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Out of the Trenches

The Rhetoric of Letters from the Western Front

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Abstract

What can one soldier’s letters tell us about the First World War? Readers turn to letters to learn about soldiers’ experiences, but what constitutes experience? Is it combat? Is it the horror of the front line? Is it, in the poet Wilfred Owen’s famous phrase, ‘the pity of war’? This essay is intended to explore the construction of letters as complete speech acts, considering the style of writing, the subjects chosen and the writer’s awareness of his readers. I have selected the letters of Sgt Robert Constantine of the 1/9th Battalion of the 151st (Durham Light Infantry) Brigade, assigned to the 50th (Northumbrian) Division, because they are a self-contained archive of fifty-one letters and Field Service Postcards that Sgt Constantine wrote consistently from his deployment in April 1915 to his death on the Somme in September 1916. The letters may counter some prevalent assumptions about the letters of ordinary men. Samuel Hynes has contended that daily routine is not represented in soldier correspondence, and that instead letters show ‘dislocation of the familiar’ (1998, cited in Hewitson 2010: 313). Mark Hewitson agrees that ordinary routine is not addressed in letters (2010: 322). My contention is that not only is everyday life on the front lines a part of letters home, but it is an integral aspect of writing because it signals a way of creating the ordinary within the midst of the extraordinary experience of combat.

Keywords

  • Material Object
  • Front Line
  • Speech Genre
  • Western Front
  • Letter Home

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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© 2016 Marguerite Helmers

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Helmers, M. (2016). Out of the Trenches. In: Declercq, C., Walker, J. (eds) Languages and the First World War: Representation and Memory. Palgrave Studies in Languages at War. Palgrave Macmillan, London. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137550361_5

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137550361_5

  • Publisher Name: Palgrave Macmillan, London

  • Print ISBN: 978-1-349-71547-3

  • Online ISBN: 978-1-137-55036-1

  • eBook Packages: Social SciencesSocial Sciences (R0)