Historian Sian Price has published a collection of final, moving letters written by soldiers to their families in her new book, ‘If You’re Reading This…Last Letters From the Front Line’.
The letters span over 300 years and range from the Napoleonic Wars to Afghanistan today. They have been collated from museums, libraries and military archives in the UK, Australia, Japan, Germany, France, USA, South Africa, Italy, Canada and New Zealand.
Some are flowery and poetic, others are humorous or even flippant, but all express the writer’s love for someone, whether it is their wife, mother or children.
One of the most recent, written in 2006 by Gunner Lee Thornton to his fiancé before he was killed in Iraq at the age of 22, reads:
I don’t know why I am writing this because I really hope that this letter never gets to you, because if it does that means I am dead.
Just because I have passed away does not mean I am not with you. I’ll always be there looking over you, keeping you safe.
So whenever you feel lonely just close your eyes and I’ll be there right by your side. I really did love you with all I had, you were everything to me.
The Honourable Samuel S. Barrington, killed aged 19 at Quatre Bras in 1815, two days before Waterloo, wrote:
If I escape with my whole skin, I shall think myself well off and be thankful.
If on the contrary some unlucky ball finished me, I trust I shall not be wholly unprepared to face danger and death.
Major Arthur Rowley Heyland, who also fought at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, wrote an eerily prophetic note to his wife Mary just a day before he died:
My Mary, let the recollection console you that the happiest days of my life have been from your love and affection, and that I die loving only you, and with a fervent hope that our souls may be reunited hereafter and part no more.
I have no desponding ideas on entering the field, but I cannot help thinking it almost impossible I should escape either wounds or death.
Private Ashley Goatham was killed at Isandlwana, Africa, in 1879 in the Anglo-Zulu War. His parents in Kent received his letter after his death:
Never mind about me. I hope to pull through all safe by the help of God.
So, my dear mother, cheer up. Time might come when I shall come home and surprise the lot.
Private James Coulter died in the Boer War at Bloemfontein in May 1900. He wrote to his wife of his wishes for her and their baby daughter:
I would give 10 years of my life to see you and Isabel for a few seconds but I see you a thousand times in the day and night.
I do not require to tell you I know you can and will care for our little one, fetch her up as like yourself and she will not have many enemies in the world.
I will close now with love to you and the baby.
Captain Eric Fox Pitt Lubbock, who died at Ypres in 1917 aged 24, wrote to his mother:
So with all my love my darling Mum I now say goodbye, just in case.
Try to forget my faults and to remember me only as your very loving son.
Guardsman Neil ‘Tony’ Downes, from Manchester, who died in Afghanistan in June 2007, wrote to girlfriend Jane:
I’m sorry I had to put you through all this, darling.
Just thought I’d leave you with a last few words. I hope you have a wonderful and fulfilling life. Get married, have children etc.
I will love you forever and will see you again when you are old and wrinkly!
One soldier, in the American Civil War, wrote to his mother:
Rest assured my death shall not be that of a wicked coward, but that of a God-fearing Patriot if I am to perish in the cause. Do not be uneasy.
The book even contains a letter from Japanese kamikaze pilot Captain Masanobu Kuno, who was killed on May 24, 1945, to his children:
Even though you cannot see me, I will always be watching you. Please persevere like your father and avenge my death.