Letter to a Known Soldier

Letter to an Unknown Soldier project.

Dear Percy,

I’m supposed to be writing to an Unknown Soldier apparently, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. So I thought I’d write to you instead. It feels more comfortable. Thinking about the Cenotaph, and sacrifice, and horror, and pacifism, and all the rest of it, freezes me up; but I am happy sitting on the back steps with you just out of focus, on the step above me maybe, having a smoke (you must have smoked?) and rambling on down a sort of crackly genetic telegraph wire as we watch the white washing blow in lines across Crouch End.

Crouch End and Finsbury Park are the places we have in common. I fetch up there periodically. We just missed each other, walking round the streets. Often I would see things unchanged in the hundred years since you saw them – a battered old door jamb covered in treacly brown Victorian paint. The rooflines. The clock tower, still rather new in your day. Number 34 Park Road which I used to pass coming on to the Broadway, where your widow was living a scant seven months after you were killed, so I can only imagine you too once opened that gate, walked up the path and knocked, or let yourself in, at the original door that isn’t there any more. Sometimes I would find the shops flashing in and out of focus, clothes boutique/butcher, juice bar/fishmonger, gift shop/ironmonger, and look up at the clock tower and it would dizzy me a bit, and I would wonder, is it now or is it then? Am I about to accidentally slip behind a molecule and see him, or know something new about him?

Let me start with what we do know. You were born on 16th July 1882 in Melbourne, Australia, to the West Country-Irish immigrant parentage that was not unusual in that time and place. I think what happened is that you joined the army around 1900 – the British army recruited in Australia, and the Boer War was the first conflict your fledgeling country was seriously involved in. The family story is that you joined the army and fought in South Africa and then India, served alongside a man called Jack Wells and came home for tea with him when you were both demobbed in London, and married his sister – this last event we can pin down to 1909. You were within a few days of coming off the reserve list when the Great War broke out and hauled you into the British Expeditionary Force. When I looked up your regiment I found that they were stationed in those places, in that order, in those years. So that much I think I know.

You were red-haired. When you were a non-uniformed scout on the North-West frontier (I suppose they would call that a spy these days) you had to take extra care to keep your hair covered because you were so recognisably Caucasian from a mountainside away. You totally rocked at riding, shooting and swimming. You could dive from the top of a mast into the sea. You were a calm man, unflappable and grave. You identified as a Victorian, not an Australian – Australia wasn’t unified until after you’d left. You stood on four continents in your 32 years on earth.

My granddad, who was four when you were killed, had very few memories of you that I know about. One – and this I think is wonderful – was of you standing at the stove, stirring something. It’s a salutary reminder that so much of what we “know” by cultural consensus about Victorian patriarchy is really based on middle class norms. Father in the parlour, mother in the nursery, cook in the kitchen, maid in the attic. All right for some. In April 1911 when the census was taken you, your wife, your baby son, your parents-in-law and your sister-in-law all lived in the same two-up two-down plus attic house in Finsbury Park. How could the men not muck in under those conditions? Life must have been a constant cycle of creation, consumption, dirt and cleanliness, a steady wearing through of enamelled pans and paintwork and stair carpets of the sort that only really happens in houseshares now. Another way in which your life is closer to mine than might be expected.

We don’t seem to have Talked about the War much yet, do we. I suppose that’s my point in writing, really. Like everybody else being written to in this project you had a life, and a family, and places you saw and people you met, and all this went on for years and years before those few months in 1914 that saw you co-opted into a Grand Narrative. If you had survived the war all those things would be your defining characteristics. You would have emerged from the dramatic sepia in which you are set in your tartan trews into the shabbier, workaday light of the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps started appearing in blurry awkward poses on benches in parks. Perhaps cemented a reputation for daft humour, or the ability to write doggerel verse, or dozens of other things. The point I am making is that when I try to write to you as a soldier of the First World War, I probably know you least of all. And I imagine that we are all in fact missing the best parts of all of you when we reduce you to a noble sea of khaki. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with this whole exercise.

Still, I’m no better. In a way that started out as a joke, you have become a sort of tragic talisman. Whenever I feel my back is to the wall, in however small a way, I think, “Percy would love this, to be here in the world now, scrabbling for money, or broken-hearted, or about to go into an exam, or in the dentist’s waiting room. He was so brave, this would be nothing to him. He would swap places with me in an instant.” But really that is not about you being killed in the war at all, it’s simply about your death, and the gratitude and envy we all feel towards each other as we see-saw down history, living and dying and being born and gradually in turn figuring out the truth that we too are going to die.

But we really should say something about war, so let me tell you one little story, about your son and grandson (I imagine you might scrabble as greedily for these vignettes as I scrabble for yours). One day latish in the 1960s, my granddad and my dad were coming out of a theatre somewhere north of Trafalgar Square. There was a Ban the Bomb march on. My granddad, a staunch conservative who had fought in his own war, bristled as a man with leaflets approached him – a straggly-haired, bearded man of about the same age. This is hard to explain to you without relating a whole narrative of social history from the decades after your death; but to a certain generation and a certain cast of mind, Ban the Bomb and Stop the War marches and the like were, and are, associated with beatniks, hippies and drop-outs, people who would avoid Doing Their Bit. You can still see it in the way right-wing political bloggers talk about protest marches now.

“No thanks, I was in the last lot,” my granddad said shortly, in answer to the proffered leaflet.

The man – my dad has never forgotten this – looked at him with conviction and some puzzlement, and tried to explain. “So was I,” he said. That’s why he was there.

And in spite of what I said at the outset about the Cenotaph, I do wonder which side you’d have been on.

Anyway, I’ve finished my cigarette.  I think I’m going to go back inside now.

Alix Mortimer

Pte Percy George Stevenage Mortimer, The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), kia 26th October 1914.

 

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