Acts of imagination: letter to an unknown soldier

Today is the 100th anniversary of Britain’s entry to WWI. It’s also the last day it will be possible to a post to the Letter to an Unknown Soldier web site. At 11pm tonight, the precise centenary of Prime Minister Asquith’s announcement to Parliament that Britain had declared war on Germany, the web site’s postbox will close. All letters posted until then will remain visible, readable and searchable on the site until 2018, and thereafter will be placed in the web archive at the British Library.

I first heard about this project some weeks ago via one of my increasingly sporadic dips into twitter, thought “that’s interesting”, and promptly forgot. Sort of. But it resurfaced in my mind recently as we took a road trip through France, Austria, Germany and Holland: a journey that’s difficult to take without feeling at some level stalked by two world wars and centuries of uncertainty about territoriality and land ownership. In Arras we were surrounded by war graves from two wars, in Reims we were in the place Eisenhower received the unconditional surrender on 7 May 1945. In Nancy’s Place Stanislas, where we visited the wonderful art gallery and sheltered from torrential rain whilst drinking coffee and eating raspberry tart, we were also in the heartland of the Battle of Lorraine: the opening actions of WWI in August 1914.

Skirting the Bodensee we stopped in beautiful Friedrichshafen for more refreshments, not knowing that as well as being a university city and German holiday-home mecca, this small city is birthplace to the Zeppelin airship. Two days later, driving up the Romantische Strasse we were astonished to encounter countless walled medieval towns in remarkable states of preservation and prosperity. It was the walls that dominated my thoughts. My father used to talk about the about the area around Carlisle, an English walled city, being in the debatable lands: scene of centuries of skirmishing between Scots and English. But there in Germany I was struck by those high town walls, and how necessary such fortifications were: encircling entire economies and a huge variety of trades, safeguarding communities rooted in their own few acres of the european landmass, that has seen nations and empires sweeping by, coming and going over millennia.

After gazing open-mouthed at the Tiepolo frescoes in the Würzburg Residence we were sobered by photos taken from the roof at the end of WWII. The city was charred and roofless, as was much of the palace. The Residence itself is a microcosm of the international politicking and power shifts that have always driven aristocratic life in Europe. It seems architect Balthasar Neumann had to be a diplomat of supreme skill to withstand the interventions of his client’s family, friends and advisors to deliver a coherent building.

From there we took the fast roads north, heading for a long-anticipated visit to the Gutenburg Museum. Breakfasting at Schloss Reinhartshausen (no surprise that this is set amidst vineyards on the banks of the Rhein) I read about the building and its progressive former owner, Princess Marianne of the Netherlands and in doing so discovered a case-study in the centuries-old problems of European minor royalty – marital nomads traversing Europe: their disjointed existences gilded and padded by wealth. After marvelling at priceless print artefacts in Mainz, we drove through the Ruhr: an area bombed repeatedly during WWII to reduce industrial output and weapons manufacture.

Our journey ended in Amsterdam. In the car on the way, I received news that we knew people aboard flight MH17, downed in Ukraine. And in that moment, war stopped being history and became part of the present, as it is day in, day out in so many places around the world, that are so easy for those of us unaffected to ignore as we focus on our own lives. Until conflict somehow brushes up against us, when we react with shock and anguish.

We took refuge in the wonders of the Van Gough Museum and the Rijksmusem, but after so many reminders of conflict and loss as the week had progressed, we just couldn’t face touring the Anne Frank Museum, opting instead to sit outside on the canal side late at night after everyone had gone, to think quietly, and wonder how much and how little the view from that warehouse had changed over 70 years, and how people like Otto Frank have the fortitude to carry on when so much has been lost.

And somehow all of this brought me back to Kate Pullinger and Neil Bartlett’s Letter to an Unknown Soldier project, so last week I sat down and added my electronic letter to the postbag that now numbers 19,382 missives from an astonishing variety of people from all walks of life. As my letter acknowledges, I’ve never been quite comfortable with acts of remembrance. However this project strikes me as being an inspired tribute because it demands an effort of imagination. It engages our hearts and our minds as we reflect on what we really think about war and what we’d want to say to one who’d lost their life in battle. And in doing so, it changes us. It certainly did me as I thought and wrote and revised and eventually posted last week.

As I post here there are just over 12 hours left to send your letter. I recommend you find an hour or so out of your day today to do just that. What’s an hour lost compared to countless lives in wars across the globe, and nearly a million British losses in WWI, the inspiration for this project? And in any case it won’t be time lost, it will be insight gained.

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