The Great War: The People’s Story – ITV1

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This has been a very moving series, using actors and actresses to portray real people of the Great War, reading from their surviving letters and diaries. Some of the characters are more appealing than others, but all their stories are fascinating.

Last night’s episode included what I think was the most moving story yet, that of Emily Chitticks, a 19-year-old housemaid, and her fiancé, Will Martin. They wrote to each other as often as possible, signing their letters “Your loving sweetheart”. Will was killed in action in 1917. His grave was never traced. Emily died in 1974. She’d never married, and had no surviving relatives. She’d wanted the letters which she and Will had sent to each other to be buried with her, but no-one knew that at the time. The letters were found when her house was cleared out, and given to the Imperial War Museum. Now, Joanna Lumley’s arranged for them to be buried alongside Emily.

It’s such a very sad story. The Great War has so many of them.

The series raises a couple of questions – for me, I mean, not for itself! Is it OK to broadcast and publish people’s private letters and diaries? OK, a lot of famous people’s papers have been published, but presumably that was what they intended, or they’d have wanted them destroyed when they died. When my grandma died, she still had the letters which she and my grandad had sent to each other during the Second World War and, after a lot of thinking, my mum decided to destroy them without reading them, because they were private letters between the two of them and not meant for anyone else’s eyes. Private letters and diaries are a very interesting and important historical resource, but does that make it OK for us to share other people’s private thoughts?

Then there’s the issue of private letter-writing, or even letter-writing between public figures, falling into decline. How many people keep transcripts of phone calls or text messages, or copies of e-mails or “instant messages” sent via Facebook or other applications? Everything’s recorded and reported now .. and yet, at the same time, very little is recorded and reported now. It’s strange.

The series hasn’t all been sadness. There’ve been some happy endings too. But Emily and Will didn’t get one, and I so wish that they had’ve done.

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