‘I’m alive’: letters home from the first World War

Letters from the war, bought in Europe’s antiques markets, show common preoccupations: food, the weather, and above all, love, family and home

First World War memorabilia including a photograph of what appear to be of members of the Royal Flying; a photograph of three German Soldiers; the cards sent by Emilio Pazzi; a leather pouch bought at a market in the Somme; a letter from an Austrian soldier calling himself only ‘A’; and a French prayerbook. Photograph: Oisín Patrick Murphy

First World War memorabilia including a photograph of what appear to be of members of the Royal Flying; a photograph of three German Soldiers; the cards sent by Emilio Pazzi; a leather pouch bought at a market in the Somme; a letter from an Austrian soldier calling himself only ‘A’; and a French prayerbook. Photograph: Oisín Patrick Murphy

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 01:00

In Europe’s antiques markets they deal in the dead: old identity papers, school reports, postcards, union subscriptions, photographs, permits.

In Florence, at the bottom of a lurid tin, under spiders of thread and a wartime warning against spies, lies a handful of rotten milk-teeth, their perfect roots like tiny tusks, smooth, luminous in the dentin dust.

In Arezzo, there is antique iodine; miscellaneous bottled narcotics, tinctures of the early 1900s. Beside them are well-used instruments of physiological hope or political torture. Probes, scalpels, clamps and specula gleam tangle-heaped in the sun. I imagine James Joyce in Zurich, eyeball anchored in a forceps, a scrap of iris about to be excised; my daughter recoiling at the eyelash curler in her Christmas stocking: “Ugh. You got me a tooth puller?”

I have had a decades-long affair with antiques markets since my first buy in Camden: an Astrakhan coat, its rankness muted by half-cut flatmates wielding Shake n’ Vac and half-strung tennis rackets in a garden off Gloucester Road, London. Years of bags, gloves, books, glassware followed.

 

Human chain

But when I became a mother, I began to scrutinise the remains of the dead. A matter of hormones more than history – the sudden desire to transmit a particular identity or story to my children: our being part of “the human chain”.

Over time, in examining the documentary remnants of lives once lived, the fragments of memory preserved and cherished, it became clear that long-dead Europeans had their own versions of a seven-year-old daughter’s will, the minuscule bracelets from the delivery suite, the coaster from a father’s last visit to the Gougane Barra Hotel.

Proof, perhaps, that despite language and generation, we are the same. In a world that can test us most acutely on the things we hold most precious, we know to mind our happiness. We keep small evidences of it, in acts of reassurance, defiance or faith it will return.

My office is filled with human traces. Above the desk, two dark-haired women embrace: a bride and her mother photographed in the 1940s. Sometimes, I imagine they are the same woman, the older version whispering to her younger self, either a farewell to happiness or the promise of survival.

Facing them are a group of children and teachers, tiered in front of a huge tricolour. Alexandrie, May 4th, 1893. Solemn boys in sailor suits and lace collars, girls in necklaces and button boots, old empires in their eyes, bows in their hair. The photographers are Aziz et Dorés. In 1907 they would open Egypt’s first cinema studio.

Elsewhere, there are receipts for beds and dinner services, slept in and eaten from, in the time of the Habsburgs; party subscriptions for old fascist combatants; love sent a century ago on postcards from Paris, Budapest, or the shores of lakes Geneva and Lugano.

Collectors with their catalogues are justifiably aghast. What about theme, order, value? What do you mean, you never spend more than a tenner? But I’m not a collector, I’m a keeper, fascinated more by individual lives in the time than the general life of the time. It is in that context that I have begun to keep letters of the first World War. A small cache from the millions composed along 25,000 miles of trenches, each signifying the most welcome news of all: I’m alive.

With my children’s cousin Tom Kettle dying at Ginchy in 1916, as a family we are no strangers to the Somme. It was there and at Verdun that we saw our first war correspondence, the old battlefields giving a context or dignity to the letters being offered or sold. Elsewhere, however, the letters are desolate, having been looted from the 100-year darkness where they were cherished or forgotten. They lie marooned on cheap trestle tables, each like a hostage emerging from long captivity, pale, fragile and overexposed.

 

Hunger and home

My own collection in Czech, German and Italian has common preoccupations: food, post, warmth, the weather, hunger for news of the neighbourhood, the garden, and, above all, family, love and home.

On March 8th, 1917, an Austrian soldier, who signs off only as “A”, writes carefully in pencil over four sides of a single sheet of cream paper to his wife, Frau Elsa Bade, Graz, Steiermark. He writes about her letters to him, the rain, the broth the soldiers call “veal stew”, the beer they have drunk at the sergeant’s birthday and the vegetables in their garden he is looking forward to eating. He is unsure about kindling for the stove next year but certain of victory in France, Russia and Isonzo, a river on the eastern sector of the Italian front.

Writing from Isonzo, my Italian correspondent could have told him no. Emilio Pazzi lived with his wife, son and daughter in Via dei Pepi, Florence, within the sound of the bells of Santa Croce and the Duomo. Today, the post office occupies No 21. The Ciompi antiques market, which sells war letters such as Soldato Pazzi’s, is just around the corner.

His was a “vertical” war, the Italians fighting high in the Alps and in the merciless territory around the Isonzo river, where they froze, drowned or sizzled. Discipline was harsh. Decimation – one-in-10 being shot – was common and random. It was a maiming existence for Pazzi, ravenous for news of home, anxious about his children’s education, formal in his syntax, concerned for his neighbours, one of whose young sons turns up in his division.

 

Charms or votives

These letters from 1916 to 1918 are an amalgam of love, sincerity and courage. Some crammed, others dashed off loosely in pencil or blue crayon, during what we know by date to be nightmarish fighting. They are charms or votives: always his health is good, he is “the servant” of his family, sends love to his wife, urges her to keep the children at school, to remember him to her parents, to kiss their son and daughter. One letter to his son, Angelo, in October 1918 offers strained advice. “I understand your desire, but for the moment, please, be content. Kiss your mother and Bruna [sister] for me.”

Pazzi was a member of the Photoelectric Brigade, his “artificial moonlight” facilitating dawn and night attacks. He saw action, possibly at Caporetto, Piave, at all or some of the Isonzo campaign.

His last letter is dated November 3rd, 1918, a day before the war ended for Italy. It is sent not from Zona di Guerra, as usual, but from Ospedale da Campo (field hospital) Numero 060. He has been has wounded, likely at Vittorio Veneto, where Italy, at last, is victorious under General Diaz.

Over the next four years, commemorations will be held across the world. On the Somme this summer, my son (17) walks through fields he and his friends might have fought in, if 1997 had been 1897. His younger sister considers the irony in English of the local Depot de Pain.

We will commemorate the soldiers who fought or died in the war. But through their letters we remember. There was once a man who wrote “My Dearest Wife”. A boy who licked a pencil and began “Dear Mother”. And Emilio Pazzi, who wrote always “Carissima Milana”.

 

MEMORIES FOR SALE: ANTIQUE MARKETS

France

  • The Somme and Verdun: various stalls and memorabilia shops.
  • Paris: Les Puces, Porte de Clignancourt, Saturday, Sunday, Monday.

Italy

  • Arezzo: Main piazza, first weekend of every month.
  • Florence: Fortezza da Basso gardens, third weekend of month; Ciompi flea market, daily.
  • Lucca: San Giusto and San Giovanni piazzas, third weekend of month.

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