School students are musing on how the glorious dead of the First World War might have responded to the internet, iPods and X-boxes, as part of a new, online war memorial.
'Letter to an Unknown Soldier' is a collection of letters, written by children and adults. The project was inspired by a sculpture at Paddington station, which shows an ordinary soldier in battle dress, reading a letter.
“If you could write that letter today, what would you say to him?” said Angela McSherry, producer of the project. “What does he need to know? What does he deserve to know, from our contemporary perspective?”
Ms McSherry is keen to encourage classroom groups, along with their teachers, to contribute to the memorial. Among those who have already written letters are students at St Joseph’s Boys’ School, in the Northern Irish town of Derry.
“Back in your day, only the rich drove a car,” one student wrote. “Now you’re not normal if you don’t drive a car.”
Another added: “It’s now the law to wear a seatbelt in all cars, and airbags have to be installed in case you crash.”
Others focused on more up-to-date technological advances: “I am here to tell you what you are missing now in this generation. Firstly we use touch-screen phones, iPods, X-boxes and Playstations. Nowadays, nearly everyone has internet in their homes.”
Fifty British writers, including David Almond, Sebastian Faulks and Stephen Fry, will also contribute letters to the website. Letters can be submitted now, and the collection will go live on 28 June. From then on, different letters, or themed groups of letters, will be featured each week.
Though few soldiers would probably have carried an X-box to the trenches, some of the new technology might have made a difference to their fighting lives. “That letter probably took weeks to get to you,” wrote one boy. “Now you could send a text across the world in five minutes.”
Others focused on the ways in which developments might have changed the life – and death – of the unknown soldier: “You would have had a chance to increase your life and help your body repair itself from all the wounds and gunshots you got, if medicine was advanced as it is today."
Some of these authors, as well as some of the student contributors, have chosen to write as though they were themselves living in 1914. “Of course, the unknown soldier represents all soldiers, in all decades," said Ms McSherry.
“People like to leap back, to recreate. But, really, they’re doing it with a 21st century sensibility. They’re raising things in those letters that they wouldn’t have raised in 1914."
“Since you have passed, there are not as many wars,” one St Joseph’s boy wrote. “There are still wars in other countries, but not here… You were such a gentleman, dying for your country and helping us not to have any wars now.”