Letters from a Soldier

 

 

LETTERS FROM A SOLDIER

 

Walter Robson

 

Edited & with an Introduction by Henry Williamson

 

 

robson 1960 front    
First edition, Faber, 1960  

The book and its background

 

Critical reception

 

Book cover

 

Faber & Faber, 1960

 

Faber & Faber, second impression, November 1960

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HW's Introduction is reprinted in Threnos for T. E. Lawrence and other writings, ed. John Gregory, HWS, 1994; e-book 2014.

 

 

The book and its background:

 

HW's diary reveals the only the briefest of details about his involvement with this book:

 

1 February 1960: Posted off edited Tss of Letters from A Soldier to Mrs. M. Robson, The Paddock, Smeeth, Ashford, Kent.

 

17 March 1960: 'Retyping pages [of A Test to Destruction] – also writing Introduction to Letters of A Soldier which Faber are to do this year.

 

At the beginning of October 1959 HW received a letter from his one-time publisher (and close friend) Richard (Dick) de la Mare, one of the directors at Faber & Faber, informing him that they have a manuscript they would be grateful for HW's opinion on, if he would care to comment:

 

It consists of letters from a soldier to his wife, written during the last war, and ending with his death. They are extremely vivid letters and have great poignancy . . .

 

Dick offers four guineas for this work. HW was at the time in the throes of writing and rewriting A Test to Destruction (volume 8 of A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, published in November 1960), and notes 'working hard on 8, exhausted, retyping pages' it is to his credit that, with that generosity of spirit for the work of the unsung war-dead, he agreed by return: the manuscript was immediately sent to him. A further letter from Dick dated 15 October 1959 shows that HW's report on the work was favourable and enthusiastic, and that therefore Faber plan to go ahead with publishing the book.

 

HW had evidently offered to do some 'slight' editing and to write an Introduction to the book, even though he was so heavily committed with his own writing. Dick accepted and suggested a fee of £25 for the work (which seems a rather small amount in view of the considerable work involved). Dick de la Mare's letters are formal but friendly, and they both end 'With love'. They include an invitation to attend a party, but which HW did not attend (replying possibly to a secretary); to which Dick commented, 'It did not surprise me.’ The earlier, serious rift between them had been healed, but only to some extent. The handling of the actual publication details of this Robson book was undertaken by another director, Alan Pringle, who ends his first letter:

 

 

robson 4 pringle

 

 

HW was already in direct touch with Margaret Robson, the widow of the author, who was very appreciative of HW's support and help. Her letter of 2 November shows, in her calm and considered words, a good grasp of what was required, and there seems to have been a good rapport between them:

 

 

robson 5 mr 2.11.59

 

 

HW sent the TSS of the letters to Margaret Robson for her approval, and clearly with a few points to clear up, at the end of January 1960, which she acknowledged:

 

 

robson 6 mr 3.2.60

 

 

In another letter later that month Margaret Robson clears up HW's further queries, and includes a short extract from one of the more personal letters (which were not going to be published in the book). It is reproduced here, as it is a most moving testament to the love of this young couple – only married for two months, and then only together for two brief leaves, before Walter was sent abroad on active service in early 1943.

 

robson 7 unpublished letter

 

robson robson

Walter Robson

(The frontispiece to Letters from a Soldier)

 

 

The letters are full of interesting detail, and give a very good picture of army life in wartime as Walter moves from one theatre of war to another, as is shown by the Contents:

 

 

robson 8 contents

 

 

It is with some shock, despite knowing it was so, that one turns the page at the end of the book – after a most optimistic letter – to read the official notification of his death on 13 July 1945:

 

 

robson 9 official letter

 

 

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HW's Introduction is an interesting update on his thoughts on war literature. He puts this Robson volume alongside James Farrar’s The Unreturning Spring, a book edited by him ten years previously.

 

Towards the end of his piece he mentions (really without any reason, except that he too was a stretcher bearer) a much decorated William Coltman. The following newspaper cutting filed in the Archive with the Letters from a Soldier material (not dated, but no doubt culled at that time) explains what occasioned this seemingly random mention:

 

 

robson 10 coltman

 

 

At the very end of his Introduction HW gives the reason for young Robson's unexpected death: not killed literally in action, but most certainly caused by his war service.

