Letter

The First World War was an unprecedented moment in letter writing. The upheaval of war made letter writing a necessity. In this conflict, millions of letters, postcards, and telegrams were sent across the globe, to keep in touch with friends and families, informing each other about events at the front and life at home.

Letters written during the war attempted mostly to capture the routine of everyday life but also the extraordinary experiences of being on military service at the front or in a foreign land, or chance encounters between soldiers and civilians. Similarly, letters by civilians not only described the challenges of domestic life during war time but included insightful observations of the Home Front, life under occupation, or encountering enemy soldiers, especially prisoners of war. Even in non-belligerent countries, the war was an unavoidable topic in letters between intellectuals, politicians, and ordinary people. Although the mundane dominated the content of letters shared between family and friends, the form offered a unique opportunity for those involved in the war to reflect on bigger and more abstract ideas. Through writing and reading letters, people reflected on the nature of this global conflict and concepts such as nationality, religion, and humankind.

By their very nature, letters were constructions of events and experiences, as certain upsetting or unpalatable details were omitted or as writers tried to avoid the rigours of official censorship. Despite the vast number of letters sent during the war and the huge infrastructure established to ensure that military personnel and civilians could stay in touch, not all of those touched by war necessarily wrote or received letters. In particular, an uneven spread of literacy led to different forms of writing. Letters could be dictated or created collectively before sending, and they might be read aloud and shared among home communities once received.

During and after the war, letters became important tools for propaganda, and were published in newspapers or edited collections. On the whole then, war letters were not, and would not remain, a solely private medium of communication. Although letters were and remained cherished mementos for families, many have been collected in public archives, in a systematic practice beginning during the war. Many more, however, were destroyed, have disappeared, or merely disintegrated.

Anna Maguire & Daniel Steinbach