Book review: Love Letters of the Great War by Mandy Kirkby

As the Great War raged over the killing fields of France and Belgium, almost 20,000 bags of mail were crossing the Channel every day.

Love Letters of the Great War by Mandy Kirkby
Love Letters of the Great War by Mandy Kirkby

The static nature of the Western Front’s trench warfare and a series of firmly established lines of communication made it possible for letters and parcels to be delivered with startling speed.

At home, thousands of Post Office workers worked tirelessly at a specially erected sorting centre in Regent’s Park in London. It was the largest wooden structure in the world and covered five acres of ground.

Letters to the Front – given the highest priority by mail sorters – were a lifeline for those who fought and those left behind to keep the home fires burning. And writing words of love and affection was often the only way to link lives fractured by war and to find comfort from experiences too terrible to contemplate.

Mandy Kirkby’s powerful collection of love letters shared between soldiers and their sweethearts during the First World War brings together some of the most romantic correspondence ever written.

From a missive describing the beauty of a moonlit night to outpourings of agonised longing and from the private papers of Winston Churchill to the tender notes of an unknown Tommy in the trenches, Love Letters of the Great War gives us an intimate glimpse into the hearts of those cruelly separated by conflict.

As Helen Dunmore points out in her Foreword, ‘For as long as it took to read or write a letter, a soldier might think himself back in the world of home.’

These touching, earthy, ardent and often heartbreaking letters, crammed with news, black humour, rage and yearning, bring to vivid life ‘a lost world’ and include the correspondence of British, American, French, German, Russian, Australian and Canadian troops.

Some are eloquent, some voice fears of jealousy and betrayal, many share sweet dreams of home but all the letters, whether written at the height of battle or from heartbroken wives and girlfriends, provide a very human portrait of love and war.

For young nursemaid Amy Handley, being parted from her sweetheart Private Jack Clifton was an agony she found hard to put into words.

‘Jack, if only – but then how can I say, how can I express all that is in my heart? Does my Jack know? My love, my own, at such moments, Jack, when my love has looked, has seen into the very depths of my soul... My Jack,’ she wrote in July 1918 from Buckinghamshire. Just a month later, Jack was killed in action, one of the last British casualties of the war.

Amongst the most poignant letters are those sent between Gunner Wilfrid Cove and his little daughter Marjorie in which the family warmth and closeness is tear-jerkingly unmistakable. When he was killed by a shell in 1917, squashed letters and photographs were found in his tunic pocket.

When the items were donated for posterity 30 years ago, even the archivist was moved to add a note saying, ‘The tragedy of Gunner Cove’s death could not have happened to a nicer and closer family. I am privileged to have been ‘involved’ infinitesimally in their lives.’

Many of these letters, accompanied by photographs and drawings, have never before been published and each one is introduced by a brief piece about the correspondents, some parted forever and some reunited against the odds.

A century on from the start of the war, these endlessly fascinating, moving and memorable letters show how love really can conquer all, transcending even the bleakest and most devastating of realities.

German internee Rudolf Sauter could not have put it better when he wrote so eloquently to his sweetheart at home, ‘Love knows no distance, time is ours and Beauty finds no breaking shore…’

(Macmillan, hardback, £9.99)