Army love letters reveal tender side of servicemen

By Lucy Wilkins
BBC News

image captionDangerous conditions did not deter some soldiers from writing home.

Love and war bring out the passions of men. Or so it would seem from the collection of faded ink on delicate paper, the love tokens and the marriage proposals on display at the National Army Museum.

From the roughness of regimental life in the 1800s, the bleakness of being in a prisoner of war camp to the distance from family during the 1991 Gulf War, soldiers through the centuries have turned to paper and pen to share their longings with their dearest.

"My own most beloved precious Verie," writes one officer in 1917 to his wife in England, before going on to detail his rather mundane administrative job. And his sign-off - for all of the hundreds and hundreds of his letters that the museum holds - is "always your own most devoted".

"This is a wonderful insight into everyday life, and because it covers a long period of time from a military perspective, a historian can trace what he is doing. And it's full of emotion," says curator Frances Parton.

She selected pieces from the museum's vast archive, grouping them into courtship, women, marriage, separation and reunion.

image captionEmbroidered postcards were a common love token from soldiers serving in France

"We thought the time was right, with so many people serving overseas. And you don't have to be a military historian to appreciate this.

"Love and families are for everyone. We could have filled this room 50 times over."

She points out a double ring, sent to a wife by her husband after he survived the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, with her name engraved on one ring and his on another, and together placed in a glass box. He couldn't be with her, but the token was his expression of the unity they shared.

Separation, of a boyfriend from his girlfriend, of a father from a toddler he fears he may never see grow up, can bring out strong feelings.

In the 1940s, Maj Anthony Ryshworth-Hill just had to know that one day his love would be his: "Valerie, shall we become in engaged in a sort of distant way so that we are sort of linked together until we next meet? How would that suit you?"

"Anthony... yes, Anthony, shall we?" she writes in acceptance.

Their 100-odd letters were donated, like the bulk of the museum's archive. Mainly it is descendants who offer them, having unearthed them in the attic, "thinking that they are of historical interest even though they are very personal", says Ms Parton.

But not everybody is pining for the girl back home. Some are having a fun old time.

Take Lt William Lee, serving with the 16th Queen's Light Dragoons between 1787 and 1792. He has two women professing undying love for him - one is pregnant in Strasbourg and needs money, the other is an actress in Paris.

"Farewell, my friend, I kiss you with all my soul and I am yours for life," Zinette Desincourt writes. His reply - to either woman - is lost.

"For some soldiers being away at war brings wonderful opportunities that some people take advantage of," says Ms Parton, somewhat diplomatically.

For others it is a lonely life, like the chap in 1908 in Bloemfontein who doesn't hold back when describing the local ladies as the ugliest and most boring he has ever met. Hardly a love letter. Or the lance-corporal in 1834 who regards his musket as his constant companion.

image captionWartime weddings ranged from elaborate to simple

The wedding, when it does come, can be a rushed, and possibly ill-advised, event. One letter - sent from Operation Granby, the name given to the British military operations in the Gulf in 1991 - describes how on-site weddings were not always approved.

"One of the doctors married one of the Royal Scots officers the weekend before last - apparently been inundated with similar requests from couples at this unit but is refusing to perform them as they seem very much Op Granby romances," the soldier writes.

The elaborate wedding dresses, the bouquets, the lines of men in uniform, and the posed bridesmaids typical of officers' weddings in the late 19th Century were long gone by then.

By World War II, soldiers were given 48 hours' wedding leave, prompting one bride to abandon all thought of a big family wedding in Scotland to rush to Liverpool for a trot down the aisle - leaving her gas mask at the back of the church - before the groom rushed off. It was four years before she saw him again.

A 1991 photo shows the happy couple in desert fatigues; the only concession to it being a special event is a red rose tucked in the groom's camouflage shirt.

With Britain's recent military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, modern wives and girlfriends still find it difficult.

Nancy Tanner, married to Capt Daniel Tanner of the Royal Dragoon Guards, says: "If you marry someone who's in the Army, you marry the Army essentially.

"And that is really, really hard to accept. And yes, it does put a strain on you. And the long periods you spend apart and not being able to communicate, it tests your relationship."

When once letters were the norm and telegrams reserved for urgent contact, now it is easy enough to phone from a war zone. How will an exhibition like this be staged in the future?

"As a museum, that's something we have to consider - how to store that electronic communication. And we haven't got many recent donations. It's not something people want to share straight away," says Ms Parton.

media captionCurator and officer's wife on the enduring importance of letters

She thinks the physicality of the letter and seeing the handwriting of a beloved will always remain important.

"The ways of communicating change but the sentiment never does," says Ms Parton.

In an exhibition which ranges over 230 years, the timelessness of love is evident.

"Darling I love you so much - I love the silly hat you're wearing and I love all your expressions - and well, I've always loved every little bit of you, since, I believe, possibly since the pyramids were built or perhaps a couple of years before," wrote Maj Ryshworth-Hill in 1944.

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