Picture Postcards from the Great War

Tommy's Mail & the Army Post Office - Tony Allen

Tommy's Mail Day postcard
This card was No. 4232 in the Valentine's Series. "Words by permission of Ascherberg, Hopwood & Crew Ltd., Music Publishers, 26 Mortimer Street, London,W."

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."

Early Days

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.

British Army postman
This photographic postcard is a studio portrait of a British Army postman - Private H. Harding. The location is unknown.

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 and Rouen.

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.

ww1 postcard military and civilain postrmen

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.

Postcard publishers encouraged soldiers still in the U.K. to write home to family and friends and even for children to send a letter to their soldier father. Central in these illustrations was the iconic red pillar-box.
ww1 postcard soldiers posting letters in red postboxes


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.

Lamguage of stamps postcard

The Alpha Publishing Company of  2 & 4 Scrutton Street, London, released this card which illustrated the basic stamp positions and their secret message.

Language of stamps postcard many options
This card was published by the Regent Publishing Company, London, and was number 2644. The card displayed more than the basic stamp positions; it also gave the viewer more message options, which depended on where the stamp was placed on the envelope or card.
ww1 language of stamps postcard
When the Great War erupted in August 1914, it was inevitable that picture postcard publishers would get their artists to design a ‘Language of Stamps’ card that would present a ‘military’ theme and they did. This card was the contribution by Inter-Art. It was number 2314 in the "COMIQUE" Series.
Here are several covers mailed by soldiers and their wives. Each carried a message through the "Language of Stamps".
ww1 <Language of stamps used examples

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.

ww1 to my cousin card
ww1 active service series postcard
John Thridgould & Co. of London sent this advertising card to postcard outlets throughout the country. It was one of  "twelve designs just published, all with personal greetings to:- Husband, Sweetheart, Dear Boy," and other titles.
ww1 greetings cards to send to your soldier

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.

7 verse ww1 postcards
Seven more personalised greetings cards with suitable verses. Publishers include Rotary and Lilywhite Photographic Series, J Beagles & Co., Ltd, London and W & K, London. The message on the card at top left reads "From your loving Mother wishing you the best of luck." Top right, "Will send you something later when I am sure of your address. Yours Evei." Middle right, "To dear old Dad, With, love from Willie and Florence." The message on the card at bottom left reads "To my Dear Husband, Wishing you a Happy Birthday. From your ever faithful & devoted wife Frances." Bottom right "Dear Walter, Just a p.c. to thank you for you for yours which is very nice & I cannot thank you enough for it. Good night and God be with you till we meet again. From  Laura."
Stirring words on three cards dedicated to 'My Friend at the Front' and 'My Hero'. The two cards on the left are from Rotary and the one on the right is a Beagles card.

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".

 photograph of soldiers sorting mail at a field post office
This photograph of soldiers sorting mail at a field post office appeared in an issue of The War Illustrated dated 19th December 1914. Below the picture was this caption. "The Postal Section is a thoroughly organized department of the British Field Force, and works with remarkable smoothness and promptness, so that the men in the fighting-line have little to complain about in the delivery of the letters sent to them by their friends or of delay in their own letters home."
Often the only sure way to recognize a field post office, said Clarke, "was by the little oblong flag, half white, half red, that flew over it." An office might have been a barn knocked about by shells, with holes in the walls and roof or a small bell tent in a corner of a field "and the postman when you call, may be melting his sealing wax for outgoing mailbags over a fire of broken boxes", or it could have been in a dug‑out or a cellar deep underground.
ww1 pen and ink postcard
The publisher is not named on the reverse of this card, but Reg Carter was the artist.
Basil Clarke remembered a post office in a dug‑out on the Somme, where, "You climbed down to it by twenty muddy steps made of planks. A stove chimney‑pipe ran to the upper air by way of the steps, and in feeling your way down in the dark you invariably touched the stove‑pipe and burnt your fingers ... A sergeant postman was in charge and along with him were two corporals as assistant postmasters. They were opening the mailbags, newly arrived, and before long were sorting the letters into companies and platoons. Soon fatigue parties and orderlies from the units in the line began to come down for their letters, and each man took back a little wad for his own unit.".
ww1 postcard showing a Field Post Office somewhere on the Western Front.
This photographic postcard depicts what is thought to be a Field Post Office somewhere on the Western Front. Staff and mail-bags pose for the camera.

