The first writing project I ever got involved with when I started writing fiction was the collaborative 24 Hour Book project on which Kate Pullinger was the lead writer. It was a marvellous experience just to have taken part and an even bigger boost when my work was actually included.
So it was with great interest that I read about Letter to An Unknown Soldier project created by Kate Pullinger and Neil Bartlett and commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the cultural program that is commissioning contemporary artists to produce large-scale pieces for the First World War Centenary.
A huge number of soldiers who died in the war were never found, either because their bodies had been lost, destroyed or rendered unrecognisable. The scale of the loss was immense: 73,000 Allied dead were never found at the Somme alone. It is so very hard to really get to grips with what this represents, not just in the context of the war but also the larger context of humanity. Infinitely more tragic, is that we continue, to this very moment in numerous parts of the globe to suffer the insanity of on-going death and destruction brought by war and conflict, rebellion and invasion.
For nearly one hundred years, a bronze statue of an unknown soldier has been standing on Platform 1 of Paddington Station, reading a letter. For the most part, he has probably gone unnoticed by travellers as they head for their destinations, he’s just there, a relic of a bygone age and as such of little consequence perhaps to a tired and weary throng, going about the business of everyday life. Yet he stands there as a reminder and as a symbol of all who were lost in the service of the country in both the 1914-18 Great War and the 1939-45 Second World War.
A very moving and detailed account of the unveiling ceremony of the Paddington Great War Statue can be found here at the Institute of Railway Studies and Transport History of York University. 186,475 railway workers from the railway companies of Great Britain and Ireland served under arms during the First World War. Of that total, 18,957 were killed in action or died of wounds received on active service
Now, for the first time in the long decades since he arrived on the platform, he is receiving new mail thanks to The Letter to an Unknown Soldier project which invited celebrated writers and members of the public alike to write him. I understand the project readers have been kept very busy with a deluge of letters which have arrived from all over the United Kingdom and beyond. And so, a new memorial of words is being created; at the time of my writing this piece, some 17159 people have added their voices.
From famous names such as Stephen Fry, Lee Child, Andrew Motion and Sheila Hancock to ordinary people: men, women and children, all the letters the soldier receives are published on the 14-18NOW website. Whatever their feelings about it, whatever their words, the project has been a unique opportunity for people, young and old, one hundred years distant to record their thoughts, impressions and questions about the Great War. I am happy to have been a part of something so unique and in its way, incredibly sorrowful. There have been fictionalised accounts, simple questions, true stories and matters of conscience. For me, the letters of the children have been the most poignant and yet at the same time perhaps, the most searching; they have certainly given me much to reflect upon.
The letters appear on the 14-18NOW.org website until the project ends at 11pm on the 4th August 2014. The date and time of the closure of the project occurs at the moment when Prime Minister Asquith announced to the House of Commons that Britain had joined the First World War. At some point in the future all of the letters will be archived in the British Library where they will remain permanently accessible online.
My own letter, distilled from a much longer piece to comply with the word count requirements, is here. It was inspired by my great-aunt Lilly who waited in vain for her fiancée, Jack, to return. She remained a spinster all her life and although I was quite small when she died, I remember a gentle, caring woman who never forgot–and never quite came to terms with–the loss of the love of her life. I do recall though, my mother, who was born at the outbreak of the Great War, telling me how Lilly remained stoic and stalwart about her loss, keeping her own quiet remembrance in her heart and photographs of Jack never far from her side. Lilly provided great strength to my mother as she coped with the grief of the loss of her own first husband, also named Jack, killed in action at Arnhem on 01 February 1945. The letter is also inspired by my own grandfather, a cavalryman, who did survive the battlefields of the Western Front.
My early childhood was informed and very much shaped by the experiences of both these women, so from the first time I heard about the 14-18NOW project I was very drawn to it, compelled even, to add my own voice. Not in maudlin remembrance for the sake of finding a bandwagon of grief to climb upon nor to glorify the savagery and tragedy of war. For me, it is a profoundly personal and important act of remembrance and commemoration, it is a time to reflect and give pause for thought about what has passed, where we find ourselves today and consider what it means to be human on this planet we call home.
There is still time to write to the Unknown Soldier and it would be absolutely marvellous if the project could reach 20,000 letters. Visit 14-18 NOW for more
You can also join in #LightsOut on Monday 4th August, when the whole of the UK is invited to turn off their lights from 10pm until 11pm leaving on a single light or candle for this shared moment of reflection.
‘The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’
Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary 1939