Heartbreaking

Last Letters From World War I Literary Heroes (Photos)

Read three last WWI letters—two from great war poets, and one from a legendary editor’s son. By Jimmy So.

Fotosearch / Getty Images ; Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Fotosearch / Getty Images ; Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Harry Ransom Center, the distinguished humanities research library and museum at the University of Texas at Austin, is preparing an exhibition in 2014 to mark the centenary of World War I. The exhibition will view the conflict from the point of view of its soldiers through letters, diaries, memoirs, poems, novels, photographs, propaganda posters, films, and avant-garde art. For Memorial Day, the center has given The Daily Beast exclusive final dispatches from three English literary heroes who died during the war: poet Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother, Roland Gerard Garvin’s last letter to his father, Observer editor James Louis Garvin, and poet Edward Thomas’s last letter to his best friend, writer Edward Garnett.

Fotosearch / Getty Images

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

The course of English poetry would have been very different if Wilfred Owen were not killed in action at the age of 25. He was not simply a great War poet—he was a great poet, period. He was struck down at the height of his powers, and the fate of English poetry was left in the hands of the Americans T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound and the Irishman William Butler Yeats (who famously excluded Owen from his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, saying that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”).

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

This is Owen’s last letter to his mother, Susan, dated Oct. 31, 1918. Four days later, on Nov. 4, Owen was killed while leading his platoon in crossing the Sambre Canal near the village of Ors in northern France. It was one week before the Armistice. The Ransom Center holds a Wilfred Owen Collection of three boxes of poetry and correspondence with other war poets such as Edmund Blunden and his friend, the great Siegfried Sassoon, who sustained a near-fatal head wound in the war. Owen fought so bravely that he was awarded the Military Cross. But his poetry was vehemently antiwar.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

—“Dulce et Decorum Est

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“So thick is the smoke”

Susan Owen once described her last conversations with her son before he left for the war, saying that he said goodbye with “When I go from hence, let this be my parting word.” When Wilfred’s pocket notebook was returned to his mother, she found those same words written “in his dear writing.”

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

—“Dulce et Decorum Est

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“There is no danger here”

His greatest poem was “Strange Meeting,” one of his last, which described killing another man, “a shepherd among sheep.” His vivid and unflinching poems were meant as indictments. “These elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory,” he wrote. “They may be to the next.”

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...

—“Strange Meeting

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“I hope you are as warm as I am”

“As serene in your room as I am here ... Of this I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.” When the church bells in the town of Shrewsbury rang in solemn relief on Armistice Day to announce the end of the war, a telegram was delivered to Owen’s parents, announcing his death.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

—“Anthem for Doomed Youth

Roland Gerard Garvin (1896-1916)

James Louis Garvin was the legendary editor of the Observer for 34 years, from 1908 to 1942. The Ransom Center holds the archive of Garvin, which includes almost 160 of his manuscript notebooks as well as extensive correspondence with prominent British politicians of the 1920s and 1930s, from Lloyd George to Winston Churchill. Garvin supported the war, but it would bring great personal tragedy to him. His only son, known to his family lovingly as “Ged,” enlisted in the war and was shipped to France. Their correspondences were printed in We Hope to Get Word Tomorrow: The Garvin Family Letters, 1914-1916 and excerpted in The Guardian.

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“Dearest Ones”

This is Ged’s last letter to his parents, dated July 20, 1916, from a ravine near Mametz Wood. “This is just a short note for you. We go into action in a day or two and I’m leaving this in case I don’t come back. It brings you both, and to the girls and Granny, my very deepest love. Try not to grieve too much for me.”

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“Bye-bye”

“I hope my death will have been worthy of your trust and I couldn’t die for a better cause. Please give one of my books or something else of mine to Chidson [Hume Chidson, a schoolfriend] and each of the O’Sullivans [family friends]. Everything else and of course any money belongs to you to handle as you will. Bye-bye. Heart’s love and kisses. xxx Ged”

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“Return to sender”

Garvin wrote a letter to Ged on July 21, but it never reached him, nor did many others. “Your returned letters came in a batch today. What a funny little lump they make: one would have thought there would be a pile of stuff big enough to relieve the paper famine.” These letters to nowhere are heartbreaking, and they were returned to Garvin stamped “Return to Sender,” as well as “Killed in Action” written on the front. Ged likely died shortly after midnight on July 23, killed by machine-gun fire while leading his company in a night assault on a strongly fortified German line north of Bazentin-le-Petit. His body was never found. Gavin never recovered from Ged’s death.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Already an established nature writer, Thomas turned to verse when he was 36, and his career lasted little more than two years. As Samuel Hynes wrote, “There are virtually no juvenilia, and there’s no development—the poetic sensibility, and the poetic voice, were already there when he began to write, and they didn’t change.” He became close friends with Robert Frost, and the two even planned to live side by side in America, although Thomas was plagued by depression and would choose the fighting in France over pastoral tranquility in America. “His last word to me, his ‘pen ultimate word’ as he called it, was that what he cared most for was the name of poet,” Frost said.

Only an avenue, dark, nameless, without end.

—“Old Man

Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center

“I could not see you to say goodbye”

Thomas’s closest and oldest friend was the writer and editor Edward Garnett. The two men met long before the war, and were leading members of the “Mont Blanc” literary club (so-named for the French restaurant in SoHo where they met), and they ate together every Tuesday for nearly a decade. Garnett tried to use his influence to obtain home service for Thomas, but was not successful. Thomas wrote this last letter (which is from the Ransom Center’s Edward Garnett collection) to his old friend from a British army base in January 1917. Four months later—two months into his French campaign—he was killed by an exploding shell during the first hours of the Battle of Arras on Easter, 1917.

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
—“Rain