Tommy's Mail & the Army Post Office - Tony Allen
During the Great War, as any number of
popular magazines demonstrated, the arrival of letters, parcels and postcards
was looked forward to with tremendous enthusiasm. Private Noakes, a front‑line
soldier, summed up the feelings of expectancy. "Out here news of home is like
food and drink to us, however trivial. Indeed, this life is like a dream and
the old life is the only reality. We live on memories".
The authorities obviously thought that the regular receipt of mail was a morale booster, and this page describes some of the activities of the Army Postal Service and the comfort it brought, that people like Private Noakes so clearly wanted.
During the 1914‑18 war, men on active service received many gifts and 'comforts' from friends, family and even from people unknown to them. However, the most important comfort of all was communication with home ‑ the sending and receiving of letters and postcards from family and friends.
This page looks at ww1 postal history.
Basil Clarke, a well‑known journalist, writing in The War Illustrated, explained how essential it was to correspond with those at the front. "Letters from home were as essential in their way to a soldier in the field as food and supplies; for just as food is needed to keep him in fighting trim, so is news of relatives and friends to keep him in good spirits and fighting mood."
The history of the Army Postal Service can be traced back to the Napoleonic wars, although there is an earlier account of post office activity with the British Army in 1799, when it sent Henry Darlot to supervise the postal arrangements of British troops in Holland. Post Office staff also worked with the army in the Crimea in 1854‑55, but it was not until the Egyptian campaign of 1882 that the British established their own Post Office Corps. In the South African War, the Corps was expanded and further developed. In February 1913, the War Office authorized the formation of a military postal unit ‑ The Royal Engineers, ‑ Special Reserve, Postal Section. (R.E.P.S.). The staff for this new unit was recruited solely from post office personnel.
The Great War 1914-1918
At the outbreak of the Great War, the R.E.P.S. had a staff of 300, sufficient to serve an expeditionary force of six divisions and a small Army Postal Depot in London. The overseas contingent would provide Field Post Offices for formations down to Brigade level, and a Base Post Office, an Advanced Base Post Office, a Post Regulating Depot, and on the lines of communication ‑ four Stationary Offices.
On 11th August, the main body of the B.E.F. landed in France, and with it was a small advance party from the overseas postal contingent of 10 officers and 260 other ranks, the remainder followed a few days later. Col. W. Price went as Director of Army Postal Services. Only two N.C.O.s and 28 men remained in England to run the Home Depot in London. (The postmen designated to run the Field Post Offices (F.P.O.s) traveled with the military units to which they were attached.)
An Army Base Post Office
(A.B.P.O.) was set up at Le Havre, and communications were marked using a
double‑ring 'cancellation stamp' inscribed "ARMY BASE POST OFFICE +". It was
supported by an Advanced Base Post Office at Amiens, which used the
cancellation "ADVANCED BASE POST OFFICE ". (By June 1915 four A.B.P.O.s had
been opened and numbered 1 to 4, they were at Le Havre, Rouen, Boulogne and
Calais respectively. Initially, two Stationary Offices were opened at Boulogne
An ordinary letter service and a parcel service were provided and F.P.O.s sold stamps and dealt with postal orders and telegrams. The War Office made arrangements that as the Army expanded so too would the Royal Engineers, Postal Section. (By the end of the war, it had a staff of over 3,000.)
Mail From Home (Home Depot)
In August 1914, letters and parcels destined for the B.E.F. went first to the Home Depot (H.D.) that had been established at Mount Pleasant and was staffed by 30 men of the R.E.P.S. Within weeks, the Army Parcels Office section at the Home Depot moved to larger premises, and the Army Letter Office section at the H.D. went to the G.P.O.s King Edward Building. By the end of the year, 177 officers and men were dispatching 2,000 bags of mail a day to the B.E.F. In May 1915, the number of staff at the Home Depot increased to five officers and 563 other ranks, but from that point on, as more workers were needed, women civilians and disabled soldiers were taken on.
As the New Armies took to the field, the volume of military mail passing through London increased considerably, forcing the Parcel Office to move to a specially constructed timber building which covered five acres in Regent's Park. At the height of the war over 2,800 soldiers and civilians were employed at the Home Depot.
This photographic card is not captioned or dated and shows civilian staff ‑and perhaps military mail personnel ‑ at a postal establishment in the UK.
In 1917, speaking about the Home Depot, Basil Clarke said, "No fewer than twelve million letters a week and not short of a million parcels ... were sent to this office from all parts of the country, all letters bearing the magic words B.E.F. Every post office of any size has its special B.E.F. bag or bags for London, and all hours of the day and night trains are arriving in London with their loads of B.E.F. bags for our soldiers in the field in France."