"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."

In his report Clarke went on, "It was in the trenches and dug‑outs of the front lines that one saw the consummation of all the splendid work done to assure our men are getting their letters." When the carrier arrived "it seemed as though letters were more important than food, tobacco, ammunition, or anything else. Men swarmed around him bubbling with eagerness." The joy of getting a letter from home was only equaled "by the glumness of those who received none" said Clarke, "and if friends at home only realised...they would not omit to write to their soldiers.

 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.

ww1 postcards

 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.'

In addition to sentimental cards ‑ encouraging correspondence between home and the front ‑  many others acknowledged the need for a two-way exchange. Examples are shown below.
ww1 postcards  Donald McGill. Examples of his work are shown

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.

There were other picture postcards that encouraged those at the Front to write home and other cards that suggested soldiers were already doing just that.
ww1 mail postcard
ww1 postcard
"ANXIOUSLY WAITING!" The 'Regent' card shown above on the left reminded someone that he had not written home. The second card captioned "GOOD NEWS from Britains Sons" suggested the opposite.

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."

ww1 Killed in Action cover
In 1918, the parents of Private W. Hodkinson of the Cheshire Regiment wrote to him, but sadly the letter was not delivered and was returned. The front of it bears a number of manuscript messages and official cachets, including a boxed "UNDELIVERED FOR REASONS STATED RETURN TO SENDER" cachet, a manuscript "Killed in Action, 20/2/18" ‑ a boxed "R. E. (S. R.) A. P. 3"  cachet of the Army Postal Section; and finally an un-boxed "SHREWSBURY/ NEXT OF KIN NOTIFIED" cachet - which allowed the letter to be returned to the soldiers parents.
   John Bloomfield Gough
Killed in action cover The soldier was Lt. John Bloomfield Gough
ww1 photo Lt. John Bloomfield Gough
John Bloomfield Gough
This letter (postmarked 20th August 1914)  reached the front after the soldier had been killed. The cover is marked in red ink 'Killed' and 'The Base Depot'. The soldier was Lt. John Bloomfield Gough, a nephew of Brig. Gen. Hubert Gough, 3rd Cavalry Brigade. When war was declared the date of John's wedding was brought forward, and on 15th August, he crossed to France with 'D' Battery R.H.A. During the retreat from Mons, John and his battery of four field‑guns frequently acted as part of the covering force of the B.E.F. The 6th September, was, in the words of his uncle, a day of drama when "without warning the long retreat changed into an...advance." On the second day of the advance close to the town of Coulommiers, John and his battery came into action and were outnumbered by ten German field‑guns. During the ensuing battle, he was hit on the head by a shell fragment and died 20 minutes later. That day, was the day he and his fiancee had originally picked for their wedding.
In periods of prolonged and heavy fighting ‑ for instance, during the Somme offensive in 1916, the battle of Third Ypres in 1917, and the German offensive in March 1918 ‑ letters which had been endorsed "Missing" or "Killed" were returned at an alarming rate, said historian Edward Wells "and the staff at the Home Depot were aware of the extent of the losses before the press could glean this information from official sources".

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.

