In the summer of 2014, Pullinger collaborated with novelist and theatre-maker Neil Bartlett to create the digital war memorial, Letter to an Unknown Soldier. Commissioned by 14-18 NOW to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and inspired by the statue of the unknown soldier on Platform One of Paddington Train Station in London, this project inspired 22,000 people to write letters to the unknown soldier. A selection of these letters was published in a book of the same name.
In a year jammed-full of WW1 commemoration our project invited everyone to step back from the public ceremonies and take a few private moments to think. For us, it was important to provide a space for people to reconsider the familiar imagery we associate with the war memorials – cenotaphs, poppies, and silence.
We asked people the following questions: if you could say what you want to say about that war, with all we’ve learned since 1914, with all your own experience of life and death to hand, what would you say? If you were able to send a personal message to this soldier, a man who served and was killed during World War One, what would you write?
The response to this project was extraordinary. By the end of its second week nearly ten thousand people had written to the soldier, and by the project’s close, 21439 number had written. The invitation to write was to everyone and, indeed, all sorts of people responded: schoolchildren, pensioners, students, nurses, serving members of the forces and even the Prime Minister. Letters arrived from all over the United Kingdom and beyond, and many well-known writers and personalities contributed.
The website opened on 28th June 2014, the centenary of the Sarajevo assassinations, and closed at 11 pm on the night of 4 August 2014, the centenary of the moment when Prime Minister Asquith announced to the House of Commons that Britain had joined the First World War. As the letters arrived, they were all published on the website and made available for everyone to read. A selection of the letters has also been published as a book, which you can find out more about on the publisher’s website.
Letter to an Unknown Soldier will be archived here, as part of 14-18 NOW, until 2018. After that, all of the letters will be archived in the British Library where they will remain permanently accessible online, providing a snapshot of what people in this country and across the world were thinking and feeling about the centenary of WW1.
Neil Bartlett and Kate Pullinger