I went to visit my dad last year in the frozen reaches of Scotland, and we happened to start having a look through family albums and keepsakes excavated from my Nana’s flat after she died. In amongst the photo albums we found a folder of items (relics? artefacts?) which originated from the first world war and (we think) my great-great uncle, Fred Richard Seat Harris.
I don’t know for sure, but I think the folder was arranged chronologically. A picture of my great-great uncle, in military uniform, young, fresh-faced, solemn (in those days having your picture taken was still a big deal). Then several little postcards from France – they’re not really postcards as such, these things, they’re about half the size of a postcard, and on the front, they have an embroidered pouch with a display of flowers and a stylised message below them. They don’t have writing on the back, they have a little printed card inside the pouch with another message and floral design.
The first of these had “Thinking of You” embroidered under a bouquet, yellow, green and red artfully splashed across the cloth. The card inside it said “All my love”. Aw. That’s pretty. What a nice little thing for a soldier to be able to send back from the field for his family. We don’t have the letter that went alongside it, sadly, but it feels poignant in and of itself. A couple of these were in there, carrying messages you could almost imagine sending back from a holiday. They seemed sent by a man telling his loved ones that he’ll see them soon.
The last postcard carried another message, and suddenly the theme changed entirely; “Remember me” on the outside, with the printed card inside the pouch stating simply, “Do not forget me”.
All of a sudden I felt like I was holding the last desperate wish of a man who knew, beyond any hope or doubt, that he wasn’t going to be coming home to his loved ones. And that it was all he could do to buy a mass-produced postcard and send it back to them.
The last item I came to in the folder was the envelope in which Seat Harris’s Death Penny (or, more accurately, memorial plaque) came in. Essentially the memorial plaque is a big bronze medal, 5 inches in diameter, sent out to the next of kin of all British personnel killed in World War I. About 1.3 million of them were made, and the backlog was so great that they were in production into the 1930s.
I found the contents of the folder horrifying. Not just because I felt I was holding in my hands items that this distant relative of mine had touched and written on and attached meaning to, but also because it brought home a terrible truth – that everything, from the cards Seat sent back to his family to his posthumous medallion, had to be mass-produced on an absolutely unimaginable scale. I feel like in some small way that compounds the horror of all those deaths by robbing them of their humanity. But how could it be any other way, with that many dead?
Never again. We will remember.