four return to sender ww1 covers
The first three examples of 'returned mail' ‑ shown above - carry manuscript and hand-stamp instructions on both the front and back of the envelope. In May 1918, the cover at bottom right was mailed from England to a Private Ward who was at a 'Segregation Camp' at Etaples. However, when it reached there the soldier had already moved on. An un-boxed cachet in red ink was applied to the front of the envelope and it was stamped as 'undeliverable' on the back and returned to the sender, who would deduct that Private Ward was probably now in the trenches.
Another 'Return to Sender' cover is shown below and a close inspection of it reveals the journey it took before arriving back at its starting point.
A ww1  'Return to Sender' cover
The front and back of this cover carry no fewer than 16 postmarks, endorsements and redirection marks!
This registered envelope of 1916 sent from Birmingham to Gosport was re‑directed from there to France, sent back to the UK, then returned to France, and finally sent back to England. Many re‑directions/cancels were applied to the front and back of the cover. Front: 'Birmingham cds 14 Ju 16'. In addition, pen/pencil notes, 'BEF HAVRE', 'Try RGA', 'unable to trace APO I'. 'return to sender 28/6/16'. 'No trace 24B DH8'. Back: Birmingham reg 14 Ju 16, 'Gosport cds 15 June 16', 'Gosport cds 23 June 16', 'London reg 24 June 16', 'APO S. S12 (Harfler) cds 25 Ju 16', 'APO 1 (APO Base PO) cds 25 Ju 16', 'Portsmouth reg 26 Ju 16', 'APO S. 12 cds 28 Ju 16', 'APO 1 cds 28 Ju 16', 'London reg 30 Ju 16'. Also return address 'Albert Road, Curdworth, Birmingham.' 


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.

a ww1
In 1915, this cover was returned to the sender. A cachet in red ink explained why it was not delivered. For the benefit of the writer, the Army Postal Service put an instruction leaflet - on "How Letters for Soldiers should be addressed." - into the envelope. Here is a larger version of the leaflet.
a ww1 leaflet
Give us news ww1
Give us news censor marks
Drawn by 'Carrey', the above postcard illustration and caption splendidly conveyed the sentiment expressed by the war-corespondent Basil Clarke and urged people at home to address their letters correctly. The card was published in France and posted from there by a member of the B.E.F. The card carries a "FIELD POST OFFICE G" postmark dated 16th December 1915 and carries this message, "Dear Nora, Thanks for you letter of the 6th & for the chocolate, There fine. Let me have a photo when they're ready please. The weather here - this last day or two has been delightful. Reminds one of winter as this is really the first sign of anything approaching winter, Best love, Vic." There is a CM3 type censor mark - No.1267 - in black ink also on the reverse.

Parcels from Home

phoot ww1 postman

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."

Write home postcard ww1

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!

ww1 card parcel delivery
ww1 card parcels
Two more cards drawn by 'Carrey' and mailed from the Western Front. This time depicting the gratitude expressed by soldiers upon receiving food and comfort parcels from home. The card on the left captioned  "SEE WHAT PLEASURE WE TAKE IN TASTING ALL THE GOOD THINGS YOU SEND US." was posted at "FIELD POST OFFICE 92" (92 Brigade) on 16th March 1916. It bears a type CM3 censor mark number 3493. The message reads, "I am still in the land of the living." The card on the right, captioned "YOUR PACKAGE ARRIVED ALL RIGHT A THOUSAND THANKS TO YOU." was posted at "ARMY POST OFFICE 4" on 31st December 1916 and bears a type CM5 censor mark number 2102. A message reads "Just received your lovely parcel today 30th just in time for the New Year. Excuse post card but I am on duty now will answer letter tomorrow."

Early Mail From the British Expeditionary Force

When the B.E.F. first arrived in France, troops were granted a privilege‑letter rate of Id. to send a letter home. (The normal rate from France was 2d.) In the first weeks of British involvement in the fighting, troops were often unable to obtain stamps, and on receipt of an unstamped letter from a soldier on active service, the recipient had to pay the 'postage due'. In peace‑time this would have been a double rate surcharge, but as a war‑time concession the amount payable was fixed at a single rate. Examples of this are shown below.
Passed by censor card
ww1 postcard markings

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."

The card on the right was sent to Essex by a gunner with "No. 35 HEAVY BATTERY/ROYAL GARRISON ARTILLERY" on 23rd September 1914. It has the oval cachet of  the unit, but no circular Army Post Office cancellation - which was unusual. The unit could have lost contact with its post office as this was still the period of  'the war of movement' and the blue cachet could have been applied to display authenticity of the item in lieu of the normal Army Post Office hand-stamp. The card was then "PASSED BY CENSOR No. 203".


