Monday, 15 June 2015

The dreaded knock at the door that signalled bad news

Vera Brittain

The terrible moment when families received bad news from the Front has often been written about and is one of the abiding images of the First World War. Vera Brittain's account of the day she learnt her brother was dead is particularly chilling: ‘There came the sudden loud clattering at the front-door knocker that always meant a telegram. For a moment I thought that my legs would not carry me, but they behaved quite normally as I got up and went to the door. I knew what was in the telegram.’

Whether it was a telegram (usually reserved for officers) or a letter, the bald facts could not be softened: a loved one had been killed far from home and life would never be the same again. It was a natural reaction to try and find out more about the circumstances of death, how exactly a father, husband, brother or friend had died, and many wrote back asking for more details.

Far from home: graves at the battlefront
Painful as they are, the replies were often kept by families and some can be read in my book Letters from the Trenches. Below is one written to the sister of Second Corporal Rockett, who was killed on the battlefield in the spring of 1918. It was written by an army captain whose tone is weary, his letter almost formulaic: first the facts, then an offer of further help, followed by an expression of sympathy and praise for the soldier's heroism.

16th April 1918

"Dear Miss Rockett,

I duly received your letter of 11th inst addressed to the chaplain.  As there is at present no chaplain for this company I am giving you a short account of what happened to your brother 2nd Cpl Rockett. From the accounts of various men who were present at the time, your brother was shot through the head with a bullet. He was in the act of bandaging a wounded man at the time and his death appears to have been instantaneous. As our men were forced to retire from their position at that time, your brother’s body had to be left behind.
If there are any further particulars you would like I shall do my best to obtain them for you.
I should like to take this opportunity of expressing to you and your relations my deepest sympathy with you all in your great loss.
I myself had formed the very highest opinion of your brother and when I heard the sad news of his death I was more than sorry.
I trust that it may be some small satisfaction and consolation to you at this time of sorrow to know the heroic manner in which your brother met his death and also to know that he was very highly thought of by all the officers and men of the company. He was so thoroughly reliable and willing at all times, that his death is a great loss to the company.
Once again I would assure you of my heartfelt sympathy at this time."

An ambulance at the Front desperately tries
to reach the dead and wounded
There is no reason to believe that this isn't an accurate account of what happened to Second Corporal Rockett. But history suggests that families were often given a sanitised version of the truth, without the gruesome details of a death that may have been far from heroic. Not only was this kinder for all concerned, it was also vital if support for the war at home was to be maintained.

Such 'glossing-over' was the subject of one of Siegried Sasson's most disturbing - and heartbreaking -

The Hero

Jack fell as he'd have wishes,' the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read. 
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried 
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

In the chaos of war, who could know where the truth lay?

Copyright © 2015 Jacqueline Wadsworth

No comments:

Post a Comment