The khaki sorters at the Home Depot ‑ most of whom had been civilian postmen before the war "now stood before row upon row of pigeonholes, experts in numbers and initials, where before they dealt in names of towns and streets", said Clarke. He gave an example of the Army way of addressing mail. "M. T., 50, Sub. Am. P., A.H.B.S.", translated he said, as "Motor Transport, 50, Sub Ammunition Park, Attached Heavy Battery Section". One sorter "racked his brain for several minutes over a letter addressed to a private, "Care of O.C.P.", and it was only after he had consulted the 'key list' " said Clarke, that the mailman discovered its meaning ‑ which was "Officer Commanding Pigeons".
At the Home Depot bags of mail were made up for each unit serving overseas and given a code label denoting the field post office or other destination to which it was to be forwarded. Before daybreak the bags were sent by train to the channel ports, and then to Boulogne, arriving about midday.
The Secret Language of Stamps
The Secret Language of Stamps. This phenomenon is thought to
have begun in the 1860’s in the Austrian/Hungarian Empire and swiftly spread
throughout Europe. It was a secret means of conveying a message to the
recipient of a letter or postcard, by the sender placing a postage stamp(s) in a certain
position. By the turn of the century the tradition was well established and in
Britain and other countries picture postcards appeared which carried a number of small illustrations
of stamps and a short explanation of what the position of the stamp on the letter
or postcard conveyed. The stamp positions had
different meanings depending upon which language was used. Here are some English versions.
The Alpha Publishing Company of 2 & 4 Scrutton Street, London, released this card which illustrated the basic stamp positions and their secret message.
Although it was easy for those at home to send a message via the position of a stamp on an envelope or postcard, it was harder for a soldier on active service overseas to do the same, as his mail did not require a stamp. The first two envelopes with their messages were posted by soldiers in England. The first one was to his wife, the second to the soldiers sweet-heart. The third was a Field Service Post Card and was mailed by a soldier in France, who fixed a French stamp on it with a message to his wife. The fourth cover was sent from London to an overseas address, again with its stamp message.
Commercial 'Greetings' Postcards
Although perhaps overly sentimental to modern eyes, a number of cards were published during the Great War which carried verses of sentiment that publishers obviously thought people wanted to convey to their soldier on active service. The messages included words of good luck, patriotism, loneliness and of victory anticipated, to send to a dear “Son”, “Father”, “Brother”, “Nephew”, “Friend”, “Cousin”, “Pal", or “Brave defender” and other salutations. Pictures of flags, flowers, scenes from home and images of women and children, all conveyed memories and thoughts of ‘Blighty’ to those fighting overseas. A few of these ww1 picture postcard are illustrated below.
A variety of sentimental cards published by J. Beagles & Co., Ltd., Lilywhite, Rotary and also Valentine’s. Some of the lines read, “Dear daddy I miss you badly...” “...On the wings of a Mothers love.” “... “When victory shall bring you home again.” “I’m proud of such a friend as you...” “Though far away from Home & anxious friends...” and “Dear Dad we don’t forget you...” There cards were extremely popular with the public and probably the verses embraced the emotion the senders wanted to covey to their soldier - but felt unable to do so in their own words.
Mail arriving on the Continent
When bags of mail arrived in France they were checked and weighed at the Base Post Office, and then, accompanied by a guard went first to a rail-head and then transferred by lorries to Supply Refilling Points situated a few miles behind the front lines. There, horse‑wagons collected the bags "Up they go towards the front line", said Clarke, to be "delivered at the Field Post Office".
"The scene", said Clarke, "all enacted by the light of two candles and a smoky paraffin lamp, amid narrow walls of clay supported by timber balks [and] the sound of the guns and dropping shells not far away, lent a curious unreality to it all. To see a soldier in shirt‑sleeves, struggling patiently to read a badly‑ written name and address while guns were booming not many yards away, was unlike any preconceived notion of a post‑office."
Verse and Sentimental Image Printed Photo Cards
As shown on the 'Beagles' and 'Rotary' postcards above, publishers in the UK did their bit to encourage communication between those at home and those on active service. Other publishers released sets of printed cards carrying verse and sentimental images too.
Each one of these three cards came from its own set of four cards carrying similar - but different - verses and images to the ones displayed above. The card on the left was published by 'The Milton "Firelight" Series No.113. Woolstone Bros., London, E.C.' The centre card was No. 1159 in the H.B. Series and was an 'Entire British Production.' A message on the reverse reads, "My Dearest Edward, Just a pc for you hoping you will like it and to let you see I am thinking of you if you are far away from me. So good night and God bless you. From your loving sweet-heart, Lizzie xx." The card on the right does not name the publisher on the reverse - only this, '126 BRITISH MANUFACTURE.'
