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I recently discovered two new books to nurture my obsession with soldiers' letters: War Letters Of Fallen Englishmen, originally compiled by Laurence Housman and published in 1930, and German Students' War Letters, originally compiled by Phillipp Witkop and published, in German, in 1928. Both books were recently republished by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
The two books are remarkably close. Jay M. Winter, Yale historian, wrote introductions for both volumes. Here he captures what they both were about:
The entries in the book resemble gravestones, in a general way. There is the name, and instead of military rank, there is his academic affiliation. Then follows the date and place of his birth and his death. So far the parallel with a grave site [is] similar to that used in other similar ventures, for instance, Laurence Housman's War Letters of Fallen Englishmen. Housman's identification also includes the service arm and rank, which Witkop's book avoids. Still, the similarity to a cemetery stone is clear.
What both editions add, of course, is a letter or several letters. This practice helps establish the individuality of the soldier who died; without such special individuation, he would fade into an army of the dead and therefore into oblivion. Thus these books offer two services to bereaved families. For those whose sons or husbands or brothers had no known grave, these pages provide a kind of surrogate resting place his remains never had. And second, the text of the letters does more than just list his name, date of birth, and date of death. It is a kind of portrait, like those found in East European cemeteries. The letters construct a snapshot of the mind of the fallen soldier. The prose comes to stand for the man himself, his nobility, his beliefs, his aspirations. It was as if he wrote his own epitaph.
Here is an example, chosen at random from German Students' War Letters:
EDUARD BRUHN, Student of Theology, Kiel
Born October 18th, 1890, at Schlamersdorf.
Killed September 17th, 1915, in Russia
September 17th, 1915.
I am lying on the battle-field badly wounded. Whether I recover is in God's hands. If I die, do not weep. I am going blissfully home. A hearty greeting to you all once more. May God soon send you peace and grant me a blessed home-coming. Jesus is with me, so it is easy to die. In heartfelt love,