When I came to Britain and started learning about British culture in situ, I was astonished by the place The World War I (WWI) had in it. It was a yardstick, a dark but indelible part of national identity. Just like World War II was for Soviet Union.
My eventual explanation for why for people from Eastern Europe WWI was just another historical war, like Napoleonic and for the British – The War has two arguments. Once I waited in a government building, I think it was a post office. It had a plaque on the wall listing members of the same organisation who died in First and Second World Wars. The list of WWI was five times longer. Also, while the Russian Empire had two revolutions caused by WWI, which totally eclipsed the War and the successor government forced to sign an agreement with Germans, Great Britain won.
2014 is 100 years since The War started and the British Government prepared a number of activities to “celebrate” it (the word had caused some controversy, you cannot celebrate a begin of war some argued, and I agree with them, but the verb stuck). This trickled down to my local library where I picked up a leaflet advertising the writing workshop.
We were going to write a Letter to Unknown Soldier depicted as a sculpture at the Paddington Station in London. The letters are on line for a year and then they will be preserved in the National Archive – forever. I would be highly ironic if my letter survives longer than any other contribution to culture: genetic, scientific or journalistic.
The Letter to an Unknown Soldier is open to submissions until 11p.m. (BST) on the night of 04 August 2014.
The workshop was prepared by Bury librarian, Reader Development Officer Alison. I am amazed by the idea that somebody is interested in my development as a reader. The participants – due to unusual sunny weather just two British women and I and historical fiction writer E. M. Powell – printout of newspapers 1914 – 1918, a booklet of war photos and a few letters submitted to the site. We even looked at 1915 original poster inviting to join the artillery.
The poster, hand-painted 10 centimetres letters on 3 meters paper looked made yesterday. It struck me that while Russian Empire just mobilised its men – 1 million for a start, British recruitment poster is an advertisement, and promising such delight as training in a town down South, personal care of a noble patron and more allowance than in infantry.
I am do not know of something like “company of pals” (enlisted men from the same village staying together as a unit) during any War. And the letters and parcels played a large part in keeping this war relevant to people at home. If I remember correctly, 30 millions letters a month (!) were exchanged.
It all ends well. Maybe not to you personally – I don’t know if it did, it’s impossible to check after a hundred years, but it for your great-great grandchildren or if you are not married, for great-great grandchildren of your relatives, who will always have a part of you.
I know your life is grim and sometimes intolerable, but it never looks good inside a life. A life consists mainly from sweat and tears, in your case also from spilled blood – smeared, soaked by bandages, mixed with foreign soil. But the sum of human life, anonymous, blurring with generations, leads to us, your descendants, living longer, happier lives.
You see Europe divided and at arms, you hope that this war is The Last War. I am sorry to say that a hundred years later we know this wasn’t the war to end all wars. But in the hundred years another World war seems impossible, especially between the European countries.
You would probably be surprised to know that the Great Britain is a part of an economic and political union, which includes most of Western Europe – even Germany. After revolutions brought by your war there is no Kaiser in Germany, but Britain still has a Queen and we a have a future King.
We – because of what you did – live in better conditions: hot and cold running water around the clock, free school education, free healthcare, shorter working hours, paid holidays – often abroad. There is even a small state pension for everybody who worked.
I do hope you get this letter and it will cheer you up a bit.
More information including pictures of the poster on E.M.Powell blog. Disappintingly, I was edited out the workshop with some fictional people added in. There are fiction writers for you: they don’t believe that life is more interesting, than fiction.