Popular postcard artists of the day, did their bit to encourage the flow of correspondence between home and the Front, and one of the most prolific postcard illustrators on this particular theme ‑ was Donald McGill. Examples of his work are shown above. The cards were published by the 'Inter‑Art Co., Red Lion Square, London'. in its '12U' and 'COMIQUE 'series.
Frequently, men at the front
complained that no one was writing to them. During the first winter of the war, a
London newspaper published a letter from a member of the Royal Field Artillery,
saying that he was lonely and "had no friends to communicate with..." Because
of his complaint over 3,000 letters and seven bags of parcels promptly arrived
for him. The officer in charge of the battery in which the soldier served,
refused to take the parcels, but sent them instead to the base hospital where
they were distributed among patients. The 'lonely soldier' was allowed to keep
some of the letters, which "by now had satisfied any doubt he may have had of
public sympathy towards those at the Front." said the newspaper.
Mail Marked “Killed in Action”
In the early part of the war, most of the
mail which reached the front‑line after the addressee had been killed, was
sent back direct to the sender. Unfortunately, in a few instances letters that
had been endorsed “Killed in Action” were received by relatives before they had
been officially informed of the death of their soldier. From February 1915 ‑ in an attempt to
rectify this ‑all returned mail endorsed "Missing" or
"Killed" was first sent to the Home Depot in the U.K. There, it was
sorted into bundles and sent to the appropriate Record Office ‑ or in the case
of officers, to the War Office ‑ where it was held until relatives had been
informed of their loss. The following illustration is an example of a returned
communication and it indicated that "NEXT OF KIN NOTIFIED."
Mail Marked "Return to Sender"
The British Army Postal Service on the
continent, also had to deal with mail addressed to men who had been admitted to
hospital and the task for the postal organization was frequently made
difficult by not knowing which hospital the addressee' was at or perhaps where a soldiers unit was now.
At the end of 1914, the War Office insisted that all letters endorsed "Wounded", "Hospital" and "found to be undeliverable in France", should be returned to the sender. This was done, though often not before the Army Postal Service had expended a great amount of effort, as the endorsements and postal markings on some covers which have survived, demonstrate.
Letters and parcels sent to members of the B.E.F. were sometimes undelivered for reasons other than those mentioned above. On 19th August 1915, The War Budget gave some examples, "A shell may destroy the mail‑wagon and all its contents. Or rain may make the address illegible. Or again the wrong address may be given", it said. However, the most common reason for non‑delivery of mail was usually the fault of the sender, and when this occurred a cachet was applied to the envelope before it was returned. Some examples were ‑ "INSUFFICIENTLY ADDRESSED", "Full Particulars of Expeditionary Force Required Return to Sender", "INSUFFICIENT ADDRESS without name of Regiment", and "INSUFFICIENTLY ADDRESSED NAME OF REGIMENT OR UNIT REQUIRED".
When a letter was returned for one of the reasons stated above or something
similar, an instruction leaflet was sometimes put into the envelope advising the sender of how to address mail to soldiers. An example of a returned communication is shown below.
Parcels from Home
In December 1916, this photograph appeared in The Sphere above this caption, "The Christmas mail for the front has been larger than ever this year, and the Post Office has been dispatching parcels to the soldiers at the rate of a quarter of a million a day. The picture shows a few of them arriving at their destination at the front."
The Parcel Post
Between 1914 and the end of 1918, around 136,000,000 parcels were dispatched to the B.E.F. and the huge number is an indication of the potential problems facing the Army Post Office. The problem of none delivery of parcels was due mainly to the forward movement of new men from reinforcement camps behind the lines and new drafts from the U.K. and also the backward movement of casualties from the battle zone.
Parcels usually contained food and items of personal comfort for the soldier and those which reached the front line after the recipient had become a casualty were by agreement opened and the contents distributed among the soldiers comrades in the same unit.
Sometimes parcels were disposed of by auction among the men,
at other times only the foodstuffs were distributed and articles of intrinsic
or sentimental value were returned to the sender.
The arrangement described above was in operation up to the summer of 1917, and relieved the Army Post Office of a huge problem of otherwise disposing off or returning the less perishable contents of such parcels. It was thought the senders of such parcels would be quite happy with this arrangement.
During the summer of 1917, complaints started coming in from the parcel senders who wanted all parcels that had been classified as 'undeliverable' returned to them. To determine the contents, the Army Post Office found it necessary to open all parcels which could not be delivered. Finally, the authorities decided it was more satisfactory for them to return all such parcels unopened, no matter what the contents were.
