A Soldier Writes Home: Letters from the Georgian Era through World War II

“The field of battle is a festival of honour; a sublime pageant.  But this is war!”
Sir Robert Ker Porter, 1809.

Summoned to Waterloo by Hillingford 1897
Summoned to Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford, 1897.

Whether it is touched upon in conversation between those characters safe on the home front or dealt with directly via a character who has been in the military or is still serving abroad, war is a part of many historical novels.  Indeed, there aren’t many fans of Georgian and Regency fiction who could not recite to you the salient facts of the Battles of Trafalgar or Waterloo.  However, what makes us, as readers, invested in the characters does not come down to a mere recitation of facts on a timeline.  It comes down to emotional authenticity.

For this, as in much of my research, I have found contemporary accounts in letters and journals to be an invaluable resource.  Not only do they give us an average soldier’s view of famous historical battles, they provide a window into the hearts of the men who fought in them.

Wellington at Waterloo by Alexander Hillingford
Wellington at Waterloo by Robert Alexander Hillingford.

In some letters, we get a sense of the pride and patriotism felt by the soldiers.  As one corporal of the Royal Artillery writes to his mother in 1793:

“I will do more yet for my King and Country’s saik [sic].  My Country shall never be stained by me.”

In others we get a sense of the despondency and despair felt by those who have fought to the point of exhaustion and beyond.

“I am myself a good deal indisposed, and not much better for being shut up in a little, noisome, damp cabin, with six other officers.  Four of them are extremely ill, and generally raving all night long.  Their complaints are the consequence of over-exertion; and their distempered and horror-struck imaginations are perpetually pursuing some dreadful hallucination connected with the casualties of war, famine, and shipwreck.  It blows so violent a gale that I can write no longer.”  

Letter from Army Surgeon A___, at sea, 1809.

Battle of Borodino by Peter von Hess 1843
Battle of Borodino by Peter von Hess, 1843.

There are many letters in which the salutation, signature line, or postscript alone speaks volumes.  In the following, a lieutenant in the 66th Regiment closes out a letter he has written home to his mother after the bloody Battle of Albuera.

“Adieu, my dear mother, for the present.  Give my most affectionate and kindest love to my Father, Annie, William, and all at home, and believe me to be your most affectionate Son.”

Signed G___, A miserable Lt. of the unfortunate 66th Regt, 1811.

Prussian Attack Plancenoit by Adolf Northern 1863
Attacking the Prussians in Plancenoit in the Battle of Waterloo by Adolf Northern, 1863.

Some sentiments are common to all wars.  I have read many letters – dating from the 18th to 20th century – in which the soldier begs those at home to write.  In others, soldiers express how valuable the letters from their loved ones are to them and how such little mementos sent from home, like a postcard, are passed around amongst the other homesick men.

Another common theme is the fear and worry of those soldiers who have been severely wounded in battle.  I have read several letters wherein a soldier writes home to his wife or sweetheart in despair that she will reject him once she sees his condition.  This fear seems to outstrip every other consideration – even the pain he is experiencing from his injury.

The Battle of Vimy Ridge 1918
The Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1918.”

And then there are the innumerable letters in which soldiers, who are themselves in daily mortal danger, selflessly write to soothe and reassure those at home, urging them not to worry.  A 1915 letter from a Cameron Highlander to his “own darling wife” closes with the following postscript:

“I am always thinking of you lassie night & day, you are never out of my thoughts, always remember darling that I love you dearly & don’t worry too much about me, mind & write to me often.”

Letters from soldiers are always infused with a certain poignancy, but some of the most poignant, in my opinion, are the letters home to wives and children that the soldier knows he may never see again.  A 1944 letter from a corporal of the United States Army to his infant daughter reads, in part:

“Though my body be miles away, my heart is with you and I remain forever your father, whose heart is filled with love for you and your mother.  You are the nearest stars in my heaven and each night I sing out my love and best wishes.”

World War I soldiers writing letters Smithsonian National Postal Museum
World War I soldiers writing letters home.
Photo courtesy of The Smithsonian National Postal Museum.

War is more than a catalog of dates and locations, wins and losses.  War is a complex interweaving of countless personal stories.  Stories of courage, homesickness, grief, doubt, and longing.  And nowhere are those stories more accessible to a historical author than the letters of soldiers.  I encourage you to use them as a resource in your own historical research.

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in November 2017).  She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Frazer, Sir Augustus Simon.  Letters of Colonel Sir Augustus Simon Frazer, K.C.B. commanding the Royal horse artillery in the army under Wellington: Written during the peninsular and Waterloo campaigns.  London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans, & Roberts, 1859.

Lewis, John E., ed.  The Mammoth Book of War Diaries and Letters: A collection of Letter and Diaries from the Battlefield.  New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999.

Neale, Adam.  Letters from Portugal and Spain: comprising an account of the operations of the armies under their excellencies Sir Arthur Wellesley and Sir John Moore.  London: Richard Phillips, 1809.

Porter, Sir Robert.  Letters from Portugal and Spain: written during the march of the British troops under Sir John Moore.  London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1809.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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4 Comments on "A Soldier Writes Home: Letters from the Georgian Era through World War II"

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Vickie
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Mimi – thank you for this article about soldiers writing home – I cannot imagine how horrible it would be to be removed from my home and family and in very uncomfortable surroundings in mortal danger – when you think about these fathers, brothers, sons and other men it brings a sadness for their suffering. I am sure they did not realize that they were leaving historical information that would help others understand what they had been through. I think it is very important that we not forget the sacrifices they made.

Mimi Matthews
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Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment, Vickie. I could not agree more. The soldiers’ letters provide unparalleled insight into the sacrifices of war – more that we can glean from a dispassionate history book, I feel.

Pam Stone
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Dear Mimi, this is a shot in the dark but I have a sweet gold and glass/crystal (?) locket given to my grandfather who was the Captain of the HMS Ceramic, which went down with all hands, Dec 7 1942. Prior to that fateful voyage, he was sailing to Australia and met a frail, elderly passenger who was going home to die. At the end of the journey, she told him how much his visits to chat meant to her and she wanted to give him something to remember her by. She gave him this locket and told him it… Read more »
Mimi Matthews
Guest

What a wonderful (and very poignant) story, Pam. Thank you so much for sharing it. Unfortunately, I have not come across anything about such a locket. But my knowledge of soldier’s letters is nowhere near as wide as some other researchers. I hope maybe someone else visiting my site might read your comment and have a little more information. Thank you again for commenting. I wish I could be more help!

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