Even in the digital age, letters home are a key way that soldiers connect with their loved ones who await their return. Sadly, and more often than we would wish, these letters are sometimes the last contact a soldier may have with their family, blood or chosen. In If You're Reading This...: Last Letters from the Front Line, Siân Price has collected an assortment of such letters that, while difficult to read at times, serve as a snapshot of soldiers in their final moments, each contemplating the tragedy of war and persistent need to express love to friends and family.
This collection displays the range of ways people deal with their imminent deaths, from the era of Napoleon Bonaparte to modern-day conflicts in Afghanistan. Joining an armed force necessarily means confronting the possibility of losing your life in service, but there is an added poignancy to the letters of a soldier's last night—whether or not they've recognized it as such.
When facing their final day, some soldiers look to their faith, others damn the political institutions that put them in their positions, some remain patriotic and condemn their enemies until the end. But nearly all of them are thinking of home, whatever shape that takes, and the last words they wish to send back there. We've collected three of the most moving letters here, as a taste of the wealth of emotion and insight that awaits inside the book's pages....
Read a few letters from If You're Reading This... below, then download the book.
Alexander Wuttunee Decoteau, Private in the Canadian Corps during The Great War. Killed in the Battle of Passchendaele, 30 October 1917
My Dear Sister,
. . . . We all had to make out our wills the other day, so that looks as if we must be going pretty soon, doesn’t it? I made out my will to you. I have not assigned my money to any one yet. You know when we get to England they give us only half our pay. The other half is kept in trust for us in some Bank, unless we assign it to some person who will keep it for us. So I am going to make over half my pay to you before we leave Canada. You can leave it in the Bank till I come back or (go where I won’t need it). Of course if you should need any of it before I do, I’ve no objection to your using some of it. I suppose the proper thing to do would be to leave it to mother, but then she can’t read or write and I’m afraid they would take advantage of her if they wanted to be crooked . . .
Of course, Sis, if anything happens to me and I fail to come back, don’t forget poor mother. I haven’t much to divide but I should like her to have a little. I did not consign my (money) pay to her because I figure on coming back and will need some money and am afraid she couldn’t keep my money as well as you could. I hope the tone of this letter has not given you the blues, Sis. My reason for writing this, is because one never knows when the authorities may take a notion to give us our marching orders. The 151st I understand had only 60 hours notice before they left here. One can’t do very much in that time. We might get our orders to move tomorrow and we’d be so very busy packing for the rest of the time that I’d have no time for writing. . . .
Well Sis, remember me to Dave and the children. I do hope to see you all before long, if only for a little while. Be good to yourself and don’t work too hard.
Your loving brother
Neil ‘Tony’ Downes from the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards. Killed in Afghanistan, 9 June 2007
For his partner, Jane Little, one of several letters left with his family in the event of his passing:
Hey beautiful! I’m sorry I had to put you through all this, darling. I’m truly sorry. Just thought I’ll leave you with a last few words.
All I wanna say is how much I loved you and cared for you. You are the apple of my eye and I will be watching over you always.
Mary, Jane, Ian, Tom, Craig, Lee, thank you all for accepting me in to be able to care for your daughter/sister. I will not forget how nice you have been to me! Bet now my bloody lottery numbers will come up, ha ha!
Jane I hope you have a wonderful and fulfilling life. Get married, have children etc. I will love you forever and will see you again when you are old and wrinkly! I have told my parents to leave you some money out of my insurance, so have fun bbe! OK . . . gonna go now beautiful. Love you forever.
Tony x x x
Ira P. Woodruff, Second Lieutenant in the Confederate army during The Civil War. Killed in the Battle of Seven Pines, 31 May 1862
To his cousins:
‘Farewell home, and farewell friends;/Adieu each tender tie: Resolved, we mingle in the tide,/Where changing squadrons furious ride,/To conquer or to die.’
I have been sitting by the rivers side today thinking of the comforts of home. I thought of you all as my imagination soared with an even flight to the sun bright clime of Good Old Georgia. The price of Liberty is eternal vigilance and it takes hardships to achieve its gilded meteor. The river here is seven miles wide and you may imagine my feelings as I was gazing upon this expanse of water and thinking of my sweet friends far away. We are expecting some desperate fighting as soon as we get to Yorktown.
The time draws near when perhaps we will bid each other a long farewell, for the decrees of fortune are uncertain and no one with our limited capacity can penetrate the murky curtain that veils the unknown future. Perhaps if we could read the record of futurity as it stands systemized by Him whose brow has glittered with immortal majesty from the hoary annals of eternity, we might not pass through the fires which lie before us. I go forward to brave the dangers by which we are today threatened, with victory or death emblazoned in living characters upon my ensign.
It is to perpetuate the liberties and honours you proudly enjoy that I leave the bosom of my friends and especially those who lie near to my heart by the kindred ties of relationship that I leave all behind that is sweet to enjoy and march with proud and rapid steps to the rescue and defence of my suffering country. This land of ours has many sweet and delightful associations that proudly cluster around its imperishable history. I go to contend and plead for the rights of that land that gave me birth, which is sacred to me, and will ever be as long as memory holds its position in my brain.
When that dear land shall be polluted by the filthy tread of our enemies that are now waging an unjust war upon us, I hope that it will take place after my remains sleep in the lonesome grave of the soldier. If it should ever fall to my lot to face the instruments of death, where perhaps cannon balls may rain around me, I shall think of my own sweet friends that I have left behind me. If I fall while fighting for my country, I want you to honour me as a fallen soldier who fought for the honour of his own dear land. If I never meet you again in this world, I hope that we will meet each other in that land of love where our names will glitter like sparkling diamonds upon the tablets of eternity!
Your affectionate cousin
Ira P Woodruffe
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