chord. Military historian Jon Cooksey said:
The quality of their script also says something about the soldiers’ fortitude and composure at a time of high stress and trauma. Joseph Ditchburn’s graceful, near-perfect handwriting in straight lines on unlined paper is reflective of a positive, unperturbed mood, despite the situation he was in. None of this is evident in an email or a text message.
But, while there is poignancy in a soldier’s handwriting, would a video recording of a soldier telling his family that he loves them not have a much greater tendency to move? 21st century technology allows us to capture a person’s face, a person’s voice, a person’s laugh — and in many forms. I am touched when I read a piece of my grandmother’s handwriting. But it does not compare to what I feel when I view video footage of her laughing hysterically as she’s trying to put a scarf round her head in a gale-force wind.
The handwritten letter is a dying art form. We lose as individuals a way to communicate with each other in a unique form, and we lose as a society an ancient and distinctive way of capturing history. But with all the forms of communication available to us now, is the loss a manageable one? Is it a loss we can cope with?