In February 1918, the Army Authority therefore issued a General Routine Order stating that the practice of distributing the contents of soldiers parcels must discontinue and the parcels were to be returned to the sender - unopened!
Early Mail From the British Expeditionary Force
Two examples of un-stamped early mail - which was against regulations at that time. On 22nd
August 1914, the cover on the left was sent by Member of the B.E..F. from the Army Base
Post Office at Havre. The red "PASSED BY CENSOR 199" mark was that of the Base Censor.
The soldier did not fix a penny stamp to his envelope as regulations at the
time demanded and on arriving in England the letter was charged with a 'postage
due', but at the concessionary single rate of ld. The postcard on the right also bears the "ARMY BASE POST OFFICE +" date-stamp at Havre and a "1d. F.B." (Foreign Branch) mark in black ink. The card also carries a red CM1 type censor mark and has been endorsed "Landed in France August 1914." and "O.H.M.S."
It soon became evident to the postal authorities in the U.K. that with so much unstamped mail arriving from the B.E.F. (due to the sometimes chaotic 'war of movement'), it was uneconomic to collect the 'postage dues'. On 28th August 1914, the problem was resolved, and on the 31st, Mr Hobhouse the Postmaster General, announced in the House of Commons the reason why,
"It has been decided by the Government that in future all letters written by soldiers on active service may be sent to this country without any payment by the soldier and without any charge being made upon the recipient of the letter."
"ARMY LETTERS FREE"
The card on the right carries a "ARMY LETTER FREE" cachet in orange ink which was applied after the soldier put the card into a postbox in Southampton on 8th September 1914, before embarking for France. In the printed stamp 'box' he wrote "Soldier/Stamps not available." The message reads, "Dear Ada, Just a line to tell you we are off at last embarking today couldnt say where for dont worry about me same address will find me With love Bob." The card on the left carries a red "ON ACTIVE SERVICE" cachet and also a "SOUTHAMPTON /PAID/MAY 3 15" mark - to allow free onward transmission to Bedford. On the front is a photograph of
the S.S. Empress Queen, the boat the soldier was about to sail to France on. The message reads, "Arrived at Southampton all write (sic) will sail on this boat will write at the other end. Michael"
"The scarcity of writing paper at the front is shown by the fact that some of our soldiers have written home on the large biscuits, about five inches to six inches square, which sometimes form part of their rations. Several of these...passed through one large postal sorting office in London. One bore a fairly long message written in ink. The texture of the biscuit was such that the ink had not run."
Branded Writing Paper and Envelopes
Sending a message by 'THE BISCUIT POST' ‑ as reported by the Evening News ‑ was an exception, and in any case, from the start of hostilities the Y.M.C.A. in its writing tents, huts and reception centres, gave free writing paper and envelopes to any soldier who asked for them. Other organisations soon followed the lead of the Y.M.C.A.
General headquarters was "FIELD POST OFFICE G", the various armies were "FIELD POST OFFICE", and "FIELD POST OFFICE H" was Corps Headquarters. The last two stamps also incorporated the army and corps number. There were also Divisional date-stamps. A Division, which comprised of three Brigades was usually allocated six stamps: one for each Brigade ‑ with its own number; the fourth was Divisional Headquarters, inscribed "FIELD POST OFFICE D" (and a number); the fifth was the Divisional Train attached to Divisional HQ, and inscribed "FIELD POST OFFICE T" (and a number); the sixth was for the Divisional Railhead, and was inscribed "ARMY POST OFFICE R" (and a number), it was a static unit.
Other major formations had their own date-stamps. For instance, the cavalry was allotted the code letter 'C', and in 1917 the Tank Corps was given the letter 'Q'. All the above code letters (except one) refer to Field Post Offices which by definition were mobile units.
Formations and units would frequently move and were supported by a number of Stationary Offices, which as their names suggests, were static. Stationary Offices were given "ARMY POST OFFICE" date-stamps with the code letter 'S' (and a number) and served concentrations of troops at places such as base and hospital areas, reinforcement depots and large towns in which troops were located.
A Field Post Office
Douglas Haig was Commander-in‑Chief of the British Army, and a date-stamp connected with his H.Q. is shown below. It was a special mark used in the office attached to his train when on tour behind the lines, and has been nicknamed 'the orphan' as unlike other so called 'skeleton' date-stamps, it carried no numbers or letters at the bottom of the circle.
