Uncompassable Tragedy: a letter from Huw Wheldon to his father, 29 April, 1945

Letter from my father, Huw Wheldon, to his father, April 1945.  Belsen was liberated on 15th April. Two days later my father left hospital in Brussels, where he had been recovering having been wounded during the Rhine Crossing, to join his unit at Luneberg Heath.  He must have passed through Belsen on the 18th or 19th April. As you will note, he touches on it only very briefly, but the starkness and indeed the brevity of the reference testify to the impossibility of rendering the horror in words. Of actual war fighting Dad hardly ever spoke except to say that it consisted of 99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror.

1st BN RUR

Again very briefly.  I am just arrived into my thousandth billet in Europe.  Or so it seems.  It is the usual experience.  A twenty mile march along knobbly cobbled roads reveals nothing much except well-tilled fields, and a spacious husbandry. Villages seem deserted.  The Germans are working or fled – liberated workers loaf around in their various and astonishing garments and we plod on.  There are no young men: no men under sixty.  Where they all are, God alone knows.  Our harbour for the night is a village, taken over.  Mercifully, the civilians are gone.  I am in a nice house, and, as usual, we have crockery and tablecloths and beds.  When we go, we simply leave them.  The men are similarly situated.  Do what you will you can’t stop the occasional ransacking.  When we left our last place this morning three civilian women approached me, and showed me a cellar broken into, three trunks smashed open, contents spilled and spoiled.  Furious with this hooliganism, what  could I do?  Furious too with the three querulous bourgeois women with their windy complainings.  A bottle had been stolen, a tablecloth, a lamp-bracket broken.  They understand the etiquette of defeat: May I speak?  Could I make so bold as to ask?  May I go out to see my sister? – at the same time there is no clear impression of guilt, no question of doing us anything but favours when they give us, willy-nilly, the use of their houses.  No room here, they say – I have seven Eastern workers living here, two Polish girls there.  The notion of doing anything but taking the propriety of this for granted is not entertained.
            I have seen stick-thin children of five, born to an unspeakable world, playing King of the Castle on a heap of naked and rotting dead women.
            Four days ago I entered a farm, taken over.  It was beautiful; and its centre room a joy in itself.  Well proportioned, it had three fine pictures, lovely pieces of furniture, a row of bookshelves which included Emerson as well as Schiller; Goethe, Sinclair Lewis, Wells, Voltaire, Plato, T.W [sic] Lawrence, Tolstoy.  One wondered helplessly at the mind of the tenant, and his present attitude.  Later we heard that the tenant was a widow, forlorn at her loss and living only for the farm and her children. She was gone – we had taken it over, and she asked no questions, made no demands.  Her husband, who must have been liberal and cultivated, as well as able, had died, a private soldier, in Stalingrad.  The burgomaster in the last village was old and rigid.  Puffing unemotionally at a stump of a pipe he professed to understand none of my, or anyone else’s German.  He was utterly unhelpful, and I respected him at every turn.  Odd people came up from time to time asking deferentially would I stop my men taking eggs.  (Eggs are so plentiful that my stomach turns at the sight of one).  They were only small people, they explained, not Nazis.  A week previously they had stoned a column of British prisoners marching through, and spat on the R.A.F.  In that particular village they were, on the whole, against Hitler, on the single and sufficient ground that he had denied them comforts during the war in order to send stockings and scents and good foods to France and curry Gallic favour.  This, like food rationing, was a matter of hard digested fact, and not open to argument.  Pleasant faced women walk the streets of rubble, with a Lutheran church untouched in an open square, and a Prisoner of War camp full of unutterable emaciation behind the railway.  Emaciation of the mind.  Single men, daft after five years of utter emptiness squat down by themselves and crooning, cook billycans of rubbishy tea.  They are helplessly mad, and starved of everything.  This, of course, is pleasant and normal compared with the Concentration Camps which honestly are beyond all imaginable horror.
            This gives no accurate picture.  When I arrived in this evening there was a wireless prepared.  With my ear to the loudspeaker, I listened to what fragments of English news that could filter in usual urbane neutrality through a crashing of electrical disturbance; somewhere close, and cutting irregularly across the already muffled news is a crashing brass band, Boche, playing like mad. There is also, somewhere, odd and fugitive swellings which sound like Mozart.  This is Europe broadcasting.  Our closest station, German, plays smooth jazz, bringing secure hotels and clean bar parlours to mind: just as if nothing was happening.  This, in its crude way, symbolises the chaos all round.  The chaos which was a town is, in the long run, less terrifying than the chaos which was a nation.  We walk on a world of quicksands, and there is only one solid, undeniable fact, and that is that the one constant thing underlying and implicit in all turns and corners of this fantastic world is that this thing, whatever else it may be, is tragic; tragic in the sense that puts tragedy above sadness and apart from a human thing like pity or pathos.  It is a gigantic and uncompassable tragedy.
            God only knows what conclusions one can draw from this jumble – no set of things point in one direction; and daily one sees and feels something all the way from indication of depravity to signal goodness.  There is construction and clarity, destruction and might, and behaviour in this world is compound, what with the difficulties implicit in occupation, difficulties with these overrun people of all sorts and types; and difficulties on the other side, of one’s own behaviour, becomes a hand to mouth compromise.  I allow my chaps their fist of booty, I live in someone’s house; I condemn all sorts of things, and walk a tightrope, falling off pretty often.
            One thing emerges, to me, pretty clearly: and that is that despite all evil, we are all bound up in a tragedy which is to a large extent commonly shared, and that sitting back and blandly condemning Germans is as idiotic , as it is reprehensible.  Raising pious thanks to God because Berlin is now just about annihilated as human habitation is ludicrously irrelevant.  War, like peace, is indivisible.  Punishment, God knows, lies like a sword across all items of military news.  No more is made without the cutting blade.  Let it rest at that.  The inchaste mass of humanity left over is outside moral judgment – and no simple opinion will fit the structure of defeat.  The only principle of sense which will lie at all comfortably on this fragmentary and million-sided tragedy is that the place has got to be got going again, moral and political judgments apart.
            Hitler has a cerebral haemorrage.  This is just another facet to a lunatic world.
            A sediment of opinion may sometime drop onto the floor of my mind.  Until that happens I can only write such helpless accounts as this.  The boys, thank goodness, a normal and recognisable gang are in superb form, and I am well blessed all round.  Dai is fit – so are we all for that matter.
            My love to all.  It is a tiring business living twenty four hours a day in a Hamlet Act V atmosphere.  This letter has been hard work!


