IT was a giant statue of a soldier, created by Yorkshire-born sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger, that gave writers Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger their idea.
The imposing bronze sculpture at Paddington Station, London, shows a British First World War soldier dressed in battle gear with a greatcoat draped over his shoulders, looking down reading a letter from home.
“It’s a statue I’ve been familiar with my entire adult life,” says Bartlett. “I’ve walked past it countless times and one day I thought ‘what if he was reading a letter from me or someone else?’ We wanted to create a space where people could express private and personal feelings and there’s nothing more personal than a letter.”
Bartlett and Pullinger decided to create a First World War memorial built from words rather than bronze and stone, with people from around the world invited to write an imaginary letter to the nameless soldier.
The project, which launched at the end of last month and continues until next Monday, has seen more than 16,000 people – including Stephen Fry, Dawn French, Joanna Lumley, Sebastian Faulks and Prime Minister David Cameron – write letters that will form part of a permanent collection online, being put together for 1418 NOW, a major cultural programme taking place across the UK to mark the centenary of the war.
The organisers of the programme, which includes a nationwide Lights Out initiative, say more than 500 new letters are being added every day.
Anyone can go online and add their own words and Bartlett says it’s captured people’s imagination. “There really are all sorts of people taking part, from the prime minister to primary school children, we’ve had contributions from the Isle of Lewis to New Zealand and Brazil to Pakistan.
“We’ve just had an amazing letter from the Sikh community talking about Sikh soldiers from the war, it’s really given people the opportunity to express their feelings,” he says.
Bartlett believes this is a simple way for people to get involved in commemorating the centenary of the start of the conflict. “Everybody has been saying we must stop and remember, but how do we remember a war that none of us was part of?
“The conflict has just moved out of living memory, the last people who could talk directly to us about it have gone so we have to find new ways of remembering and this is one way we can do that, because it’s up to us now.”
People have responded in different ways. “Some people have written simple letters of thanks and gratitude, while others are very personal and imaginative expressing dismay and anger that we are still using war as a way of resolving international problems.”
Thousands of exhibitions, projects and talks commemorating the war have been organised up and down the country, reflecting a need to mark this historic anniversary. “If we just wrap these stories up and mothball them then we risk losing all these amazing stories,” says Bartlett.
He believes the First World War touches a nerve because it affected so many people. “It was meant to be the war to end all war and it didn’t work.”
Which is why it’s still relevant today. “We have war memorials in towns, cities and villages and people think it’s about the past, but actually it’s as much about the future because we are still asking ‘what have we learned?’
“The challenge we face now is how do we go on telling these stories so that no one ever looks at a war memorial and says ‘what is that list of names for’”
For more information, or to write a letter yourself, visit www.1418now.org.uk/letter
Letter To An Unknown Soldier will remain open to receive letters until 11pm on August 4.