Cambridge​ in the autumn of 1989 seemed to me a lonely place. I had just taken up that loneliest of occupations, doctoral research in the humanities: three years of self-exile in libraries and archives, hard-up and haunted by doubt. My girlfriend had gone to study in Russia, and I’d never felt more isolated or adrift. Every morning I’d cycle to my college and sit in the ancient library, situated above the porters’ lodge and its adjacent pigeonholes. Several times a day I descended the age-worn staircase, anxiously hopeful, to see if a letter had arrived for me. Usually there was nothing; sometimes there were two or three, addressed in a familiar cursive hand and patterned with exotic stamps and franking. My heart would sink or surge. Since I didn’t live in college, or do much there apart from read, the library and the pigeonhole were what I got for my college fee. ‘That mailbox,’ a Canadian fellow postgrad remarked, ‘has to be the most expensive goddam piece of real estate in the city.’

This memory came back to me recently when I was in Bussolengo, a town on the River Adige, west of Verona. I was there to look at an archive relating to wartime work camps, research for a book. Housed in a vault in the basement of the public library, the archive comprises no more than half a dozen boxes mostly containing bundles of letters to Allied prisoners of war from their families and friends. These were all written in the spring of 1943, usually on official pro forma notelets that could be folded and sealed, and almost all were stamped by censors at home and in Italy.

The letters were found some years ago in the attic of the municipal building and handed to the town archivist, Ferdinando Montresor. As a child Montresor had played on the site of the main POW camp, ‘where hundreds of lads’, he said, ‘once awaited news of their parents, girlfriends and wives’. With every letter he read he thought of his father, a corporal in an artillery regiment, who had been deported to a German prison camp after the Italian surrender in 1943 and forced to do factory work. Giovanni Battista Montresor made it back home, but his son wondered if these soldiers had been as lucky, or ‘whether in Britain or South Africa or New Zealand there was someone who mourned when they failed to return’.

The letters affected me similarly. Their contents are invariably mundane. It was dreary at home and there wasn’t much to report. All the excitement came from the war, which families were told not to mention in case the censor took exception. (As it is, some of the letters are redacted with fat black lines of disapproval.) Instead they related chance conversations in the street and country bike rides and trips to the pictures: Gone with the Wind, in the opinion of Miss Eve Bowman of Highbury, ‘was a lovely film, and it ran three hours and forty minutes’. There was news of ailments and operations, austerity weddings and bouncing babies. Sometimes there was scandal. ‘I think I told you before about Granny Pyker going with the soldiers,’ Agnes Sweeney of Newtownards confided: ‘Well, she is still at it.’ A fenland farmer assured his son that he didn’t give a fig about not being invited to a family wedding and was more concerned with getting his potatoes up – and besides, they had slaughtered a 35-stone pig and were looking forward to eating it. Others commented on the weather (mild or smashing or frightful), crocuses and daffodils, nesting rooks and blackbirds.

The tone is generally upbeat: a cheery briskness, the Red Cross advised, would be most appreciated by the fretful, frustrated POW. Don’t talk about tasty meals (chance would be a fine thing) and – this one for the wives and girlfriends – if you report going out for the evening, be sure to say who with: best if it wasn’t another man. Keep it meaningful but light, with reminders of home to lift the spirits. Eager correspondents asked if their letters and parcels of chocolate and knitted scarves had arrived and said how thrilled they’d been to receive mail, or how dismayed and worried not to have heard anything for weeks. A father in Durham was so overjoyed to hear his son was safe he got drunk to the point that, he confessed, he would have fought Joe Louis. On occasion several letters turned up at once and had to be ordered by date, the drawn-out, long-distance conversation reconstructed. Letters from home hoped to find their readers in the pink, healthy and happy, wished them God bless and good luck. Some letters contained photos: studio portraits and snaps of beaming relatives in unpicturesque back gardens.

Wives diligently squeezed love into the dullest of sentences, but sometimes despair and frustration broke through. Loss of composure reflected the misery of being apart but also trepidation about reunion. ‘I’m afraid we shall all feel the strain of waiting when we meet again,’ Doris Angus of Doncaster wrote to her husband, Billy. ‘Never mind, love, even though you are forty, I am getting older as well. There will be a few grey hairs showing, but what difference does it make. Our feelings don’t alter for each other.’ She filled the last line with kisses – thirty of them. Children, too, missed their fathers and vice versa. Earlier in her letter, Doris told Billy that their daughter had been ill. ‘It makes the trouble doubly hard when I haven’t got you at home to talk to,’ she said, and admitted that she had decided not to tell him until the danger had passed. At this point, she handed the pen to their daughter, who added: ‘Dear Daddy. I have been in the hospital three weeks with scarlet fever. I came home on Thursday at 11.30 a.m. I was pleased to come home. I am nearly better. Love Audrey.’