Free transmission of mail applied only to troops on service overseas, not to those on duty in the UK, or in training prior to going overseas. However, in 1914‑15 a concession was granted to troops about to go to France, who sometimes put their farewell letters or cards into local postboxes unstamped, and often in such cases the post office stamped the item with a special cachet ‑ to authorize free transmission of the letter/card to its destination within the U.K. An example of an unstamped card is shown below. It was posted in Southampton.
ww1 On Active Service card
Army letter free cachet

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"

On active service cachet
Front of ww1 card
Although this card carries a censor mark type CM1, it was not stamped with a army post office date-stamp on the Continent and the "ON ACTIVE SERVICE" cachet was probably applied once the card had arrived in England from France. The cachet would allow free transmission to its destination and a "LONDON F.S./PAID" mark was also applied on 1st November 1914. The picture side is also illustrated. The writer made this comment, "A very popular card here - nearly gone broke buying cards for all of you. My boys were delighted with cigs etc. I am looking forward to your next letter." The card was by E. Le Deley, Paris.
In the early days of the B.E.F.s involvement on the continent, some of its members complained that writing materials were hard to obtain and were said to have solved the problem in a rather extraordinary way. In November 1914, according to a Mr. T.P. O'Connor, the following piece ‑titled "THE BISCUIT POST" ‑ appeared in the Evening News,

"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.
charity organisation branded envelopes ww1
The Church Army, Salvation Army, Catholic Women's League, Scottish Churches Huts, Church Army Recreation Huts and similar charitable and comfort organizations followed the example of the Y.M.CA. and soon their headed writing paper, envelopes and illustrated postal stationery were seen everywhere, both at home and on the Western Front and other theatres of war.
ww1 charity branded note paper

    Military Date-stamps

ww1 army post office cancel
This single-ring date-stamp had been in use on army maneuvers before the war. It was used by 15 Bde. between 1909 - 1913 and was taken out of service in January 1915.
For most of the Great War the legends "ARMY POST OFFICE" or "FIELD POST OFFICE" were incorporated into British Army date-stamps. However, the first stamps the B.E.F. used were inscribed "ARMY POST OFFICE" and numbered from 1 to 33, most had been used on maneuvers in 1913 and the rest a few years before. During the first months of hostilities the series was extended to A.P.O. 100 ‑ but with one or two gaps in the sequence. A.P.O. 1 ‑ 18 were single‑ring impressions and 19 to 100 double‑ring.
In early 1915, a new system was introduced and the old stamps were replaced by a series of double‑ring "ARMY POST OFFICE" and "FIELD POST OFFICE" hand-stamps, each carrying a code number designated to a particular unit or formation.

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

A units outgoing mail was collected each day by a post orderly who took it to a Field Post Office (F.P.O.) attached to the Brigade with which the unit was serving. The appearance and locations of F.P.O.s varied considerably. For example, in those towns and villages in areas not ravaged by the war an F.P.O. was often located in a house, shop, hut or similar building, but in many cases improvisation was the order of the day. In those areas nearer the Front "A post office [was often]  a ruined chateau, a barn, or cottage" said the war-corresspondent Fitzgerald, or "even in a sheltered nook at the wayside, with folding seats and tables for the sorters. But there are times when nothing less than a bomb‑proof [shelter] will do for the staff, since the mails are often. dealt with under fierce artillery fire" he said.
A ww1 field post office photo
A Field Post Office. This drawing appeared in The War Illustrated in 1917, with this caption. "Postal activity on the western front. An Australian handing in a letter for registration at the window 'pigeon-hole '...This post-office has been improved from a cottage, with packing-cases converted into office fittings."
At the Field Post Office mail was sorted into bundles which corresponded to one or more of 27 Provincial Centres in the U.K. It then went by the Train F.P.O. to the Base Post Office and then to a channel port on the French coast and shipped to London and sorted at the Home depot and finally delivered to the addressee by the G.P.O. There follows some examples of military postmarks as described above. Perhaps the most common marks were those from Stationery Offices and an example is shown next.
APO S2 postmark
The card on the left was cancelled with a "ARMY POST OFFICE S.2" postmark. This stationery office was located at St Omer and the card was posted there on 15th October 1917 by a member of the Royal Flying Corps. (There was an 'Aircraft Park' at St Omer.) The writer was  "W Bean, 84 Sqdn, R.F.C., B.E.F., France." The squadron had recently been formed. The censor has signed the card as was the practice.

