Jennifer Johnston: the letter I kept in my wallet for 30 years

Book Club: The author reflects on a letter which was sent by her uncle just before he was killed in the first World War

10th August 1915

Dear Father,
We have been fighting now for 4 days and I am sorry to say we have lost most of the Bn [Battalion]. We were doing fatigues for the first 2 days and only lost about ten men but yesterday morning about 3 a.m. we were called up to stop a counter-attack. In about 2 hours we lost 12 officers and about 450 men. How I got through I shall never understand, the shrapnel and bullets were coming down like hail. Three men were shot handing me messages. The Colonel also got through all right. Luke got his hand blown off but is still all right. Martin got a slight wound in the arm. In the last five nights I have had about 5 hours sleep but still feel fairly fit in body but my heart is broken for all those fellows I liked so much. The water here is very scarce. We get one qt. per day to do everything with, cook, wash etc. I am at present watching the 2 Divisions which are coming up to relieve us getting the most awful shelling. We are at present much nearer to the enemy than they are, but they are giving us a rest. When they come up we will all attack.

After yesterday I have a feeling I shall get through this ‘job’. I would like to see some of the young lads who are staying at home get a few days of this. If they weren’t killed they would or should die of shame.

I must shut up as I have a great deal to do before this show starts.


Give my love to mother and everybody at home. I hope you are well. So long. I have not had a mail yet.

Thanks ever so much for all you have done for me.

Yours as ever

My uncle Billy died from his wounds on August 15th, 1915.

The news of his death reached Dublin before this letter to his father did. No doubt it was one of those terrifying telegrams that frightened people so much. My mother could never bear the arrival of a telegraph boy and used to always get someone else to read the message out to her.

That letter I have kept in the back of my wallet since it was given to me about 30 years ago.

When I put it in there first, it was neat and clean and seemed to be heartfelt. Now, it is no longer neat nor clean, but it has not lost the magical quality that made me keep it in the first place, that still makes me take it out and hold it for a few moments and then put it back once more in its prison.

I have never been much good at writing to order. My head seems to object. It stops working. It doesn’t seem to enjoy being bullied, not even gently. I get no pictures in my head. No music. No words burst out through my fingertips, leaving their marks on the paper. They can’t be bothered looking for secrets. Or indeed, dreams.

Secrets and dreams.

He wrote that letter and then died. His mother, my grandmother, became ill for a long time.

I knew almost nothing about my uncle. No one talked about him. He was 24 when he died. I think he was a kind and gentle man.

If there had been no war.

If only there had been no war.

Perhaps then those later things that happened might not have happened. Things that turned into secrets. Some very black and some which were hardly worthy of the name of secret at all. Or perhaps they would?

And I would still be writing about mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, mothers without fathers, bishops, old age, dancing in the sea, the ugly things that we do to children, angels, illness, bad jokes, gay men – and why did I not write about gay women? – this terrible century through which we have just lived. And, of course, God. And wars. There have always been wars. Wars over holes in the ground, over stretches of water, over kings and queens, over herds of cattle, and poverty. And we have learnt nothing from these slaughters. My books have taught us nothing. No more have the books of other more famous writers.

I should have visited your grave, Billy. I doubt I'll ever get there now. I wonder if I had visited your grave, if I could have sat and talked to you. Could I have learnt something from you that would have calmed the inside of my head? Or would that have made the whole thing of being alive too easy?
Jennifer Johnston is the author of 19 novels, including The Captain and the Kings and is the subject of this months's Irish Times Book Club