Did Audrey ever dream that her father had come home only to find him still absent in the morning? Many wives and children did. The Bussolengo letters are steeped in sentiments shared by every combatant nation during the Second World War, but which are also timeless. Each war speaks to every war, providing fresh testimony of nerves strained, hopes raised and dashed. And yet there is something tragically unusual – nearly unique – about these particular letters: they were never received. To read a letter in an archive is to conjure two mental states: the sender writing and imagining the recipient reading; the recipient reading and imagining the sender writing. Here, only the first ever occurred. Many similar letters survive, for instance in the Imperial War Museum, but only because POWs received them and brought them home. The Bussolengo letters survive because by the time they arrived, forwarded from previous places of incarceration, the men had been moved on again. And this time there was no new address or forwarding procedure because, in the summer of 1943, when the letters might have been received, Italy left the war. Most prisoners, those who did not escape, were sent by the Germans to camps in the Reich.

The letters stopped in Bussolengo and remain there. The men had received other letters, of course, and in the Stalags would receive more, and most if not all were reunited with their families after liberation. And yet a ghostly air of severance lingers about these letters, voices echoing in eternal emptiness. The most poignant letter of all was written by Herma Falletisch, a young woman in South Africa, to her fiancé Ian Murray, an artillery gunner in a camp north of Genoa. Herma was probably eighteen or nineteen, and Ian in his mid-twenties. She had received a letter from him calling off their engagement, and wrote back to ask that he reconsider – though she insisted that she wouldn’t beg. As far as I could see, he had ended things because he thought, mistakenly, that she wanted him to. Delays in her letters – caused by the erratic postal service, though he wasn’t to know that – had worried him, and then when he had received some, he hadn’t liked their tone. One evening in the winter of 1942, she had written crossly when she was feeling sorry for herself. She had come in from work, found no one to talk to – she didn’t get on with her parents – and decided that she wanted to have more fun. At least in the camp he had friends, she sniffed, and there must always be something going on. (This was petulant but not, as it happens, untrue. By 1943 Ian’s camp, near Chiavari on the Italian Riviera, had a full orchestra, several bands, numerous hobby clubs, a debating society and staged frequent theatrical productions.)

Sitting in the basement of Bussolengo library, rain beating at the window, I found it hard to work out what was going on between Herma and Ian – but then again they hadn’t been too sure themselves. Wavering between recrimination and self-reproach, commitment and cold feet, she was second-guessing his second guesses, at impossible distances of space and time. It had taken fifteen weeks for his break-up letter to reach her, and of course her reply wouldn’t arrive at all.

Unable to talk things over, Herma didn’t know what to think or say or do. She simply said that she wanted to leave things as they were for now. She had a vision of the future, but wasn’t sure exactly how Ian fitted into it.

I don’t want to give you lots of hope now. When the war is over – it might be soon, or also not – you might have changed. I, too. If I should not love you any more you would understand then of course that I could not marry you … Believe me, Ian, we are not the only ones with trouble like that, there will be hundreds of others.

What became of Herma and Ian? I tracked down an ophthalmologist in Cape Town called Dr Eric Falletisch and emailed him. He replied the same day to say that Herma was his aunt, his father’s sister, and put me in touch with his cousin, Louis van Schaik. Louis told me that Herma, his mother, had emigrated from Austria with her family in 1937. He knew about the engagement to Ian, whose family was on good terms with the Falletisches both before and after the war. His curiosity piqued, Eric found a memoir in which Ian described his time as a POW. It was available online and Eric and I read it more or less simultaneously. By the spring of 1942, Ian had lost so much weight due to the poor rations – this was before Red Cross parcels started getting through – that he worried about Herma’s reaction were he to stay that way. He clearly loved her, thought they would marry, and whiled away the time learning German so that he would be able to talk with her parents. But most startling was his bewilderment that until November 1942 only his mother had written to him. ‘I was anguished at not receiving letters from my fiancée,’ he recalled. ‘Had she forgotten me so soon?’

At the Armistice in September 1943, like many other POWs, Ian fled into the countryside but was recaptured and sentenced to death by the SS intelligence agency in Verona. He was spared and spent the rest of the war in German prison camps before finally arriving home on 15 July 1945. His family was there to meet him at Pretoria Station – but not Herma. He soon learned that, though she still held a flame for him, ‘we were different people from five years before and we parted company.’ He found adjusting to civilian life as difficult as adjusting to captivity, and like millions of demobilised servicemen was restless and irritable, liable to blow up if anyone ever said they were hungry, or when a well-meaning friend of his father’s arranged a civic lunch for Pretoria’s homecoming heroes. But he calmed down. In September 1946, within days of one another, Ian married a woman called Maureen and Herma married Jan, the son of Mr van Schaik, whose bookshop she worked in.

So the story had a happy ending, especially for Louis, who owed his existence to the demise of Ian and Herma’s relationship, probably doomed even if her letter hadn’t become marooned in Bussolengo. The war had kept the lovers apart, and as communications faltered so did feelings. By 1945 Ian and Herma were estranged, not just from each other but from their younger selves. They grew up a bit, like I did after I split with my girlfriend on leaving Cambridge in 1993, carrying away a bundle of letters I’d never read again. It had all gone wrong, it was terrible, then it ceased to matter – the coda to most wrecked romances.

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