I collect World War One postcards. I have a book full of sad expressions, seen on one side of the card, read on the other. War strains the body, the mind, the heart. Sometimes it destroys them altogether.
A few of my postcards have correspondence written on the back – a student's handwriting in Gothic curlicues, a farm boy's misspelled print. A husband's wry greeting ('Dear Wife'), a son's report ('also strained a sinew').
Though different, they are all examples of emotions stretched taut as a soldier's line of communication with his loved ones is extended over trenches, barbed wire, blasted forests, oceans, danger and loneliness. Running low to the ground, sentiments of all nationalities traverse numerous No Man's Lands and pass, shuddering, by the charnel houses of Verdun, the Somme, Gallipoli and Ypres (pronounced like a sigh of despair) until they reach their individual safe havens.
I'm lucky to have in my collection a correspondence between Herbert and Nell – their affection having traveled via a 3 1/2" x 5" magic carpet made of cardboard – I have four cards from battlefront to homefront. I'm sure (I hope!) there are more. I'll present one here:
My Dearest Nell
These words are just my thoughts dearie as my heart dearie is always with you, and I am always thinking of you & I know you are of me, roll on the time when I shall see you again, I am simply longing for it, it will be all the nicer when we do meet wont it love. Good bye just for a little while
Your devoted love
Another example of the emotion of battle probably never happened. Many histories of World War One mention it, and then dismiss it: a high-ranking officer was being driven – with difficulty – to the battlefront, after the Battle of Passchendaele had churned it into an earthy stew. As conditions worsened, he eventually burst into tears, crying, 'My God, did we really send men to fight in that?"
I think in the thousands of years of warfare this must have happened – many, many times – those that witness such devastation are so overcome that they can only find solace, and escape, in tears.
That are many things about war that should be remembered. Maps. Arrows. Battles. Geography. Statistics. Strategies.
But what must be remembered are the faces – and what the eyes saw, and what the lips said, the blood that was red - not black or sepia - the flesh that was once warm, and then abruptly turned cold; the emotions traveling from one front to the other and the sea of hands extended; desparate to receive them.