  1. Are there more? This deserves publication. Utterly compelling. Mike

  2. Back in April 1945 my late father-in-law Sandy Michie, who was a Lt-Col with the RAMC was sent with four other officers to this place called Belsen. They arrived when the germans who ran the camp were still there, and arrested them. For my FiL the task was enormous. Prior to them arriving, Allied bombing had taken out all electricity and water supplies to the camp. Thousands of dead bodies lay unburied, various strains of typhoid were rampant, plus other diseases, not to mention the extreme malnutrition of the prisoners. His first task was to bury the bodies, which had to be done as fast as possible in order to prevent further disease. They set up a rudimentary hospital to treat the living, which was later (when further troops and assistance arrived) expanded and improved. Three days after they got there Richard Dimbleby and the BBC arrived to report on the camp. My FiL was in Belsen for the first three weeks - it scarred him for life. He was then ordered to another atrocious situation in what is now Latvia, but it was Belsen that he never forgot. He wrote copious notes, medical reports etc (published in The Soldier, and The Lancet) and took many photos in the first 3 days because he said he had to document history. His photographs, papers are now in the public record. When my children were young teenagers he insisted on spending a day with them so that he could tell them in his own words what happened in that ghastly place. He said that as memories faded, some would doubt the truth of what had happened and he wanted them to be able to say that their grandfather had been there, witnessed it and he had told them himself, so that they could counter anyone who denied the holocaust.

  3. A stunning read.