Not all military mail was cancelled with hand-stamps. As the war progressed the volume of correspondence passing through the four main offices at Le Havre, Rouen, Bologne and Calais increased considerably, so to speed up the process a number of 'Krag' cancelling machines were installed, They comprised of a circular die‑head of two name date boxes with wavy lines between, which, as it rotated gave a continuous impression.
These two cards carry examples of the impressions made by the 'Krag' automatic cancelling machines installed at Rouen and Bologne respectively. The impression of the Rouen mark (ARMY P.O.2.) perhaps rather unusually, is on the picture side of the card which depicts a birds-eye view of the town. The card on the right, dated 31st July 1917, carries the Bologne mark (ARMY P.O.3) and was addressed to a member of "Lena Ashwell's Concert Party." In February 1915, the Ladies Committee of the Y.M.C.A. suggested to the authorities that if concert parties were sent out from the U.K.to entertain the troops they would be made very welcome. Permission was granted. The well known actress/manager Miss Lena Ashwell launched the scheme and by the end of the month the first concert party arrived in France. It was an outstanding success. From that point on,"Lena Ashwell's Concert Parties." became a recognised part of life at the army bases in France and elsewhere. In the first 15 months over 2,000 concerts had been given in France and Belgium.
American Expeditionary Force given British Army Postmarks
Use of the Army Postal Service by Civilians
In June 1915, permission was given to construction workers employed by Army Contractors to send mail by the A.P.O. Similarly, "Personnel employed by the Red Cross Society, St. Johns Ambulance and St. Andrews Ambulance Society were granted the same facilities, as were the YMCA and kindred associations."
In the early days of the conflict staff at certain voluntary hospitals were allowed to use the A.P.O. too.
The Field Service Postcard (Army Form A2042)
Almost from the start of British
involvement on the continent the Army Postal Service realized it had problems
regarding censorship. That was tackled by supplying soldiers with a buff‑coloured
Field Service Post Card (F.S.P.C.), known as 'Army Form A2042'. It carried on
the address side an imprint of a penny stamp and on the back a series of
messages which could either be 'retained' or 'deleted'. By using this simple
method, essential information was conveyed to the recipient about the senders
well‑being without the need for the card to be censored. The soldier was not
allowed to write anything on it except his name and the date, and was warned
that "If anything else is added the postcard will be destroyed." The front and reverse of the first F.S.P.C. are shown below.
When free postage was introduced, the one
penny F.S.P.C. was replaced by a card without the imprint, although some of the
former were still being used after free postage was introduced. At first they
were rationed to two a week, but later were issued on request and were greatly
in demand during periods of heavy fighting. As they were not liable to scrutiny
the cards travelled through the postal system more quickly than most other
types of mail and were sometimes called 'Wizz‑bangs'.
In late 1914, a few F.S.P.C.'s were also printed on
blue, red and green card.
In early 1917, members of the B.E.F. sent nearly 130,000 pieces of mail a day and by autumn the figure had risen to over 285,00 a day. In the latter part of the war a smaller version of the F.S.P.C. was introduced, presumably made smaller because of a paper shortage.
The "Richmond Sixteen"
These cards were from the 'W. B. Series'. The card on the left was mailed from Walton to London three weeks after the start of the Somme offensive. They were from a short set of comic cards which ridiculed conscientious objectors.
The top and centre Field Service Post Cards
were from early in the war. (The middle one was used by a German soldier, who
presumably took it from a British PoW or a body.) That for December 1915, is
an example of the card which was used after free postage commenced. The "FIELD POST OFFICE G" date-stamp is that of G.H.Q. British Expeditionary Force.
Usage of Allied F.S.P.C.'s by British soldiers
Sometimes British soldiers sent home
F.S.P.C.s which had been issued by the military postal service of another
country. Four examples are shown here. The first is French, the second Italian, the third German and the fourth Belgian.
Humorous Versions of the F.S.P.C.
The Unit Mail Censor
To ensure that mail sent by soldiers on active service contained no useful information should it fall into enemy hands and also to monitor morale, it was subject to censorship. Examination was done on a unit basis usually by one or more junior officers.
After being handed in un‑sealed, the letter (or postcard) was read, passed, countersigned and then handed to the officer in charge of the unit censor stamp. There were several ways to censor a piece of correspondence: a blue pencil was frequently struck through an offending word or sentence; sometimes whole portions of a letter were cut out; and often the name of a town or village depicted on a picture postcard was scrubbed out with a sharp instrument.
