I will never go to war, you know. I will never have to. The first time I go to France will be a trip with my school.
That’s a line from the author Lee Child. It’s not from one of his Jack Reacher books, but from a letter — a letter to a man who was very much in harm’s way 100 years ago.
Its official opening is Saturday, June 28. It will run for 37 days, until 11 p.m. London time on August 4 — the moment on which Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith in 1914 told the House of Commons that Great Britain had joined the First World War.
The letter-writing campaign is, in fact, one of the nation’s World War I Centenary art commissions. With a characteristic eye for interactivity, the Canadian-born author Kate Pullinger, who lives in London, has created the event in such a way that the public has a role to play.
You can write a letter, yourself, to the intently focused young man who stands on Platform 1 at London’s Paddington Station, gazing down at the paper in his hands. With delicate grace, the soldier’s fingers hold the paper with care; this is something precious to this boy.
Created by the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger MC (Military Cross) in 1922, this fellow in bronze is the work of a man who had seen active duty, himself, in the First World War. Jagger would have known first-hand how vital a letter from home was to a kid on the battlefield.
That figure will forever read his letter.
More than 4,400 people already have written that letter to this soldier.
As the site goes fully live with letter after letter, it becomes apparent that what Pullinger has done, in association with author and theater director Neil Bartlett, is develop a project that becomes the “a new kind of war memorial,” she has described in the run-up to the event’s opening. It’s a memorial, as she puts it, “made only of words and by thousands of people.”
You don’t know me yet, but I have things to tell you. You’re about to go back, and I’m sorry to say it’s going to be worse than ever this time. You’re going to be wounded, I’m afraid. Very badly.
Child’s letter’s text is one that can be seen on the site for the memorial. The thriller writer, whose real name is Jim Grant, was born in Coventry.
You’ll survive. You’ll make it home. You have to, you see. Forty years from now you’ll become my grandfather.
The personal connection Child has just made there is a key to what Pullinger and Bartlett are doing.
“Our project invites everyone to step back from the public ceremonies,” they write, “and take a few private moments to think. For us, it is important to move on from cenotaphs” — monuments to those whose remains are unfound — [and] poppies,” the abiding symbol of what was called the Great War until World War II.
“If you could say what you want to say about that war, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your own experience of life and death to hand, what would you say?”
Child’s answer is an eerie bit of vision from a future that the boy at Paddington cannot know:
I’m sorry, but along the way you’ll realize: the war didn’t end. It was just a lull. You’ll have to do it all again. This time your son will have to go, not you. You don’t know him yet, but you will. But don’t worry. He’ll get back, too. He has to. You’re my grandfather, remember?
Background material from the project tells us that at the height of World War I, “an average twelve and a half million letters were sent each week by family, friends and lovers to soldiers on the front. The British Army considered it essential to morale that its men should be able to communicate quickly and regularly with those they had left behind.”
Some 35,000 women were employed by the Army Postal Service in the first two years of the war. A staff of 2,500, most of them women, handled more than two billion letters and 114 million packages during the conflict. A building called the Home Depot — not to be confused with today’s chain of stores — was built in Regent’s Park in London to house the operation. It is said to have been the largest wooden structure in the world at the time.
This and much more material is accessible now on the Letter to an Unknown Soldier site, which is part of the 14-18-NOW series of art commissions related to the centenary.
I’ll be born in a different world. There will be jobs for everyone. They’ll be building houses…Most of all, we’ll get peace. Finally, year after year.
Child is one of 50 writers from England, Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland who pledged to write letters for the project. His makes the point that whatever befell Jagger’s guy in the trench uniform, his effort paid off for so many, even a hundred years later.
So go back now, and play your tiny part in the great drama, and sustain yourself by knowing: it comes out well in the end. I promise.