As we come to the close of this week’s First World War theme commemorating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, a book that shows the true human cost of war through the lens of one family.
Letters From A Lost Generation is a collection of letters between Vera Brittain, her brother Edward (who fought on the first day of the Somme), her fiance Roland, and two friends, Geoffrey and Victor, between 1913-18. All four men died. As Vera notes in one of her letters to Roland, ‘Nothing in the papers…has made me realize war like your letters.’ One of the most poignant moments is when Roland and Vera say goodbye to each other at St Pancras, having become engaged during Roland’s period of leave. Vera notices that Roland wipes his eyes with his handkerchief and she notes in her diary that ‘I hadn’t realized until then that this quiet and self-contained person was suffering so much.’ Roland writes to her later that evening, ‘I could not look back dear child – I should have cried if I had.’ God, the misery of it.
From 1st July a hundred years ago, until 18th November 1916, imagine how fiercely this battle raged and how many letters were sent to and from its fields, and how many telegrams told someone that their son, brother, fiance or friend was not going to make it back to dear old Blighty. My Great Grandfather Ellis Ellis fought during the the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, as my Nanny Margaret was being born back in South East London. He was one of the lucky ones to make it back from the war – meaning my Nan subsequently had a legion of younger brothers and sisters to look after (‘You forget I’ve wiped all your bums and noses!’ she used to say to them. ‘Not in that order, we hope,’ they would reply…), providing my dad with a plethora of aunties, uncles and cousins, and my brother and I with a glorious set of second cousins, culminating in sufficient numbers for the yearly family rounders match. Yet, by stark contrast, his brother Carey was killed on the Western Front in 1917, and didn’t live to leave the legacy of a magnificent rounders game played on a random Surrey field a hundred years later. In every family tree across the land, there is a lost branch, and all the lost futures beneath it. The misery.
Never again. I leave you with The Boss and his version of the Edwin Starr classic, War. The lyrics to this classic say it all, and, while I know that Starr has got the funk, Springsteen’s words at the beginning feel very relevant today. Take it away Brucey baby, as my mother would say.