Some officers given the task of censoring mail, talked about doing it when writing home. For example, Harold Macmillan found censoring in 1915, gave him an insight into the lives of a class of men with whom he had hitherto little contact. He wrote to his mother, "They have, big hearts, these soldiers and it is a very pathetic task to have to read all their letters home. Some of the older men, with wives and families who write every day, have in their style a wonderful simplicity which is almost great literature ... And then there comes occasionally a grim sentence or two, which reveals in a flash a sordid family drama. 'Mother, are you going ever to write to me. I have written ten times and had no answer. Are you on the drink again, uncle George write me the children are in a shocking state?' "
Alistair Home said that "Apart from sympathy with their plight, [Macmillan] formed at this time a genuine interest in the life of the English working man which was to run through all his political life; it was to become a two‑way bond."
Another officer/censor was A. Gillespie. "Some of them write so nicely", he said, "it tells what they are really like under a
In 1916, a private in the Queen's Own Cameron
Highlanders wrote a letter to his wife, it was censored at unit level by a
Captain R. Mcdonald who said, "It fell to me as an officer to censor the
mens letters. Sometimes they were really funny. One Jock wrote home very
briefly and to the point: 'Dear Jennie, I am expecting leave soon. Take a
good look at the floor, you'll see nothing but the ceiling when I get
French Liaison Officers with the British Army
A number of interesting cachets can be found on covers and postcards from the Great War and an example is shown below. It is a part-letter (page 4) and cover from a French officer attached to the British 48th Division as a Liaison officer and interpreter. He was based at 145 Brigade Headquarters.
This E. Le Dely printed photographic card of 1914, depicts four British officers and a French Army officer taking tea by the side of the road. The Frenchman was probably a guide or interpreter of the Mission Militaire working alongside his British Allies to implement French billeting and requisitioning laws on civilians and farmers. This type of corporation from the French was essential for the British Army in the early months of the war.
Soldier Giving Details of Casualties - Against Regulations!
This was an inter-unit postcard mailed by a soldier at "ARMY POST OFFICE S.15" to a soldier in the 50th Northumbrian Division, B.E.F. France. The date was 17th February 1917. The censor mark was a CM5 type and numbered 27. When the unit censor read the message he obliterated it with a pencil, but almost a hundred years later, with the careful use of an eraser - the message was revealed!
The message reads, “...we have had a train smash a few miles from here, a leave train from Havre. There were twenty eight killed & one officer besides thirty wounded. They are leaving them here today, so you will know tomorrow, it had been to here...leave here is now stropped again for an indefinite period. So I have some hopes before next Christmas, but I expect the war will be finished before then...”
This date-stamp of 2nd January 1917 was that of the "ARMY POST OFFICE R.1" The censor's mark appears on the top right-hand corner of the card and he must have thought the complete message was not suitable to be seen by anyone. He took a piece of paper, cut it to size and pasted it onto the card - completely obliterating what was written there.
Censoring mail was frequently the responsibility of army chaplains too. In 1915, Fitzgerald told of a padre who,went through 1,600 letters a day, and among them found four letters from a soldier to as many different girls ‑ all in the same strain, all with the same endearments, thanking the donors for parcels, and suggesting more with all the fullness of experience. "On this occasion", the chaplain feared, "the censor's work was made the more awkward owing to the need for great care in getting the letters back into the right envelopes."
An Example of the Detail Behind an Army Postmark
Officer describing Trench Life & Censoring Letters
Please excuse pencil but I am writing this in my dugout in the observation post. Well, I am in it all now, it isn't what you would call sport. The Hun seem to fire away but do no observing, it's just luck if they hit anything. Last night I had a taste of it for an hour. I was walking back from the front line trench a few hundred yards from the Huns, it was just getting dusk, machine gun bullets were singing all over the place and several missed me by only feet in the trench. It is no good stopping in a corner, you may be just stopping at the place they have got a direct line onto down a trench from a side. So the only thing to do was to walk on and trust to luck. We had a furious bombardment at 2 this morning. Terrific for an hour in due course the Huns sent some over too. I could hear the shells whistling past the window and explode a few yards away and wondered when one would get me. You can hear them coming for a bit and then crash, and you are thankful another one has passed you. It is a funny life...I am very fit and with a nice crowd of chaps. There are 4 others here with me. We are at it everyday and all day. Well, I must cease now as I have about 40 letters to censor and to send down and I must get on with them. Best love to all, yours affectionately, Harry."
To speed up their work some officers who censored mail used a hand-stamp facsimile of their signature, to frank letters and cards. One officer who did this was H. Carlyte Webb and as the two cards below illustrate, in November 1914, he was franking mail in his own hand but by January 1915, he was using a hand-stamp bearing his signature.
