Love Letters of the Great War by Mandy Kirkby

On this Valentine’s Day and in the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War,  author Mandy Kirkby reminds us that,  “We are human and, especially where love is concerned, we can’t help but feel an emotional link going right back through the years.”

I spent a great deal of 2013 gathering material for a book of First World War love letters, searching in archives – especially the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds and the Imperial War Museum in London  – for outpourings of passion and longing, erotic missives, jealous outbursts, rejections and proposals. I found the lot, the full gamut of love’s emotions – and I was not surprised in the least to learn that, although absence usually did make the heart grow fonder, love during wartime wasn’t always tender and sustaining; couples still argued and were unreasonable, and still felt the pressure of maintaining the bond when other concerns were demanding their attention, usually avoiding being blown to smithereens. What kept many relationships going was something quite simple – putting pen to paper and writing a letter.

'Love Letters of the Great War', edited by Mandy Kirkby

‘Love Letters of the Great War’, edited by Mandy Kirkby

The army realised right from the beginning how crucial it would be for morale if soldiers were able to stay in regular contact with wives and sweethearts back home, and high priority was given to ensuring that the Army Postal Service ran smoothly and efficiently. By December 1914, only a few months after the outbreak of war, the largest wooden structure in the world, covering some five acres, was erected in Regent’s Park in London. This was the Post Office Home Depot, and it was from here that letters and parcels from all over the country were sorted and sent on to the Channel ports and the troops on the Western Front. Dispatching thousands of letters, postcards, parcels and photographs every day and running a complex infrastructure of depots and mobile post offices in France, the Postal Service reached its finest hour during the Great War. So efficient was the mail that, when conditions were right, it only took two or three days to get a letter to the Front and perishable goods (fruit cake and sausage rolls being the perennial favourites) could reach husbands and sweethearts before going stale. Knowing you could send a letter one day and receive a reply by the end of the week must have made couples feel that they weren’t separated by such a huge distance after all. Some wrote nearly every day, some hardly ever, but for most a letter was a lifeline, a taste of home and normal life.

I found some quite extraordinary letters, from all sides of the conflict and from soldiers from all walks of life, but common threads ran through them all. The longing for letters and the disappointment when one didn’t arrive was a continuous theme (‘Goodnight, my darling. Longing and hoping for a letter from you tomorrow’, ‘Dear Love, no mail today’, ‘Jack – my own – my only love – how I look for your next letter – how much longer shall I have to wait?’), as was the requesting of items for the next parcel (cigarettes and Boracic ointment usually top of a Tommy’s list). But what cut across all ages, class and rank was the universal desire for home and love and the simple pleasures to be cherished on return. Very few couples, no matter how rich or poor, seemed to have grand plans for when the war ended: to sit together by the fire and to have a brief holiday was usually about the extent of it.

The perfect example of this is in one of my personal favourites (which is kept in the Liddle Collection, where I found several great letters from Yorkshire and Lancashire correspondents), from Ethel Gawthorp of Meanwood Road in Leeds to her fiancé Walter Shaw. Ethel writes an encouraging letter, imagining what it will be like when he returns to Leeds: all she wants to do is walk an old familiar walk with him ‘over Sugar Well Hill and down that lane where we first met’. For Ethel, that would be paradise enough and it’s very touching to see how little she needs to be happy. But no amount of fantasising, letter-writing and sausage roll-sending can protect them from fate. On the same day Ethel writes this letter (maybe even minutes later – who knows?), Walter is killed in the Battle of the Somme. The Postal Service was true to form and the letter did reach Walter’s regiment, but it was far too late, and it was sent home with his personal effects.

Ethel Gawthorp to Private Walter C Shaw, 1 July 1916, Leeds University Library, Liddle Collection, GS 1447

Mandy Kirkby is the author of Love Letters of the Great War (2014) and The Language of Flowers: a Miscellany (2011). She is currently an Editor at The Folio Society Ltd.

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