Letters of Note: War compiled by Shaun Usher

I actually dreaded reading this volume because of its subject matter, but it turned out to be a brilliant read! As one would expect, there are some heartbreaking letters included in this collection, but they are few and far between compared to the heartwarming ones. ūüôā It was also a curious read for me because I feel conflicted about wars. I have pacifist tendencies – I don’t think I’ll ever become involved in territorial/ religious wars. However, if put in a corner, there are certain values I’d die fighting for/ protecting. Anyway, I digress‚Ķ

Out of the letters where loss is at the heart, the one that touched me the most is the letter Eleanor Wimbish wrote to her son, William Stocks in 1984. US Army Sergeant William Stocks was twenty-one years old when he died in the Vietnam War. For many years after his death, his mother used to visit his resting place and leave letters for him. The letter printed in this volume is one Eleanor wrote to William fifteen-years after his untimely demise. I haven’t yet lost anyone nearest and dearest to me, but, I have heard people say loss gets easier with time. However reading this grief-stricken mother’s letter, I felt like it’s such a cliche. I cried for Eleanor, and William, who she describes as “the most happy-go-lucky kid in the world, hardly ever sad or unhappy.” She shares some stories one of William’s friends at the front had recently told her about how William retained his warm and happy demeanor throughout the war until his death. Even though Eleanor ends this letter writing “This I know: I would rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all,” it was still sad to read.

Out of the heart-warming letters, my favorite is the one Captain Reginald Armes wrote to his wife during WWI. This letter is about the temporary truce between the British and the German troops on the Western Front in 1914 on Christmas! On Christmas Eve, at around 7 PM, the firing had ceased all of a sudden, and men from both sides had started screaming and wishing each other Merry Christmas! This had gone for a while, and Reginald had met with the German Officer in command to agree on a “Peace Day” till midnight on the 25th. Reginald writes that they never let their guard down, but as agreed, no shooting happened. During the next few hours, soldiers from both sides had met in the middle, talked to each other, exchanged gifts of tobacco, and taken photos with one another. They had even helped each other to bury the dead who were between the two trenches. It was surreal to read how the two sides came together to celebrate Christmas (Reginald writes they could hear guns in the distance) in the middle of the war, before going hard at killing each other the next day! This is the best Christmas Miracle story I’ve read!

The most memorable letter exchange in this volume to me was written in 1675. War had been raging between Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Ottoman Empire for some time. Cossacks were mighty warriors and had won most of these battles. So the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed IV, having reached the end of his tether, wrote to the Cossacks issuing them with an ultimatum as follows:

As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians ‚Äď I command you, the Zaporogian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks. 

I was amused by Mehmed IV’s gall! Judging by Cossacks’ colorful reply to the Sultan, they probably had a similar reaction. ūüėĀ You can read the Cossacks’ reply here – I won’t quote it as it’s full of profanities. But their response was the inspiration for Ilya Repin’s painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire – you can see the Cossacks gathered around writing the letter, and trying to see who can insult the Sultan best! ūü§£

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire by Ilya Repin (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Do read this, if you get a chance. 4 stars.

Note: Many thanks to Penguin Books for sending me a review copy of Letters of Note: War.

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