 

 

robson 11 intro

 

 

 

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That Walter Robson was held in high esteem by his fellow soldiers is shown by this typed copy of a letter from his Colonel:

 

 

robson 12 braithwaite1

 

 

On the reverse of this HW has written some 'personal notes' for his Introduction:

 

 

robson 12 braithwaite2

 

 

The book ends with a short POSTSCRIPT by his widow, Margaret, whose courage must be given its due equally with that of her soldier husband. The Postscript was lightly adapted by HW from an earlier letter that Margaret had sent him:

 

 

robson 13 postscript1

 

robson 13 postscript2

  

 

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Critical reception:

 

Letters from a Soldier was widely reviewed and critically well received. Sales must have been good, for Faber issued a second impression in November 1960. The dust wrapper for this new impression quotes from various positive reviews of the first printing, and a selection of these is given below, after the cuttings.

 

British Books merely noted its publication:

 

robson 14a british books

 

The Aylesford Review (Anthony Gower), Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter 1960‒61:

(This appears immediately below the review of In The Woods.)

 

robson 14 aylesford

 

Wester Morning News (anon.), 30 September 1960:

 

robson 14b wmn

 

Eastern Daily Press (anon.), 14 October 1960:

 

robson 14c edp

 

The Times Literary Supplement (anon.), 21 October 1960:

 

robson 14d tls

 

Time and Tide (Penelope Mortimer), 22 October 1960:

 

robson 14e timetide

 

Books and Bookmen (William Kean Seymour), October 1960:

 

robson 14f booksbookmen

 

The Listener (Roy Fuller), 6 October 1960:

 

robson 14g listener1

 

robson 14g listener2

 

The Observer (Christophee Sykes), 16 October 1960:

 

robson 14h observer

 

Sunday Times (John Braine):

 

His letters aren't conscious works of art; mostly they were written in the field with no time to hunt for the right word or to contemplate an effect. But he had the writer's – more than that, the poet's-eye. . . . There is only love and compassion – for the wounded men he tended, for the civilians caught up in the war, even for the enemy. . . . His story is uplifting; one is left with a curious sense of triumph.

 

New Statesman (Walter Allen):

 

He was a natural writer who responded to the scenes and people he met with an immediacy and vividness of apprehension reminiscent at times of the young D. H. Lawrence. With this went a singular beauty of moral character obviously unconscious of itself. These are a soldier's letters that stand side by side with Wilfred Owen's. I can think of no higher praise.

 

Guardian (Dan Jacobson):

 

They make a moving record of the man and his war. They reveal him to have been remarkably generous, gallant, and sensitive; and they reveal him to have been, too, a "born writer", if that phrase has any meaning at all.

 

Daily Mail (Kenneth Allsop):

 

This young working-class soldier was a natural writer. His letters spark and shine with the scenes of war – and peace – he saw about him. He was a man one would have liked to have known – but by the end of this book one does know him.

 

Evening Standard (anon.):

 

These are the fine and moving letters he wrote to his wife, whom he married less than two months before he was sent abroad.

 

Tatler (Siriol Hugh-Jones):

 

A superb and quietly heroic (at a time when such a thing is well out of fashion) collection of letters to his wife written by the author through his years as stretcher-bearer. . . . This is a fresh, immediate book, touching, humble, perceptive and, above all, brave.

 

Aberdeen Press and Journal (anon.):

 

These letters are something more than all this – they are the married love of a couple separated by war.

 

Birmingham Post (Gilbert Thomas):

 

A born writer; a choice spirit.

 

Belfast Telegraph (Jack Loudan):

 

There is humour mixed with sadness in Letters from a Soldier, one of the most unusual and best war books I have read.

 

 

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Book cover:

 

 

First edition, Faber, 1960, front cover and spine:

 

 

robson 1960 cover

 

 

Front flap:

 

 

robson 1960 frontflap

 

 

Back cover:

 

 

robson 1960 back

 

 

Note that Faber published the last book listed above, by HW's son Richard, in 1959. It was runner-up to the John Llewellyn Rhys Literary Prize that year. Long out of print, a new illustrated e-book edition of The Dawn is My Brother was published by The Henry Williamson Society in 2015.

 

 

 

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