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The ephemera of war

June 9, 2014

Think before you write.’ That is good advice for anyone committing words to paper or screen. Seventy years ago, however, it had rather more urgency.

Inspired, as predicted, by this wonderful online book art course which I am doing, I began to search the castle the other day for old scraps of paper ephemera. There is plenty of it about. Several members of the family over the past century have left desks here, each with drawers full of letters, photos, bills, diaries and all the odds and ends that we each think we really will get round to sorting out one of these days, only life goes on and more urgent bills arrive and perhaps ill health strikes and so on until, one day, it falls to the children to go through your desk instead. In a house this size, however, the desk can just be left in a spare room and forgotten about; so the contents remain inside, a time capsule of a life busily lived.

The strange thing is that, going through the contents of a desk decades after the death of their owner, one still feels an intruder. Inevitably we put ourselves in the other’s shoes, thinking how indignant we would be if someone else thumbed through our private correspondence. Indignation, however, is a prerogative of the living. It is the descendants we must consider more, I think, in our treatment of the belongings of our ancestors.

When you find something really interesting, however, respect for family privacy conflicts with the historian’s fascination. Thus, when I discovered, under a pile of bank statements from the 1970s, a carefully preserved cache of letters from two brothers serving in the army in World War Two, I could not resist reading some of them. In this week when we have just been commemorating the seventieth anniversary of D-Day, the massive assault which began the liberation of Europe from Nazism, these letters are poignant first-hand accounts of what it was like to live through the war.

I approach these letters, I suppose, in three minds. One is that of the family: this is the correspondence of men who are remembered with affection, whose children and grandchildren are our cousins. I feel that their stories are not mine to publicise. The second is that of the historian: time has rendered these letters historical documents, first-hand accounts of a period which is now studied by my children at school. It is my moral duty to keep these primary sources safe.

The third is that of the paper hoarder, amateur artist/craftswoman and lover of ephemera. And it is in this mind that I wanted to show you one or two details of the letters. Arguably it is the most trivial; but it is a way of sharing my appreciation of them without, I trust, invading the family’s privacy.

What fascinates me as a lover of ephemera is the stamps, franks and other officialdom displayed on these documents. Here are some letters sent by the elder brother, on regulation British Forces aerogrammes. I rather like the way that the king’s profile has been garlanded by the frank on the letter at the top of this first photo.

 

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At least one of these letters was opened by an army censor, who stamped his own rather splendid crowned mark upon it:

 

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One notices the imperious tone of British officialdom at that time: ‘Security: think before you write.’ ‘Air Letter. If anything is enclosed this letter will be sent by ordinary mail.’ It was an attitude which won us the war, so one can’t complain.

The letters from the younger brother are also fascinating. Captured by the Germans in 1940, he spent the next four years kicking his heels in Prisoner of War camps somewhere in northern Europe (I have yet to discover where). His letters home are written on regulation PoW paper. Each postcard or aerogramme is marked Kriegsgefangenenpost, Prisoner of War Post. At least this made them free of charge (gebührenfrei).

 

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On one there is a rather beautiful German stamp: unusual as all the other correspondence from PoW camps was franked rather than stamped (if I have my terminology right).

 

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These letters home from PoW camps are small masterpieces of the unsaid. ‘No letters for ten days or more,’ wrote our officer on a postcard one March. ‘Hope J & C [his siblings] are OK: longing for news of them. Weather foul – snow, sleet, mud. …When the spring comes and the place dries up a bit it will be a good thing.’ You can imagine how dismal it must have been for him to have mentioned it at all to his parents. ‘Got clothes parcel y’day, v. useful’, he wrote in another card in March ’41. I guess that he had been pretty cold. In one letter he was thinking of his good wool coat left behind at his club in England, and asked his mother to put some moth powder on it. How he must have longed for that coat in the endless winters in camp!

Both these brothers, happily, survived the war and went on to marry and have children and grandchildren. The letters have ended up here because they were inherited and treasured by their sister, my husband’s grandmother. Their story is for another to tell, or not: all I can tell you is that, whatever the temptation, these are pieces of ephemera which I will not be cutting up for my art course.

 

You might enjoy some wartime memories of the castle in Cycling in the ballroom: children’s castle memories.

 

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2014 12:58 am

    What a treasure. These are history. So glad they are safe – those long down the road will be able to discover these stories as you say, from primary souce

  2. hmunro permalink
    June 10, 2014 3:14 pm

    You have truly outdone yourself with this extraordinary post, DB. Your sensitivity to the ancestors’ privacy — while weighing the value of their mementos and recollections to future generations — is proof that you are a worthy steward of these bits of history. Thank you for sharing a glimpse into this history with your readers. I’m happy and relieved that both brothers’ stories had happy endings, and I hope with all my heart that Britain and her people will never again be touched by the horror that is war.

    • June 15, 2014 11:04 pm

      It is very kind of you to say so, Heather. Thank you. My husband’s family was exceptionally fortunate in that everyone came through the war (relatively) unscathed.

  3. June 10, 2014 10:35 pm

    How fascinating. There is truly a power in handling letters and diaries written in the past. I’m really glad, too, that both brothers survived.

    • June 15, 2014 11:07 pm

      Thank you. Yes, I think one gets a frisson from handling primary sources that simply can’t come of looking at copies. Maybe that partly explains the veneration of relics in the Catholic Church!

  4. June 11, 2014 12:28 pm

    What a wonderful find! One wonders what other treasures lie hidden in desks up and down the castle. Thank you for these evocative glimpses of both your family history and a crucial period in the nation’s history. There is nothing like firsthand experience to bring home the reality of war.

    • June 15, 2014 11:08 pm

      Oh goodness, yes, I wonder too what we might have overlooked. Recently we discovered the journals of my husband’s great-grandmother. I haven’t read them yet: I am sort of saving them up as a treat, as I was so excited by the discovery.

  5. June 12, 2014 9:04 pm

    What a precious discovery, something that puts those world events into a personal context is always such a wonderful thing.

    • June 15, 2014 11:09 pm

      Yes; I think the world events are so huge that we can really only grasp them at a personal level.

  6. June 14, 2014 6:34 pm

    Hi Kate, I discovered your blog from the paper course and am so glad that I did. How amazing to live in a real castle that has been handed down generations. And the letters! It sounds as though you have a real treasure trove and I love the way you respect those who received and wrote the letters. I’m glad the brothers both came back and yes, that wool coat must have been sorely missed.

    • June 15, 2014 11:10 pm

      Hi Sandie, welcome to Dancing Beastie! Thanks for your lovely comments. I try never to take this place for granted, which is one reason for writing this blog. 🙂

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