MAIL AND POSTAL CENSORSHIP in 1915

Friday, February 19, 1915

In Billets, Flêtre

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Censoring men’s letters.  H.Q. Mess established in village inn. Signal lamps placed in Chateau tower for communication with out-lying Company H.Q.s.”    [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY:  Having arrived in Flêtre, “the men of the 14th were billeted in the village, or in the barns and outbuildings of neighbouring farms.  Battalion H.Q. was established in the Chateau de Wendigen and an Officers’ Mess set up in the village inn.

MAIL AND POSTAL CENSORSHIP: “The importance of letters” – The most effective weapon used during World War One wasn’t the shell or the tank, it was morale. The British Army believed that it was crucial to an allied victory, and it looked to the Post Office for help.

The delivery of post was vital for two reasons. Firstly, receiving well wishes and gifts from home was one of the few comforts a soldier had on the Western Front. The majority of them spent more time fighting boredom than they did the enemy, and writing was one of the few hobbies available to them. For some, it was a welcome distraction from the horrors of the trenches.

Secondly, letters served a propaganda purpose as everything that soldiers sent back was subject to censorship. The British Army claimed this was to prevent the enemy finding out secret information, but really it was to prevent bad news from reaching the home front. Letters from serving soldiers had a powerful role, not just in keeping families informed of the well-being of their loved ones; they also helped to sustain popular support for the war across the home front. Nothing could be allowed to jeopardize that.

What was sent: Soldiers sent a variety of different items home from the front lines. Souvenirs such as buttons and matchboxes often accompanied letters, and some even sent silk cards – embroidered motifs on strips of silk mesh which were mounted on postcards.

The delivery process: It took only two days for a letter to reach the front. The journey began at a purpose-built sorting depot at Regent’s Park. By the war’s end, two billion letters and 114 million parcels had passed through it.  From there, it was shipped to Le Havre, Boulogne or Calais where the Royal Engineers Postal Section were tasked with getting it to the battlefields. Staffed by just 250 men in 1914, the REPS grew to 4,000 by the end of the war.

  • 12.5 million letters left the home depot every week
  • 19,000 mailbags crossed the Channel each day
  • 134 ships carrying post were lost to enemy attack
  • 375,000 letters (equiv. 4 tonnes) were censored each day at the height of the war
  • 555,000 mail sacks sent to France for Christmas 1917, which took 100 freight trains with trucks and
  • 6,000 lorry loads to deliver to the field post offices

Censorship at the front: The British Army took a number of proactive measures to censor what information made it home from the trenches.  However, censorship was crude. Forbidden subjects were either ripped out of letters or simply scribbled out. In some cases the censored words remained readable.

19 Feb 15

A completed field postcard, posted on 22 March 1916

Field postcard: One method of censorship was the field postcard. These printed cards gave soldiers a number of multiple choice options which they could cross out if they weren’t relevant. They were not allowed to write messages on them.

Honour envelope: Another, more subdued, form of censorship was the honour envelope. These required the sender to sign a declaration to say that they hadn’t disclosed any forbidden information. That way, their letters would only be read by postal workers on the home front instead of by their superiors in the trenches.

Self-censorship: While the field postcard and the honour envelope achieved their purpose, the greatest acts of censorship were actually carried out by soldiers themselves. Many fighting men were keen to hide the realities of war from their loved ones back at home in their letters and simply left out much of what they really went through.

Why letters were censored: The British Army was terrified that letter writing would lead to sensitive information being leaked. They weren’t just worried about the enemy intercepting mail, but also the impact news could have on people at home.”    [3]

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, Feb 19, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089694.jpg
[2]   R.C. Featherstonhaugh, The Royal Montreal Regiment 14th Battalion C.E.F. 1914-1925, Montreal, The Gazette, Printing Co., Ltd., 1927, pg. 27.
[3]   Alan Johnson, MP, and former postman, in association with the British Postal Museum. "Source - BBC News / BBC Sport / bbc.co.uk - © 2014 BBC" accessed Dec. 7, 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zqtmyrd#z2p634j

 

 

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