sandgrains: last letters XV: when dreams die

Death took a tighter grip on some families more than others. Every loss was an unspeakable tragedy. Multiple losses an unimaginable reality. What did the future look like for those who had lost everyone they loved and cared for? How do you get through each day?

Grief was your constant companion, memories a place of haunting. Maybe your own death would be the only solace. Maybe your life would be lived in the shadow of sadness. Or maybe you would live life fully and joyously to honour their absence. Or maybe it would be all of them.

Today’s letter is a poignant family triangle. Two soldiers who are brothers serving in Stalingrad, and their sister back home. The letter writer is the elder brother and has been trying to look after his younger brother who was serving in a different regiment.

The soldiers have just heard the catastrophic news that their mother and father have died. Bombs fell from the sky and buried them in the wreckage of the family home. The elder brother tried to find words to console his little brother. But there were none of course. And he too was at the end of his rope. His only comfort was that in dying their parents had been spared learning that they would never see their sons again.

But what of their sister? She was at home mourning the loss of her parents, and now she has to read that she will never see her brothers again,

“It is terribly hard that you will have to carry the burden of four dead people through your future life.”

Looking forward must have been an intensely painful exercise for all involved. How do you suddenly re-imagine your life in the midst of all this pain and trauma and suffering? All of your plans and dreams and hopes have suddenly been snatched from you. And the bleak future also makes you re-narrate your past too. Memories now are tinged with regrets. Things that should have been said can never be. Things that should never have been said cannot be made good.

And dreams die too. This is the inescapable poignancy of the sudden and unexpected death. The life they dreamed of, the life they hoped for no longer exists,

“I wanted to be a theologian, Father wanted to have a house, and Hermann wanted to build fountains. Nothing worked out that way…Our parents are buried under the ruins of their house, and we, though it may sound harsh, are buried with a few hundred or so men in a ravine in the southern part of the pocket.”

Hermann wanted to build fountains. Such sadness in those 5 words. The loss of a young man’s dream seems somehow heightened by the extraordinary contrast between the grim destructiveness of war, and the simple purity and beauty of a fountain.

The losses of war are numerous, almost incalculable. We tally up the deaths. We tally up the cost. We estimate the casualties. But such a crude accounting takes little account of the incredible richness and complexity of every life that is taken. It is so much more than the physical death of the body. For every death embodies the loss of a life. A person. A sense of humour. A web of relationships. A myriad of dreams and hopes and regrets and gifts and talents and fears.

War steals lives.

And it steals dreams and futures.

sandgrains: last letters XIV: 38 letters

War often forges incredible unexpected bonds between people. This is the yin to the yang of separation and loss. Camaraderie. Togetherness. Belonging. The tightness of the primary group created a powerful sense of community, often exclusive and fiercely loyal.

Yet for soldiers at the front, the primary group always lived – co-existed perhaps – with the pull of home. Friends. Family. Lovers. Spouses. Children. Parents. The people they loved and who loved them. Knowing there was someone out there who loved you, even if you could not see them or touch them or talk with them, was often more than enough to sustain you. To know that there was someone out there who carried you in their heart, who whispered your name at night, who held you in their dreams and in their memories, who thought of you every day was a truly redemptive thing. Some bonds cannot be broken by physical separation.

This was often why soldiers at the front were so anxious to hear from their loved ones, and also why they were so stressed and distressed at what was going on at home. Is my family safe? Have the bombs dropped on them? Do they have enough food? Have they taken another lover? Will they be faithful to me? How will I know? British soldiers in Africa were constantly driven to dark imaginings when they heard that other Allied soldiers were now stationed in their towns and villages back home. They dreaded the letter from home…

Dear John, I have something to tell you…

It became a critical issue for all armies: how to manage the morale of the troops who were separated from their loved ones, and fearful of losing that love? For this fundamentally affected their willingness and capacity to endure the suffering and conflict at the front.

But what about those who had no lover to write to? Many people back home decided to act as pen-pals. They would write letters to try and sustain the soldiers at the front.

Today’s letter relates the last letter of the young soldier to his female pen pal. He has written 37 so far, and this is to be his 38th and last one. He evidently had hoped at some point that they could meet up. Who knows, perhaps love would blossom when they finally encountered each other in the flesh?

But now, no meeting will happen. They will never get to meet. Never to embrace. Never to look into each other’s eyes. See the face of the other. Feel the touch of skin on skin. Hear the laughter.

The wistfulness and poignancy of this letter is amplified by the dawning realisation that having been wounded in September he had the chance to go home and meet up with her, but he turned it down, because he wanted to stay and witness the fall of Stalingrad. But now the despair of knowing they will never meet is mixed with disillusionment at the war itself, “this idiotic and totally one -sided struggle”.

And so he signs off, “Farewell, and as a good bye my thanks for the time which you have lovingly devoted to me.”

The final blow though is that he knows that he has been just one amongst the many soldiers that Hanna has been writing to. She will carry on writing. She has many to write to, and he was just one of the many. This must have been so painful. He will never see her. Never receive another letter from her. He will just be a completed note in her log of letters. And she will move on. Write letters to others.

And he will become a distant memory. A collection of letters. Bundled up. Put in a drawer.

The ink fading slowly on the page.

A relationship of 38 letters.

sandgrains: last letters XIII: on being wounded

War kills. War brings death. War brings adventure. War brings boredom. And grief. And loss. And despair.

And war breaks minds and bodies.

Fear of death was accompanied by the fear of maiming, of being wounded. The loss of a limb, or an eye. Loss of movement. Loss of sight. Loss of mobility. And underpinning this fear – of the physical pain and suffering – was the related anguish: would they still love me, accept me, want me if I am physically disfigured??

In this Letter (#28), the writer has to break the bad news of being wounded. The letter is tinged with irony. The reality of the wound is that he hopes to leave soon and make it home, and so the war is over for him. He will return. This was always the great hope of all the soldiers in Stalingrad: to get out and get back home.

But this return is overshadowed by the reason his war is over,

That I will be coming home is a great joy for me and for you my dear. But the condition in which I’ll get home won’t be any joy to you. I am in complete despair when I think of lying before you as a cripple. But you must know sometime that my legs were shot off. I’ll be quite honest in writing about it. The right leg is totally shattered and amputated below the knee. the left one is amputated in the thigh. the doctor thinks that with prosthesis i should be bale to get around like a healthy man and means well…Dear Elise if only I knew what you are thinking. I have time all day long to think of nothing but that. Sometimes I have also wished that I were dead…

Being wounded. The mental and physical anguish. Lying there, surrounded by the groans and screams of the dying. Seeing the faces and feeling the touch of the carers and the healers. And nothing to do but think. Imagine. Fret. Cry. This must have been the time when the imagination – the anxiety -fueled, despair-driven wanderings of the mind – went into overdrive, thinking of all the scenarios which awaited you, if you survived, if you got out, if you reached home.

What welcome would await you?

Will they still love me?

Will I ever lead a “normal” life again?

Why me?

Won’t I be better off dead?

War changes everything.

For the wounded, the war would not just haunt their dreams and their daydreams. Wounding brought rage and confusion, and doubt and despair and repression and self-pity.

For the wounded carried within their bodies the visible and tangible signs of destruction.

And the wounded carried within their minds a tormented and desperate search for meaning and purpose and identity in a body which was not theirs.

The departure for home – if it happened – was always then a return fraught with complications and complexities.

For home was not necessarily somewhere you could find belonging and acceptance anymore.

And you returned as both you-and-not-you.