Love letters from the front line

This news article was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

A new exhibition documents remarkable love letters sent by soldiers at war.

Love letters spanning more than 200 years of wartime romance are now on display in the Wives and Sweethearts exhibition at the National Army Museum, exploring what it’s like to be in love while at war or with someone who is away at war.

Visitors can explore soldiers’ relationships from the joy of courtships, weddings and births, to separations, tragic deaths and even battlefield marriage proposals.

One of these romances is told through the letters that Valerie and her sweetheart Major Anthony Ryshworth-Hill, separated by war in 1944, sent to each other.

She wrote to him, gluing on a dozen tiny photos of herself in ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) uniform, but stressed that while she looked ‘so terribly English’ with her serious expressions and unflattering cap, she does laugh a lot.

Clearly it was enough to ensnare smitten Anthony. He wrote:

Valerie, shall we get engaged in a distant way so that we are sort of linked together until we next meet? How would that suit you?

Valerie flirts back her acceptance:

Anthony… yes, Anthony, shall we?

Museum curator Dr Frances Parton observed:

It was a brave decision to make. He was serving in North Africa, she was with the ATS. They were apart, but despite all the problems they decided to make that commitment and get engaged.

They seem a very open couple, and even though it’s from 1944, their letters instantly transport you right into their feelings, circumstances and problems.

This is from a whole series of correspondence and really makes you want to dig the rest of the letters out to find out what happened.

All letters come from the museum’s archive and are largely donated by members of the public who often unearth them in the attic. The letters include poignant photos, embroidered postcards from the First World War, trinkets, and a dazzling diamond-encrusted sweetheart brooch from the Second World War. By contrast, there are no ‘Dear John’ letters, probably because few of us would keep reminders of when we were dumped. Instead, their commentary with themes of love, loss and yearning is affecting and deeply moving.

The letters reflect the heartbreak of couples parted by Service and how hard it can be to cope in dire circumstances alone.

One example is the story of Sergeant Louis Jones who in 1901, while serving in Gibraltar, opened a letter from his wife in England, telling him of the death of their beloved two-year-old son Teddy, a tiny victim of cholera. She wrote:

I expect you think something dreadful has happened by my not writing to you. I have not had the heart to write and tell you sad news about our dear little son.

It is very moving. It must have been an awful letter for Louis to receive in Gibraltar. She is really struggling to cope and has to borrow money from neighbours to buy black cloth to make a funeral outfit.

She also has to borrow to pay her doctor and tells her husband that he will know how much their son had grown because they had measured him for a coffin, which was 37 inches [94cm].

Even though some letters are 200 years old, they are full of emotion,” added Frances. “Other writers can be very reserved but that is down to personality.

From the wives of Wellington’s men to men and women with loved ones serving in Afghanistan, the exhibition brings alive the personal realities of war.

From the Falklands War in 1982 there is a letter from Army press officer Lieutenant Colonel David Dunne to his daughter Jessica. In a postcard sent from the QE2, he marks his cabin, describes wildlife and chivvies his daughter to ‘help your mother around the house’.

There is a selection of photos from Iraq in 2003 showing a soldier calling home on a satellite phone to reflect new ways of communication. Then there is an oral history from current soldiers’ wives and sweethearts. Created by Army wife Nancy Tanner, she talks about how the Army has affected their relationship and how she copes when her husband is away:

It really brings the whole exhibition together. We want to show that it is not only historic letters from the past but that it is relevant to Army wives and husbands today.

In an era where e-mails are increasingly the norm, you wonder how an exhibition like this will be staged in future. Nevertheless, Frances is convinced that most people will continue to treasure a handwritten letter:

Although you can send e-mails, a letter is very considered and physical. You see somebody’s handwriting, and imagine them sealing the envelope and posting it. So a letter really does do something that an e-mail or telephone call can’t do.

Frances’ favourite artefact is a double gold ring sent by Sergeant Robert Porter at Waterloo, to let his wife know that he survived. The rings - which dovetail perfectly - are inscribed with his name on one and her name on the other:

Mrs Porter wore both rings to symbolise their unity which is very romantic. Even though there was a difficult period while they were separated, something wonderful came out of it.

The exhibition has proved highly popular, with many people lingering while they read the letters. Sometimes, faded spidery handwriting can be hard to read and in the 19th century authors wrote vertically before turning the paper horizontally and writing across the vertical lines to conserve precious paper (known as crossed lines):

But the great thing is that the letters are so immediate,” said Frances. “People get really involved and that is lovely to see.

The letters compete with the likes of ‘EastEnders’ in terms of romance and drama, all tempered by the knowledge that their most recent letter could also be their final letter.

They also point to the need to have common experiences. For example, in a 1918 letter to his wife, Private William Harper hints at being terrified at the prospect of going over the top, but says more about his cold.

Over the 230 years that the exhibition spans, the timelessness of love shines through and you sense that what really unites the love letters and the situations within them is the desire for each of us to share in our experiences.

The exhibition is on at the National Army Museum in Chelsea until 31 July 2011.