This officer censoring his units mail - H. Carlyte Webb - made his task a little easier by having a facsimile hand-stamp of his signature made. The card on the left carried a "ARMY POST OFFICE 47" mark dated 11th November 1914. (It would be exactly another four years to the day, before the Great War would end.) The mark was that of the A.P.O. at Rouen. The card on the right carried the "BASE ARMY POST OFFICE 2".
'There were six different types of censor stamps used on mail from the Western Front at different periods of the war. An individual number on each stamp identified it to the unit to which it belonged. The first censor stamp was a circular pattern, (type CM1), but by November 1914, a new series (type CM2), had been issued, but by April 1915 CM2 had been replaced by a triangular design, (type CM3). The next change came in January 1916, when a hexagonal series (type CM4) was issued, and in November there was a fifth change, with a series bearing an oval design (type CM5). The sixth version appeared in October 1917, a rectangular pattern (type CM6).
Ordering Trench Maps for G.H.Q.
A censor stamp "PASSED FIELD CENSOR 1" used at British General Headquarters is shown on the cover depicted below. After many changes of location in the first weeks of the war, G.H.Q. was finally established at St Omer in October 1914.
In March 1915, there was another attempt to ease the increasing workload of the unit censor. A special green envelope was issued to troops, the contents of which were generally not subject to censorship. It was Army Form W3078 and carried a certificate on the back which the sender had to sign. It read, "I certify on my honour that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but private and family matters". Sometimes known as 'Honour envelopes' they proved extremely popular. Different designs of green envelopes are shown here and predictivly some contained more than just "private and family matters".
This green envelope was signed by Private R. Foster and carried a "FIELD POST OFFICE 1WR" date-stamp of 18th May 1915. This was the stamp of 146 Brigade, 49th, (West Riding) Division. (TF), which arrived in France in April 1915 and was in action the following month at Aubers Ridge. Writing to his sister, Private Foster said,
"I was surprised to hear you had not received a line from me. I wrote a long letter the day after I got the parcel containing sweets, cigs & apples. perhaps the censor has thrown it out. Would you mind sending me some cakes or something as we are living on bully and biscuits. We have just come out of the trenches after 12 days stay. perhaps you have heard that Hirst was carried out of the trenches in a fit of some sort, the doctor did not know what was the matter with him. I think it must have been shattered nerves. We have had 3 killed and 18 wounded in our Battn. You may put a sheet or two of writing paper in the next packet you send, it does not matter about envelopes as we get them issued."
On 15th May 1915 ‑ a week after 'Aubers Ridge' ‑ Private Bert Abram of 47 (2nd London) Division (T.F.), took part in a major offensive to capture Festubert. He wrote to his girl friend four weeks later and put his letter in a green envelope, but did not honour his signed promise on the back of it.
"Dear Renie, This is the first time I have had a chance to write to you. We have been having a rotten time here, lost about 280 men killed etc. Also 200 sick, but I am alright myself, and hope you are the same. I have not had a letter from you for a long time so would like to have a line.
If it is possible for man to see hell with the door shut I have, the dead and dying were four deep and blood splattered all over the sandbags and a lot of the poor fellows had to lay out two days and two nights before they could be brought in. The Germhuns in the daytime threw lighted wood and bombs at them.
Please tell dad that I got his parcel for which I am very thankful. I should be very pleased to have a cake and also a few matches.I wish to God this war was over, I still hope to come back alive. Yours Berty. P.S. Sorry I could not write before."
This cover carries a date-stamp of 59 Brigade and was mailed from its F.P.O. on 7th October 1915, and sent by C.R.C. (Bob) Maltby of the Rifle Brigade, a "talented musician/dancer ... [who] had written a letter to the Cambridge Magazine (unsigned) about the futility of the war, which nearly led to his court martial." In his letter to his friend Clive Carey, Maltby hinted at the terrible stress trench fighters often had to work under. It is perhaps surprising that the letter went through uncensored. Maltby who died of wounds received on the Somme on 27th August 1916 wrote,
"You cannot guess the horror of the experience we went through that Saturday ‑ it was unbelievable, awful beyond all imagination. I won't tell you about it know.
Through some damnable muddling the battalion has not had any rest at all‑ We had four miserable days out of the trenches after the attack ‑ the men sopping wet & cold and mostly without any clothing or equipment all of which was lost ‑ & nerves shattered to the last degree ‑ then we had four days in the firing line ‑ four days behind, and tomorrow we go back again for another spell ... I am alright ‑ how I got through it I don't know ‑ even my nerves are about the steadiest in 'The Battallion' ".
