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November 4th 1917 - Letter from Cyril Sladden to his fiancée, Mela Brown Constable

4th November 1917
Correspondence From
Cyril Sladden
Correspondence To
Mela Brown Constable, Somerville Hostel WAAC, Manor Hill, Sutton Coldfield
Relationship to Letter Addressee
Text of Letter

Sunday Nov 4th 1917


My dearest Mela


You have never written me a letter before which has worried me quite so much as that of Sept 15th, which was the middle one of three that came last Wednesday. It would have been hard enough to reply to had you been one day’s mail distant from me, but it is harder still when there will be a score of letters from you before my reply comes to you.


Just the first of these many I have beside me and it contains a little to make things easier, but not very much; you write “my other letter is a horrid one this mail – I wonder if you’ll be very cross when you read it”. The word “cross” doesn’t express my feelings, by the way, in the slightest. It is hard to say what I felt, but it was nothing so trivial as being “cross”.


I am disappointed that your later letter did not suggest rather more that you felt you had put in some things you wish you had left out.


I am going to start by attempting to show you my point of view, and so will begin at the beginning. My original very tentative suggestion that you should consider joining me in India if we had a chance later was written about January, before the universal submarining began. When that started I guessed it would very likely put an end to the whole idea, and had it started earlier I don’t think I should have made the original suggestion at all. Although I was exceedingly anxious you should offer to come I deliberately refrained from pressing you because I wanted you to decide as you felt inclined, and not simply out of desire not to disappoint me. It would be your adventure, and so the decision was yours and I had no business to press you. My hopes lay in this, that you might feel that on your own account the “game was worth the candle”.


During the latter part of the long interval of waiting for an answer the news of the prohibition of passports to women reached me and lowered my hopes almost to nothing, though it was impossible absolutely to abandon a hope that I looked forward to so very strongly. Meanwhile in my letters I avoided discussing the prospect too much in case you decided in the negative, in which case you would subsequently have kept getting letters showing how much I hoped you would assent, and that would have been annoying.


There was no occasion for me to decide anything until your letter came showing you wanted to come very much, and soon afterwards other letters showing it was not quite impossible apparently for you to get permission. Then when I thought I could get leave I had to decide definitely one way or the other, as I knew you would not start unless I cabled “come”, and would abandon the project if I wired I thought it too risky. One or other cable had to go, and it took some days to decide finally which. I thought the thing over every way and finally, (after working it out in the manner I described, the manner you apparently objected to so very strongly indeed) I concluded that the risk was one sufficiently slight for me to be able to count upon you being safe supposing the naval authorities were satisfied to grant women passages at all. In my estimate I admit I may have been wide of the mark, but that is for the moment a side issue.


The point is it was my estimate; it was what I thought; and on it I formed my decision to ask you to come if possible.


Then after the whole thing had fallen through, your letter came in which you said it would have been “1000 chances to one” you might never have reached India. Again it does not at the moment concern us what precisely you meant to convey by this as an exact measure of the risk, nor whether it was correct or not. It conveyed to me, as I am sure it was meant convey, a measure of risk utterly different from that which I had contemplated: a risk which indicated at least that you were as likely to be drowned as get through.


I was absolutely amazed that you could for one moment have supposed I would have consented to ask you to take any such risk or anything remotely approaching such a risk. I would not have done it to secure any material benefits for us that I can imagine. In fact if you thought you were facing any such horrible risk you ought to have refused to come, whatever I wired, knowing that I could only have suggested such a thing from complete ignorance of the conditions.


The very suggestion that the risk I had invited you to face was in your own opinion anything of that kind took my breath away. As it still seemed to me your estimate of it was entirely wrong I took the immediate course in my next letter of explaining how I estimated the risk to be but a slight one. It was this letter that stirred up your wrath to such an extent, and I am still at a loss to understand wherein the offence lay.


Every letter I have previously had led me to suppose you were glad I cabled you to come, in spite of the risk. I cannot think I have been mistaken all this time about that. In short I believed (and do still) that you thought as I did; that for a mutual benefit that was great enough a slight risk was justified. At the same time I should understand if you told me I had no business to let you face any extra risk at all.


You write in your letter as if my scheme would have been all benefit to me and none to you; in fact you were so angry that I almost think you must have let yourself argue on that basis for the moment, though it certainly is not your real opinion as all your previous letters show. I hope I should never have considered the suggestion at all unless I had felt you get at least an equal share of the benefits. Also you write as if your personal risk was absolutely nothing to me. Surely you will allow me some share in that.