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.

ww1 skeleton postmark
29th May 1917. The date of the 'skeleton' postmark on the cover opposite suggests that it was posted during the tour undertaken by Haig just prior to the British offensive in the Ypres Salient, which led to the capture of the Messines Ridge on 7th June 1917. The cover also carries a type CM5 censor mark-  number 3102. The envelope was provided for the troops by the "Scottish Churches Huts" and would originally have contained a letter on which the logo would have appeared also.
A.P.O. Machine Cancellations

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.

Apo 2 mark ww1

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.

FPO 47 mark
Raids on the coast ww1
This 'smokes acknowledgement' card on the left was cancelled with a "FIELD POST OFFICE 47" mark, that of 47 Brigade, which with 48 and 49 formed the 16th (Irish) Division. The principal battles in which it took part included the Somme 1916, Ypres 19 17 and the Somme 1918.  Cancelled on 23rd December 1914 with a "ARMY BASE POST OFFICE +" mark, the card on the right was from Gunner Dobson to his relatives in Grosmont, North Yorkshire. Dobson wrote, "I have not got near the Huns yet. I see they have been visiting your district, so you have beaten me." The writer was referring to the shelling by the German navy of several Yorkshire coastal towns a week earlier. The fishing port of Whitby was one of those attacked from the sea and was about five miles from Grosmont.

American Expeditionary Force given British Army Postmarks

In the Spring of 1918, a number of American Divisions arriving in France were sent to the British rear areas where they received training instruction from British Training Divisions. While in training the Americans were given British F.P.O. date-stamps. The stamps were coded 'K' and numbered from 1 upwards - with no regard to the actual numbers of the divisions. They were also supplied with British type CM6 censor stamps.
Base Censor label
This American Expeditionary Force cover (sent  by 2nd Lieut.E.A. Stukler to New York City) carries a temporary British allotted date-stamp "FIELD POST OFFICE 3.K." used by the 154th Brigade A.E.F. whilst undergoing training with the British Army. At the base the censor opened the cover, read the letter, and re-sealed the envelope with a standard "OPENED BY BASE CENSOR" label. He then applied a "PASSED BY CENSOR" CM6 type mark - number 5100,  The 154th Brigade arrived in the British area for training in April 1918, and left on 18th June for the American zone. The division was then allotted the date-stamp "U.S. A.P.O. 739."

 Use of the Army Postal Service by Civilians

Field Service Regulations laid down that "private correspondence of...civilians employed by or accompanying the army was permitted to be sent through the Army Postal Service and such personnel were forbidden to use the French civil post."

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.

ww1 Woman's emergency canteens cachet
ww1 Women's emergency canteens
The card on the left was posted at  "ARMY POST OFFICE S.5" on 18th December 1916, possibly  by a civilian member of the "WOMEN'S EMERGENCY CANTEEN FOR SOLDIERS" as this single-line cachet suggests. There is a CM5  type censor mark and the card is also endorsed "On Active Service". The card on the right dated 27th May 1917, bears similar 'stamps' and endorsements as the card next to it, except that this time it carries a circular and shorter legend -  "WOMEN'S EMERGENCY CANTEENS".
Field Ambulance Unit cachet
The card on the left carries a date-stamp of the " ARMY POST OFFICE S.5" dated 11th September 1916, and a hand-stamp of the " Paris Branch" of the "British Red Cross Society." The censor mark is a type CM4. The card on the right carries a "ARMY POST OFFICE S.10" (Dunkerque) mark and the date 7th March 1915. The card also bears the censor mark of  L. B. Maxwell, who was Adjutant of the "Friend's Ambulance Unit" in France.

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.

