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Letter censorship on the front line

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By Anthony Richards-30 May 2014

Keeping the Home Front posted, with millions of carefully censored letters zipping between soldiers and loved ones, was vital for maintaining morale.

Each week, more than 12 million letters were delivered to soldiers during the First World War, providing opportunities to exchange news with family and friends, request parcels and confirm that they were still in one piece. As the main method of communicating with home, servicemen placed huge importance on correspondence which, from our modern perspective, can reveal the writer’s thoughts, beliefs and experiences while providing an immediacy often lacking in diaries or memoirs. Letters therefore remain a vital source for understanding the First World War.

Frederick Wade worked as a mining engineer in South Africa at the outbreak of war but decided, against his mother’s wishes, to enlist back in England. He broke the news to her in a letter.

“The news I’m going to tell you will probably upset you at first,” wrote Frederick, “but afterwards I hope you will get used to it. I’m really going to the front this time and what is more I’m going to England with my chum to enlist there. I think the spirit of adventure in my case is more the lure than patriotism; perhaps it’s a mixture of the two. I’ve had to sit still and watch most of my pals go off, and it is not a pleasant sensation, Mother dear, to feel that your friends think you wanting in grit to embark on such an undertaking. I hope that you will become reconciled to the idea and that you will be able to say that you are proud to have a son as a volunteer in His Majesty’s army.”

While some soldiers enjoyed the opportunity to leave home and visit foreign lands, for others the excitement was tainted by separation from wives, sweethearts or children. Private Frank Haynes wrote to his wife Emily, who was at home caring for their infant son: “I can just imagine Harry writing to his Daddy and you egging him on. The pages are not wasted, dear, as it always brings you both so near to me in my mind… I smiled when I read of your feelings when you see other couples making a fuss of each other, but never mind, dear, our turn will come again and we shall have the satisfaction of knowing that it was our country’s welfare that caused our temporary separation.”

Many soldiers were young men of limited life experience who had seldom been away from home. The father of Private Ralph Honour, RAMC, expressed a particular worry over his son’s financial acumen: “We are most anxious for you to save as much money as you can for you will surely need it later on. We know something about the temptations of soldiers and whatever you do be careful to avoid the temptation to play for money as so many soldiers do, there is only one name for it and that is gambling and it always leads to disaster. Even if it did not, the men who indulge in it are as a rule unscrupulous and often crafty and bound by hook or crook to win in the long run.”

Censorship of soldiers’ letters was undertaken by regimental officers. Its main purpose was to avoid mention of operational details that might prove of value to the enemy. Forbidden information included references to locations, numbers of troops, criticism of superiors and even the weather (which might indicate the state of the trenches). However, letters were an important way to maintain morale and freedom of expression was widely indulged. In a letter to his sister, Lieutenant Henry Brundle reflected: “Censoring is interesting at first but it rapidly becomes boring; no letter is allowed to leave without it having been read by an officer and franked by him on the envelope; fortunately my platoon do not write very long letters though they write very often. A typical letter starts like this. ‘My Dear Father and Mother, Ellen and Mary, I take pleasure in writing these few lines hoping that you are in the pink as it leaves me at present.’ Many of the men talk awful drivel about cannon balls flying around them, but as a general rule they are short and rather formal letters… The men always write very extravagantly after a spell in the front line – ‘All the ravines were full of dead Germans and Bulgars’, ‘It was absolute Hell!’, ‘I said more prayers then than at all of the Church parades I’ve attended’.”

To avoid censorship, soldiers could use a “green envelope” in which the writer would seal his letter and confirm that “the contents refer to nothing but private and family matters”. While the letter was still liable to be checked, this method encouraged soldiers to write more personal communications which, invariably, contained military details that might otherwise have been suppressed.

Another option was the Field Service Postcard, a pre-printed card  with optional text which could be deleted as appropriate to transmit basic information (“I am well, letter to follow”) in a quick and simple way. Captain Billie Nevill, who later found fame for kicking a football ahead of the advance on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, confirmed the importance of such postcards: “It’s a wonderful thing, a Field Service Postcard. It costs nothing, takes no time, and gives no mental energy. It is in fact the essence of laziness, the ideal of the wordless correspondent and the bored nephew alike. From it may spring a parcel, a letter, anything!”

For Billie and others who were never to return from the battlefields, their final letters home would be regarded by loved ones as a poignant testimony of their sacrifice and treasured as their last written expression. The constant threat of death encouraged soldiers to be more honest and open than might normally have been the case when writing home and the words that they have left us can be treasured as a valuable historical record of the First World War.

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