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Better insight into World Wars I and II made possible due to personal letters

Ultimately, war is about people. The different sides are fighting each other and, honestly, trying to kill each other. War is also about the people who live near the fighting whose lives have been disrupted. War is about the people back home who want each person to come home safe but know that not everyone will.

While Hollywood shows us that war is a lot of explosions and brave speeches, and history books show us only the basic facts, it’s important to keep the human perspective in mind when trying to look at a war’s impact.

This can go back to ancient cultures fighting over territory with sharp sticks, all the way to Ukraine and Russia battling over areas they both feel justified in owning.

When trying to understand these impacts on the people affected by the fighting, it helps to find letters of note from people taking part. What feelings are they experiencing? What do they miss? What actions are they taking? What can they safely and say and not say about their missions and objectives?

A big part of the “behind the scenes” stories of World War I and World War II are only possible because of the discoveries of letters from soldiers on the field and those they corresponded with. These provide excellent insights into what they’re experiencing internally and externally.

World War I was considered the largest global conflict of all time, and was raging for several years before the U.S. joined. Though many soldiers were generally familiar with Europe, for many, they had the new experience of staying in foxholes and trenches. It was also the first war with airplanes, tanks, machine guns and poison gas.

World War II also had some unique features: due to an abundance of mail going back and forth and possibly taking up space that should be used for actual supplies, American soldiers were required to write their message on one sheet of V-mail, which was then scanned onto microfiche, then enlarged and sent when it reached a postal center.

Both wars required any letters home to pass through official censors, whose job it was to make sure no secrets were revealed, such as strategies, actions, procedures and numbers. Still, letter writers could get creative in what they could describe, such as what they were feeling and seeing.

Letter writers wrote home to check that all was well, and often it was. In World War II especially, a member of the military may have become married on leave or right before they shipped out, so they may want more details about their new wife. Letters gave him a chance to ask about family.

The letters of note sometimes also shared bad news – a girlfriend may have changed her mind and found another beau, sending him what has been generically called a “Dear John” letter.

Worse, however, is when letters were no longer exchanged. People back home were told to expect some delays especially as units were moving around and mail had difficulty reaching certain combat zones.

But sometimes people would wait for months until they received final confirmation, sometimes by letter, sometimes in person, that the letter writer was killed.

Then, any letters, even if they were routine or non-specific, were especially prized since they were all that remained. Family members who lost a loved one would be sure to preserve whatever was written. In many cases, loved ones also kept the letters of note from those who made it home – they still offer poignant, first-hand views of what was experienced.

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