Lieut. John Bloomfield Gough, R.H.A., mailed this Field Service Post Card to his new wife - the day before he was killed.
Posted in 1914, these two F.S.P.C's (below) are examples of what are thought to have been very early provisional issues. The colour of the card had no significance

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"

It is recorded that a member of the famous 'Richmond Sixteen' ‑ conscientious objectors who had been illegally sent to France ‑ 'coded' a Field Service Post Card in such a way it almost certainly saved their lives. During the build up to the Somme offensive in 1916, the Army decided it needed to send some kind of message to recruits who might have been thinking of refusing to fight in the forthcoming battle. It came up with the idea making examples of a number of objectors who were in prison in the UK. The Richmond Sixteen ‑ who were mainly International Bible Students, (now Jehovah's Witnesses) Quakers, and Wesleyan's ‑ were secretly moved from Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire, to Southampton and then to Boulogne. There, they were subject to the full rigor of military law and after refusing to obey a direct order were sentenced to death.
One of the condemned men, John Brocklesby, was allowed to send a F.S.P.C. to the U.K. and ingeniously 'coded' the card, so it gave a clue to his whereabouts. Although Brocklesby deleted certain phrases on the card in the normal way, he also retained certain letters, which resulted in this secret message "I am being sent down to the b/long". When the plight of the Sixteen became public knowledge, Arnold Rowntree, the liberal MP for York, asked questions in the House, which resulted in their safe return to England and their sentences reduced to 'life'.
On the left is an example of how Brocklesby coded his Field Service Post Card which probably saved his life and those of his companions.
   Conscientious Objectors Portrayed on Postcards
CO card 1
CO card 2

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.

It is not known whether the famous 'Richmond Sixteen' card still exists, but front illustrations of three British forces Field Service Post Cards are shown below and not all of them were mailed by British servicemen.
3 fpc

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.

French fpc
Italian fpc
This French .F.S.P.C. on the left was cancelled on 23rd October 1914 by the date-starnp of  "ARMY POST OFFICE 47 " (Rouen). The censor mark  '282' could have been that of 108 Battery R.G.A. The Italian F.S.P.C. on the right was cancelled on 9th July 1917 with the date-stamp of "FIELD POST OFFICE 1LL" which served 16 heavy artillery batteries sent by Britain to assist Italian forces. The card was also stamped with an Italian censor mark and a artillery unit cachet.
German fpc
Belgium fpc
On 28th July 1916, the German Field Service Post Card on the left was mailed to Preston by a British soldier serving on the Western Front. It was cancelled with a "FIELD POST OFFICE 166" date-stamp ‑ that of 166 Brigade, 55th (West Lancashire) Division (T.F.). The message on it, from Private Arthur Jones, reads simply ‑ "Dear Mabel, Am quite well. Will write later. Arthur." Why did the British censor allow the transmission of this German card to the UK? Perhaps there were no regulations which prevented him from doing so, or maybe he thought it would give to anyone who viewed it, the impression of a successful action or raid and of prisoners taken. Whatever the censor's reason for passing it, this enemy field postcard would probably have aroused interest in Preston. The Belgium Army F.S.P.C. on the right was sent from the Western Front by a British soldier on 6th August 1916, from stationary office "S.10"

Humorous Versions of the F.S.P.C.

By early 1918, several British commercial postcard publishers were selling humorous versions of the F.S.P.C. For example, the 'Art Publishers (Accrington) Ltd. Manchester', issued several which carried in the top right hand corner an embossed design in gold, including regimental and 'ON WAR SERVICE' badges and 'good luck' emblems.
new field postcard
This card carries the badge of 'The Royal Sussex Regiment'. It was postmarked 6th January 1919 and carried no publishers or printers details. However, two of the sentences on it perhaps suggest the card was a semi‑official one, issued to members of the regiment soon after the Armistice.
on war service 1
on war service 2
on war service 3
The cards on the outside of this trio are examples of commercially produced  'field service' type postcards with delete or retain phrases and intended for use on the home front. They carry the "ON WAR SERVICE" badge - as worn by female munitions workers. The card on the left has this printed on it, "T. Pouteau, The Post Card Bureau, 231a, Gray's Inn Road." The centre card was illustrated by Fred Spurgin and published by the 'Art and Humour Publishing Co., Chancery Lane', in its 'A & H "NOVELINE" Series'."

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 unpromising surface."

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 home.' "

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.

Interesting ww1 cachet
The 48th (South Midland) Division (T.F.) to which the French officer was assigned was comprised of 143, 144 & 145 Brigades. The Division went to France on 1st April 1915 and was numbered 48th on 12th May 1915. The principal battles in which it took part were - Somme, July-November 1916. Occupation of Peronne, March 1917. Ypres, August 1917. The Division was transferred to Italy on 21st November 1917 and served there until the end of the war.
French interpreter ww1

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!
ww1 postcard

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...

