There is a statue in Paddington Station: A trench soldier, with a scarf around his neck and a letter torn open in his hands. His lips curve in a smile or a grimace. I have seen him in the early hours of the morning with face bright in the flush of dawn, and I have seen him in the hour before midnight when his face is only a shadow.
He is made of bronze, but when I look at him now I see letters.
From 28 June to 4 August, I read the letters for him in my role as editorial moderator for Letter to an Unknown Soldier, a project with 14-18NOW to commemorate World War One by creating a digital memorial. We asked the public to send us their version of the letter the soldier holds in his hand. The letters came from across religions, across demographics, and across the world. They were read by my fellow moderators and me before we posted them to the website, where they will wait till the centenary of the war’s end (2018) before they will be archived with the British Library.
As an editorial moderator, I worked with a team of eight promoting the project, reading the submissions, and uploading hardcopies. I liked to touch these hardcopy letters—some with pressed or paper flowers in them, some stamped from foreign countries. Some of them were written in sloping kids’ handwriting, some in fancy cursive. Somehow holding these letters in my hands made it more real.
We kept the atmosphere in the office pretty casual—it had to be, when so many of the letters were about war and death. Occasionally as we worked, one of us would murmur, “Oh!” Everyone else would snap to attention like meerkats. Sometimes red-eyed, sometimes hoarse, we would read the letters to each other.
My favorite letters typically had a few things in common: Letters that capture a place or voice (like this one from the Isle of Lewis, which does both), letters with unusual true stories (like this one about India), or letters that use details to make the war real (like this one from a mother to her dead son).
Coming into the job, I did not realize (perhaps foolishly) just how heavy it would land on me. Despite the enormous volume of letters, I wanted to stay tender—I didn’t want to stop feeling the impact of the war. The letters reached into me and challenged my concept of war. They challenged the way I look at news and conflicts, books and movies.
As an American, I grew up in a country where war was on my land only one day in my entire life. That’s an incredibly privileged thing to say, and I think much of my life will be spent learning the cost of things I can’t see.
I visited the tomb of the British Warrior in Westminster recently. As I stared down at it, I heard the letters whispering. The letters about the underage boys shot for cowardice. The letters about the assistant librarian who used to smoke a cigarette and dream of being back in the library. The letters about the mother who had to sit when she saw this tomb, because she knew the body inside could be her uncle. The letters turned the grave of a soldier who isn’t even my countryman into my brother, my friend, my uncle.
Sometimes, deep into the letters, I would begin to form a callus to them. But I would stumble across a letter that would make it all come back into focus. These letters made the war real again and again, and they whisper to me even now. They are letters that challenge my prejudices and break my heart. They are words that have become mine.
I did not expect the community that’s developed around the letters. Toward the end of the submission period, we editorial moderators began receiving a lot of attention. We eight read all 21439 letters between us. It was humbling how much knowing their letters were being read meant to some of the people who submitted. We even received a few letters ourselves, thanking us for our hard work. After the submissions window closed, I did a master feature list on my personal blog. In the following day or two, the authors of the letters I featured reached out to me. Leila Bradley, a 60-year-old woman from Halifax, emailed me to thank me personally. I was so honored and humbled. I feel like I know these people, like they are my friends, because they have helped me continue to be vulnerable.
On the evening of 4 August, I went out to the fields near my house. Even though my backpack was weighed down with kids’ letters, and I lingered for a long while staring at the grass in the sunset. It was vividly beautiful in a way I find difficult to put into words. I wondered if this green land is what my unknown soldier fought for. I thought about the wars still happening, wars that take countries and try to choke the green out.
War is a thing that sharpens life, and living in these letters for a month sharpened me.
Alyssa Hollingsworth is currently pursuing her MA at Bath Spa University. In her free time, she can be found with a camera around her neck or glued to her laptop writing the latest in her manuscript.