On Platform One of Paddington Station in London, there is a statue of an unknown soldier; he’s reading a letter. On 28th June 2014, on the hundredth anniversary of the declaration of war, the linked arts project 14-18 NOW invited everyone to pause, take a moment or two, and write that letter.
14-18 NOW asked people the following questions: if you could say what you want to say about that war, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your own experience of life and death to hand, what would you say? If you were able to send a personal message to this soldier, a man who served and was killed during World War One, what would you write?
The website opened on 28th June 2014, the centenary of the Sarajevo assassinations that effectivley marked the start of WW1, and closed at 11 pm on the night of 4 August 2014. The response to the project has been extraordinary, and by the project’s close, 21439 letters had been written and uploaded.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier will be archived online as part of 14-18 NOW, until 2018. After that, all of the letters will be archived in the British Library where they will remain permanently accessible online, providing a snapshot of what people in this country and across the world were thinking and feeling about the centenary of WW1
Ian Bank’s own Letter to the Unknown Soldier is downloadable here . It is largely fiction, but also partly inspired by a collection of old photographs of his Grandfather Jim who as a young (unmarried) man fought in WWI for first the Lancashire Pals and then the Durham Light Infantry. He was injured on the battlefield with a shell explosion but was carried from no mans land on the back of one of his pals. He survived and lived to 65 still carrying the shrapnel from that day. Ian never got to meet him as sadly he died just before his parents married in the 1950’s, but so close to the actual day they had to return his hired Moss Bros wedding suit unused. His wife (Ian’s grandmother) Beatrice kept all of his old army and brass band photographs, but nearly everyone of the group shots is ruined with a scribed ‘X’ over his head! Ian has kept them safe, along with his war medals and pocket watch for 50 years work service. They remain in that same old assortment of old biscuit tins mentioned in the letter.
Scroll down to read the letter in full….
I hope this, my first letter finds you well and that these slowly passing first days have not made you forget your poor old wife just yet? I am missing you so very much it hurts.
Since you left, I have so often wished I could turn back the clock to the day you boarded that crowded troop train. I wish I could make you hear the words I shouted out to you as the train departed from the crowded chaos of the platform. I wish I could turn back the clocks to whisper in your ear again “I love you Jim”, but to do that I would need to be like the time traveler in that strange old novel you loved so much about the time machine. But anyway, I have said it now and as long as you are reading this finally, then all is well at last.
That final scene of you waving goodbye with a radiant smile (but I hope a little tear?) remains etched in my minds-eye. It is a vision preserved as a moment in time forever, and burns as brightly today as it ever did on that platform back then. Despite everything, yours was a face full of hope that day, and this thought comforts me always. It keeps me content that I will be seeing you walk up our back lane again one day soon. I am confident of that, if nothing else in the world my love.
Silly me, I write only of my lovely mental pictures, but of course we now have developed those real photographs of you finally back. In some you sit alone or stand aloof in your brand new uniform, looking just like your father as a young man I am told. In most though, you are seated amongst your happy comrades and mischievous old pals. I hope they have not split you all up too much.
The photographs are now stored for safe-keeping in an assortment of your mother’s old biscuit tins kept under her bed. It will amuse you to know that in all of the group photographs at least, she has scribed a small neat ‘X’ mark lightly in ink, hanging just above your head like a saintly mark. Your mother is so very proud of you she put them there for posterity she says. Just in case your family and friends might one day forget who you are.
As if that could ever happen my love!
Come home safely soon.
Your loving wife