The Last Letter: A Reflection on a Soldier’s Letter from WWI

Soldier WWIToday I haven’t been feeling well, so I’ve had the heating pad, pencil and notebook, and research in bed with me today. My Master’s Thesis deals in part with Mitchell Reid’s book, “The Vacant Chair,” and how hand-written letters become a replacement for that vacant chair within the domestic sphere. One of my readings today was a small booklet, not more than 90 pages, of fragments of letters that a young nineteen year old French lad, who had been studying in school to become a missionary, wrote home. {The book was published in 1917 and reprinted in English in 1918. The title is “For France and the Faith.”}

Alfred Evgene Casalis merged his role as a man of faith and as a volunteer soldier, his ideals ardently expressed in his letters home. He believed it to be his duty for country and for his fellow man to stand along side of those who fought at the front, even though he was a pacifist, not only to defend his country but to minister to his fellow comrades.

He took part in the First Battle of Ypres in May 1915, and it is his last letter which touched me:

May 8th

Since Thursday evening I have been back in the trenches, knowing that the big attack is near at hand. And since that time my life has been one tense and anxious watching for the coming hour. But I am at peace, I fear nothing. I shall be able to do my duty with the aid of God.

The bombardment is becoming more and more violent. Today, particularly, the artillery is firing without a stop and one can hear only the noise of the shells. They whistle through the air, on a level with the trench, like a great heart-rending sob. Then they explode over yonder with a dry crash, and everything flies – earth, wood, and iron. Finally come the shell splinters, reaching up to where we are and falling on all sides. And to think that it is scarcely the fiftieth part of the artillery surrounding us which is firing! What will it be like when all belch forth at once? Therefore I am hopeful. The attack can not fail to succeed. There will be some wounded, some killed, but we shall go forward and far—–

This letter was incomplete. A footnote made at the very end noted “The letter was unfinished and was found in the pocket of the capote when he was buried.” 

Sent back to his mother and father, the last letter found its way home as a material reminder of its author in the visual image of the vacant chair at the dinner table. Alfred’s life was cut short, his last hours filled with the sounds of guns and death. Within the exploration of my thesis, I discuss how families during the early twentieth century coped with the lost of a loved one during WWI, especially if they could not even perform the ritual of normal grieving and burial. How important were those letters to the family?  In the case of Alfred, the Major of his company, wrote his parents that his body was not recovered, it was learned later that he was placed “in a common grave dug on the battlefield near the place where he fell.” It is not a wonder then, that his family published this small booklet of certain parts of Alfred’s letters. These were the last material memories they had of him, a symbolic representation of their son, which they wished to share with the rest of the world. This is how they finalized the grieving for the son who would not come home to fill his vacant chair.

Searching for Primary Documents – The obsession with World War I

all-quiet-on-the-western-front-2As I begin the task of constructing my Master’s Thesis, I have found myself occupied with the search for World War I primary documents. I was happy to find a collection of 88 letters and assorted other materials from Ohio. Waiting to get them in the mail is hard: I’m impatient sometimes. Putting together the chapters and researching is going to be a great joy. This subject is near and dear to my heart.

Memory and commemoration of those who served and died in war, and the ways that people on the home front dealt with healing and piecing together their lives during this period is particularly interesting to me. The type of trauma associated with this war appears to be entirely different from any other war before it. This is what I’m discussing in my thesis. If anyone out there has a collection of letters from either the first or second war, and would be willing to let this graduate student have a moment with studying them, I would love to hear from you. I’m on a quest to discover something that’s never been discovered before. Guess that’s why I’m so obsessed with letters and memory.

Writing Atlantis into my stories

The sunken city

Since I can remember, I have been fascinated by the theory of Atlantis.  Plato’s description of the city beyond the Pillars of Hercules has fueled an imagination of who these people were.  Many scholars have rebuffed the idea, claiming this theory is pure fantasy.  But what if it were true, and there existed a civilization that rivaled our own, thousands of years earlier than well known history.

While writing Legends of Green Isle, I thought about the Atlanteans.  It gave me the idea of how Uthal (see Characters page) came about, and the disappearance of these great people from Earth.  The theme is a subtle background for the main story and its characters.

{{On researching, I found some tidbits that peaked my interest further, and I climbed into more history. Mayans believe the foundation of time began as post deluge survivors made it to South America (August 10th, 3113 BC) – the Egyptian first dynasty began approximately 3100 BC – Babylonian version of the great flood approximately 3116 BC.}}

While not using the flood theme in my series, I did use the survivor beliefs.  In the series the Formorians (see Characters page) needed to escape their destruction by the warlock, and with the help of the Elfs, they went through the portal to a parallel dimension.  The majority of the race disappeared into the sea, with only a select survivors from the royal house making it.

I have also run across theories that the Berber people of Morocco believe they are descendants of survivors from Atlantis, as well as the Basques in Spain.  It calls for further research.  What if there was a fallen continent between North America and Europe and North Africa?  This would change all we know about history.

{{In “The Atlantis Encyclopedia” = Atlaintika (Euskara) was a sunken island referred to as “The Green Isle” from which Basque ancestors arrived in the Bay of Biscay.}}

I hope that having the shadow of the Atlantis legend will peak the interest of the reader, perhaps creating a desire to satisfy their own curiousity by doing their own research.  As a future history teacher, this is what I strive for – the stimulation of young minds, and old alike.

Happy Writing!

Map of Atlantis