Life, Death, and Growing up on the Western Front
© 2013 Anthony Fletcher
In 1914 Britons marched to war, and with them they took their hearts. Life, Death, and Growing Up on the Western Front takes in the experience of the average Tommy as he lived, endured, and died in the trenches of France and Belgium. Taken from a cross-section of Great Britain, from all classes and creeds, half the subjects of the book will perish before war’s end. But death and horror are not the fixation here; instead, author Anthony Fletcher stresses how the constant stream of letters between home and the Front allowed absent fathers to parent from afar, to give missing brothers the chance to encourage their younger siblings left behind, and constantly work to buttress the spirits of their parents and wives who they knew to be suffering.
While very much concerned with the Great War, Life, Death, and Growing Up is more a personal history than a martial one; through the letters, readers become the acquaintances of the men soldiering on, become versed with their dreams for their families, their hopes, their fears. Their letters betray a mix of bravado and anxiety about the beginning of the war, and call to mind the memory of how storied public life was in earlier times. They seem far less cynical than us, honestly believing themselves to defending a land of hope and glory against the brute force of empires. Their dreams of defending the realm make them chivalric knights both at large and at home; they face a tension between wanting to bare their souls to someone about the life they lead on the front, and wanting to protect their loved ones from fear. Though Fletcher’s own modern jadedness flickers through a few times, he hesitates from criticizing a band of men who he has grown to admire through their letters. Despite the horror they witness, some of the men who live look at the war years as some of the best of their lives. While the past is always a prettier place in retrospect, their letters give some idea as to why that judgment might be sincere; some men are overjoyed at the wildness of the front, rejoicing that they have not showered in several days, gloating in the fact that there they are able to be dirty. It’s as if they were boys playing in a yard again. More substantial are the bonds of brotherhood forged in war; Fletcher remarks on how, despite the awful waste and obscenities seen in war, it entrances us, brings to life instincts that set the soul on fire. The soldiers are devoted absolutely to their comrades, and it is that feeling of being part of a great troop that they miss when the peace is come and they find themselves turned out, sent back to ordinary lives. The horrific impact of war is brought home in full to the reader during the Battle of the Somme, however, when the book’s subjects begin dying, and the last recorded is one the author has focused on most. Having grown to know these men as sons, brothers, and fathers — not just as members of the unit — their sudden and seemingly senseless deaths are a dark shock. Life, Death, and Growing Up is thus quite effective in communicating the human experience, and cost, of the war.