‘Life is too short... and I started mine with you too late. Good night, darling’

Writer Sian Price.  Picture: Simon Morgan
Writer Sian Price. Picture: Simon Morgan
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It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to write a letter meant to be read after your death. Sheena Hastings reports on soldiers’ farewells.

IN autumn 1981 Lieutenant Commander Glen Robinson-Moltke – a career naval officer from Mirfield in West Yorkshire – was appointed executive officer of HMS Coventry. In January 1982 the ship sailed for Nato exercises in the North Atlantic. The plan was scuppered by the outbreak of the Falklands conflict, which led to tragedy for the Robinson-Maltke family.

A telegram from Glen to his anxious wife Christine in early April said “Going South...” and as his ship neared the Falklands, Glen’s letters said he and others were still hoping for a non-military resolution of the dispute. Christine later found out that after HMS Sheffield was hit by enemy fire on May 4, Glen had confided to his captain that he feared he was going to die. This was not the first time Glen had had a premonition of death. He got on with his job, but the tone of his letters changed.

On May 9 he described the downing of an Argentinian helicopter – a vital morale boost for the men – but added: “I love you and the children more than you will ever know. It is strange how a lot of thoughts and values change when each word could be your last...”

Just five days before the May 25 attack on HMS Coventry that would claim his life, Glen wrote a farewell letter to Christine: “My darling, I have certainly not been away as long this time as in the past, but I have not left the three of you before – and certainly have never before thought that I might not see you again. I have been through a few such periods on this trip and it is very thought-provoking. Life is too short – and I started mine with you far too late. Give me strength and pray for all of us. Keep the children happy and smiling always. Good night, my darling. All my love – Glen.”

A few days later three Argentinian Air Force bombs hit HMS Coventry, ripping holes in the ship. Glen, who was in the operations room, was swiftly engulfed in flames. The crew had to abandon the listing vessel, but Glen’s body was never found. His letter arrived after the news had been broken to Christine. In 1998 she was remarried to Michael Mates, her local MP whom she met while setting up the Falklands Families Association. By strange coincidence, back in 1981 Glen had seen Mates’s photo in a newspaper and said: “Go to him if you’re ever in trouble.”

Glen’s letters are a treasured part of his legacy, Christine says. “I’d be prepared to part with anything I have, but not the letters.”

Military farewell letters have a long history and they address a basic human need to say goodbye when potentially facing death in battle. One of the most affecting scenes in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong was the montage of overlapping spoken snatches of letters written in the quagmire of trenches on the Somme, when thousands faced their fate as cannon-fodder the next morning. Men of all ages, ranks, classes and religions were bonded eternally by the need to dispatch words that would transcend death.

In these times of electronic technology families still speak of the special quality of holding paper and envelope that has been handled by the lost one. Some are written or dictated by men already dying, testament to the fact that in their last minutes they were focused on family far away. Actual letters, in their handwriting, can provide solace as they are read and re-read until the paper wears thin and gives out.

A formalised postal service to troops in battle began in the early 17th-century, and during her research for the book If You’re Reading This – Letters From the Front Line, writer and radio/TV producer Sian Price found an early example in an archive of memorabilia from the 1745 Battle of Fontenoy during the War of Austrian Succession. Bringing together letters from archives across the globe and those held dear in family homes, she says she found that they range from the hauntingly romantic and sad to the comedic or angrily polemic. “Dear Mum and Dad. You were right – I should have gone to college,” was one bitter farewell from Iraq.

The letters are also redolent of the times in which they were written – stiff upper lips and a certain resolute faith in God and country apparent in those penned in the Boer War of the Victorian period, for example. Some revealed a deep desire to set the record straight – revealing affairs or admitting mistakes made and perhaps divulging long-held family secrets.

Sian says that such letters change in terms of motivation for serving in the forces and the airing of opinions about the wisdom of the decision to go to war at all. “In the 18th and 19th-century soldiers expressed unquestioning pride in serving their country and over time letters expressed satisfaction with the camaraderie of the teamwork involved.

More recently they have told of the pride in doing a professional and skilled job. Nowadays those writing the letters are more politically aware and some, even in their farewell, can vent very strong feelings of political spleen, for example US soldiers who disagreed with Bush’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Going through the letters in archives, I felt close to the writer. In some cases I read the letter in the home of the loved one who received it. For many families the letter is both heart-rending and comforting, even if some are still enraged at their dying in a conflict they disagreed with – as in the case of Jamie Hancock, who died in Iraq.”

Price discovered a certain universality about many of the farewell letters she researched, whether penned in the face of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 by Major Arthur Rowley Heyland (“What I recommend my love in case I fall in the ensuing contest, is that my sons be educated at military college... My Mary, let the recollection console you that the happiest days of my life have been from your love and affection...”) or Private Leslie Abram Neufeld, a 19-year-old from Saskatchewan. He enlisted in the Canadian army and travelled to France, where he was killed at Varaville during the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.

Shortly before meeting his end, valiant Leslie wrote to his family: “...This job is dangerous, very dangerous. If anything should happen to me, do not feel sad or burdened by it, but take the attitude of ‘He served his country to his utmost.’ With that spirit I am going into battle. And let it be known that the town of Nipawin did its share to win the war.”

UK forces going to the front line are now routinely encouraged to leave a letter with a welfare officer in case of death, but some soldiers choose not to, Sian says. “I spoke to one mum whose son didn’t write a farewell, and she was glad because she said it would have been heartbreaking to think of him feeling he wouldn’t make it.”

If You’re Reading This – Last Letters From The Front Line by Sian Price is published by Frontline Books, £19.99. To order from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call 0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage costs £2.95.

A COLONEL’S FINAL FAREWELL

From Lieutenant Herbert ‘H’ Jones VC OBE to his wife Sara. (He was killed in the Battle of Goose Green in the Falklands on May 28, 1982):

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of anything happening to me, but just in case I want to tell you how very much I love you, and thank you for being such a super wife for the last 18 years. I know we have had our ups and downs, but despite all that it’s been a wonderful time and you have made me very happy... Marrying you was the best thing that ever happened to me and thanks to you I can look back on a life that has been pretty good so far...”

On the eve of battle, ‘H’ told his colleague Hector Gullan: “I am going to die” – and it was a chillingly accurate prophecy.