Partly I know my use of figures irritated you very much in such a connection, and seems to you cold-blooded. You would never consciously make use of figures in such a connection. Yet after all had you been in my place, and I in yours, you would have formed a mental estimate of what the risks were in some manner, and the difference is only a difference of method. You would have realized that some people travelling to India would certainly get drowned. If you had felt it was a very few out of very many I think you might have said it was worth it. The only other possible course would have been to say ‘there is a risk, therefore he cannot come’, and I don’t think you would have said this.


You say I miss the point altogether because “the point of view really is that any one person may be the one in the 500, at least that is what I should feel if anyone I cared for was willing to undertake the risk for me – and I should very much appreciate their willingness to do the same”. Just so in the case I have supposed I might be one of the very few out of very many, yet you might say it was worth it all the same. The whole thing is a question of proportion, whether you use figures or whether you dont, and on your mental estimate of the proportion you form a decision. You seem, in the sentence I have quoted, to suggest that my attempt to argue that your risk was comparatively slight showed that I did not appreciate your cheerful assent to run it.


I hope you can see now that the two things were quite unconnected. I didn’t argue your risk was small with any intention of suggesting you had no business to care a snap of the fingers for it; quite on the contrary I was originally prepared for you to reject the whole scheme on the basis of the much lower risk which existed in January last, and I should never have complained a bit if you had done so, though I should have been very disappointed. If my great appreciation of the way you jumped at the scheme was not clearly expressed in my letters about last June I must have expressed my feelings very badly.


Another peculiarly horrid sentence in your letter runs: “From the calculating tone in which you write this mail about my own share in the submarine menace had I been able to join you, makes me realize that my original point of view about men in general was a pretty sound one, viz: that they don’t count the cost for the woman, so long as they themselves get what they want, or if they count it at all it is dressed up in as nice colours as possible.”


I think this is about the nastiest thing you have ever said to me in a letter or otherwise. It implies that firstly I asked you to come purely for my own gratification; that secondly I really knew it involved a very great probability of your death, in circumstances likely to be very horrible, but that I cared nothing for that; that, finally, to attempt to cover all this up, I concocted an elaborate false argument supposed to show that the risk was a mere nothing not worth consideration.


You must know that every one of these implications is absolutely false, and so I think your passage quoted is most unjust and unkind, and I cannot think how you ever came to write it.


I hate writing this sort of thing to you, and yet you drive me to it. As it is I waited several days to cool my thoughts a bit, and try to pick out some underlying idea which I could understand. There is so much more in your letter that I could go on in the same strain for pages; but it seems so perfectly futile. I have picked out the one really important subject, and I am going to leave it at that. But I do trust your letters in future will contain some hint that you regret what you wrote.


Nov 6th – This should have been a letter of an entirely different sort, being really your birthday letter. May the coming year see our troubles over and our long hope realized at last, so that you may indeed have many happy returns.


The question of your present seems to be settled by your news that you are only allowed a signet ring; so unless you have already got something else get a nice ring. Don’t trouble about the cost, I will make up whatever it is. If I could get you one here I would get it myself. If you have already spent my present, get a ring all the same as an extra present, as I should like you to have one.


I wonder if you are in France, and if so where. You must contrive to let me know where by some means if or when you get there. I gather from your last letter that your prospects of advancement are good. It has always annoyed me in the past that you never had a chance to do your best work.


It was a strange coincidence that you should meet Mrs Hiscock. It has saddled me with a most unwelcome obligation. She certainly did go out of her mind, and wrote a weird letter to poor old Gibbon, saying she knew her husband was alive, and demanding details. The trouble was there is nobody who can quite swear to his death, though two officers are sure of it, and all the men always assumed it from the outset. He was not buried by us, but was likely to have been buried in the dark by native troops before we sent out parties.


I have not the least doubt myself that he was killed, but one is afraid of raising false hopes in writing about such a case. I cannot manage the letter this week any way.


The news from Italy has been an unexpected blow, but it continuous good from France where we seem to be nibbling steadily faster. At present our reports of the Italian collapse are very vague.


I cannot write a decent letter. Yours has taken all my spirits away; it is the worst thing that has ever come between us, and I cannot bear to think you wrote it.


Best love as ever.


Your ever affectionate


Cyril E Sladden

Type of Correspondence
Envelope containing 3 sheets of notepaper
Location of Document
Imperial War Museum
Record Office Reference