Wilf starts his letter by asking his pal Bob about 'club life' in Long Eaton, and continues, "before it is all over, I expect we shall see you all out here". Wilf then told his pal, he had been at the railhead a few days ago waiting for the ration train to arrive and as it was getting late he and two others went down the line to meet it. They had gone about three miles when "up comes the train." he said, "and soon we were in the guards vans making the acquaintance of the conductor of the train, an R.E, chap, so I says to him, how old are you chum, and he said 71, so you can take my word for it he looked it...good lord 71, I said, what the hell are you doing out here. Then he told his story, he said he had done 21 years with the colours, and 9 years reserve, so I said, what made you join up for, and he said, he could not bear to see the young slackers in England, so he thought he would set one or two of them an example. And then some people would say England is beat, [but not] while we have such men in our country, like the old warrior. Well the sooner they all join up the sooner it will be over, it is not munitions now, It is slackers."
Soldier did not sign the Certificate
Not all soldiers who infringed the rules relating to green envelopes ‑ did so deliberately. Someone sent a green envelope to Mrs, Wilcox in East Croydon and forgot to sign the certificate on the front, which caused the base censor to examine the contents of the envelope and then apply a special hand-stamp to it. The cover is shown below.
This new design of 'Green envelope' contains a letter from C.S.M. Salzman of the Machine Gun Corps. He sent it to his girl‑friend in Croydon and told of the need for letters from family and friends. "I Suppose like everyone else you are all studying the papers, at present the unfortunate part is that news is so scarce, although there must be tremendous masses of information which cannot be published ... Have'nt yet received your weekly letter but am in hope that it is on the way, you are a dear to keep the correspondence going so regularly. For it is about the only link with real civilization which we have, and it is a horrible disappointment when a blank mail arrives."
21st May 1918
“Dear Mother, Once again I am sending you a few lines to let you know that I am quite well and as yet have not been in the line. We go up there each night for digging from about 10 till 1, but we have to leave here by 9 and don’t get back till about 2, as it is about one hours walk up there. It is fairly quiet on this part of the front during the day but the guns get busy at night, and as we have a good many round here we have a noisy time of it.
Mother, I haven’t had a letter from you for about a week and don’t think its the posts that are irregular either. I’ve been here for seven weeks now and I’ve only had five letters from you. ...I don’t want to appear nasty in the least but I don’t think you are playing the game with me quite. I don’t get the same opportunities of writing as you do and don’t get a table to sit down to either...I can tell you I get a bit fed up when I go to hear letters called out and there’s not a single one for eight days in succession, and when other people are getting theirs regularly every other day. Now, Mother just see if you can’t mend your ways
We haven’t had much trouble from ‘Jerry’ (or in other words Fritz) at all. He has just sent a few more shells over but there have been no casualties. I shall carry on in the ‘Better Ole’ style. Oh, it’s a lovely war, but there’s always the consolation that there’s someone else in a worse position than oneself. We wait most anxiously and constantly for Fritz’s expected offensive and have got to be in constant readiness, (sleeping in boots & putties) ready to move off at the word of warning, even though we are safer behind the line. Never mind, I suppose it will all end some time.
Well I must stop now, don’t forget about writing more frequently. With very best love to all. Dick”
Loss of Mail-bags through Enemy Action
Over 20,000,000 bags of correspondence were dispatched to the Western Front during the war and at least that number in the opposite direction. However, though extremely rare, there were losses due to enemy action. For instance, in December 1914 the B.E.F. lost 50 bags when a postal truck caught fire in a railway collision.
In January 1916, a small number of bags were lost when a field post office on the Somme was destroyed by shell fire, and two months later 37 bags were lost when the packet steamer Sussex was torpedoed. In June, an army post office near Poperinghe came under heavy shell fire and a nearby mail lorry and its load caught fire. In August, 26 bags were lost in another railway accident. In the last two years of the war mails were lost on eight occasions because of enemy action.
At Calais, "BASE ARMY POST OFFICE 4", celebrated the end of the war with the production of a special postcard for Christmas 1918. The illustration on the card represented both a commem-oration and a celebration.
The Last Post
Mentioned previously on his page is a letter dated 16th June 1915, from a Private Bert Abram serving in the 47th Division. He was a front‑line soldier and had written to his girl and ended his letter by saying, "I wish to god this war was over, I still hope to come back alive."
Another letter from Bert Abram (His last from the Western Front) is shown opposite.
Alistair Kennedy & George Crabb, The Postal History of the British Army in World War 1. (Published by G. Crabb, 1977.)
F. W. Daniel, The Field Censor Systems of The Armies of the British Empire 1914-1918, Unit Locations. (Published by the Forces Postal History Society, 1984.)
Edward Wells, Mailshot, A History of the Forces Postal Service. (Published by the Defense & Postal Courier Services, Royal Engineers, 1987.)