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Never Forget: Remembering Past Sacrifices

23 Oct Never Forget: Remembering Past Sacrifices

This year is the 90th anniversary of the Poppy Appeal. The first official Legion Poppy Day was held in Britain on 11 November 1921, inspired by the poem In Flanders’ Fields written by John McCrae.

I have recently re-read a number of articles published in History Today. In one of these Anthony Fletcher has analysed the letters of four men who served during the war, writing home to their loved ones-the letters record the emotions of the men and in some cases show how the soldiers tried desperately to protect their relatives from the horror of the trenches. One of the men, Rowland Feilding, had three daughters before the outbreak of  the war in 1914. Yet, at 44, he was keen to see action, and obtained a commission in the Coldstream Guards. He had an agreement with his wife that he would not spare her the details of life on the Western Front and as Fletcher comments his letters provide ” some of the most candid and vivid battle reporting in Western Front correspondence.” During the Battle of Loos he wrote: “The ground was strewn with our dead, and in all directions were wounded men crawling on their hands and knees. It was piteous and it is a dreadful thought that there are occasions when one must resist the entreaties of men in such condition and leave them to get in as best they can, or lie out in the cold and wet, without food, and under fire, as they often have to do for days and nights together.” Rowland Feilding survived the war, however one of the other men featured in the article did not-Reggie Trench served as an officer with Sherwood Foresters. He was killed in the German offensive of March 21st, 1918. His letters show a very different approach to that of Rowland Feilding. Reggie Trench’s letters illuminate the issue of self-control in writing home.  Fletcher states that with Reggie: ‘There was always the imperative to maintain the ˜stiff upper lip” and not to say things that might worry loved ones. Reggie fed both his mother Isabel Trench and wife Clare with reassuring domestic detail as they neared the lines on March 30th, 1917:˜We have a good comfortable dugout here quite dry and warm. I had a hot bath in half a German beer barrel tonight.With Clare, in letters every day or two, their daughter Delle’s progress was a crucial bonding mechanism: “A thousand kisses to my beautiful daughter,” was a typical response. To his mother, Reggie was more formal and dutiful, recounting things he had done to make the men a bit happier or more comfortable.”

Anthony Fletcher makes an important point when he states that: ‘Letters are immediate, recording emotions and experience at the time. Much of the huge published literature about the Great War comes from memoirs written between the 1920s and the 1970s or from veteran testimonies long after the event. The curtain of myth that dominates the constructed account of the conflict………… needs to be torn aside. Letters like these help us to recapture the war as it was fought and felt.’

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