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.

History Conferences – The First World War and Vera Brittian

Well its back to the grind of school, and of course, as a history major I get to research and develop lots of papers.  This year is not going to be an exception, as I have a conference in Atlanta on November 4, and another one (hopefully) in February 2012 in North Georgia.  Last semester I did a paper on the Moroccan crisis preceding the Great War of 1914.  My thesis pertained to the fact that Germany was preparing for war even before 1914, and France was a big instigator in making them extremely paranoid.

I am very fascinated by this time period and all that went on during the early part of the 20th century concerning WWI.  It was an age when a whole generation of men suddenly died or became very disillusioned with life, as they witnessed mass killings on a daily basis, by new types of weaponry never before used in the battlefield.  Not familiar with the results, there were days, for example, the Battle of Verdun, in which tens of thousands were slaughtered.  I say slaughtered because crossing “no man’s land” while the other side plowed into you with large machine guns was suicide.  Trapped in trenches, these particular souls endured a new type of fighting that the world never experienced up until that moment.   We claimed this generation became “the lost generation” and rightly so.  They lost a lot.

During my special topics class last year we read Vera Brittian – Testament to Youth. This particular passage hit me directly and I have saved the quote.

“Let him who thinks War is a glorious, golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country, ….but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin-bone and what might have been its ribs…and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence!” excerpt from Vera Brittain’s book “Testament of Youth” WWI

Ms. Brittian does a wonderful job telling the story of her personal experience as a student, then nurse during the Great War.  She tells about her life as a young woman in college, and how the war affected her and her family, and gives an accurate account of the change in attitude which swept over the whole of Europe as the war progressed.  It’s a great read if you like to discover more about the Great War.