In 1917, a Lieutenant Marchant censored letters for the first time and thought the task "rather irksome." But, after an hour or two he began to find them "of absorbing interest", and later wrote home, "There is no better way of getting an idea of the spirit of the men, and I won't deny it that I was surprised at the tone of practically all the letters. Many showed a realization of religious truths and faith in god ... tremendously bigger than ever I ever expected", and in practically all of them he said, "came the request 'Write as often as you can' and nobody can doubt that the letters and parcels from 'Blighty' keeps up the spirits of the men as nothing else can". Marchant ended his letter by writing, "I found the duties of a Censor Officer most entertaining."
Message blanked

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

Front ww1 postcard
Back ww1 postcard
The back of this card carries the stamp of "FIELD POST OFFICE T.15" and is dated 28th August 1915. The censor mark is type CM3 and number 1766. The writer said, "Dear Aunt, Many thanks for the parcel which I received in good order. I am keeping a.1. Here is the scene of our first action. Ted" On the picture side, the name of the village Vermelles, had been crossed out - only only to be reinstated later. The village was situated seven miles south-east of Bethume on the road to lens. Vermelles was the British Army assembly point prior to the Battle of Loos in September 1915. The Field Post Office mark was that of the Divisional Train for the 15th (Scottish) Division (N.A,) which comprised of 44, 45 and 46 Brigades. The division went to France on 7th July 1915. A month after this postcard was mailed the division was in action at Loos. The following year, 1916, the division fought on the Somme in Aug, Sept. and Oct. In April 1917, it was in action at Arras and in August at Ypres and again on the Somme in March and April of 1918. The 15th (Scottish)  Division ceased to exist on 27th June 1919

Officer describing Trench Life & Censoring Letters

Letter dated 12th October 1916. The soldier's address was T Battery, R.H.A., 14th Brigade, 7th Division, B.E.F.  The Field Post Office mark on the envelope is indistinct, but the censor mark was type CM4 and number 362.
ww1 letter
"Dear Lynette,
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 stoppin
g 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.

Facsimile signature 1
Facsimlie signature 2

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".

Censor Stamps

'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)

six censor marks ww1
The allocation of censor hand-stamps ran into tens of thousands. Sometimes they were issued in numerical sequence and sometimes ‑ for security reasons ‑ randomly. The colour for censor marks was usually red, although they are known to exist in blue, black, brown, green, and purple ink.

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.
Ordering trench maps
This item was mailed in March 1916 and bears the censor stamp "No 1" (type CM4) delegated to the location mentioned above. The cover was sent to the War Office where it received an ovel "WAR OFFICE" cachet and was then put into the civil postal system. There it received a "LONDON E.C. OFFICIAL PA1D" postmark. The envelope was addressed to one of only six companies authorized to sell maps published by the "Geographical Section, General Staff." The cover was endorsed by J. Heseltine who was A.D.C. to Douglas Haig.

Green Envelopes

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".

Geen envelope first version
Above is the green envelope mailed by Private Foster. In it he gave details about the battle at Aubers Ridge thus contravening his promise to write about 'private and family matters' only. The battle had been a disaster for the British.
Green Envelope - First Version
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."

Letter from Private Bert Abram

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.

Green envelope 1
Page 1
Page 2
Private Abram  wrote -

"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."
Abrams division, the 47th, also fought at Loos in 1915 and at the Holienzollem Redoubt. In 1916 it was in action at Vimy Ridge, and Flers‑Courcelette. In 1917 it was at the battles of Messines, Pilkem Ridge, Ypres and Cambrai, and in the last year of the conflict ‑ on the Somme. In his letter Private Abram had said he hoped to "come back alive".  Did Berty survive the war?  For the answer - see the last item on this page.)
Although not examined at unit level, a small proportion of green envelopes were censored at the Base Post Office, an example of this is shown below.
Green envelope  base censor label
Above is the green envelope and letter mailed by Bob Maltby and censored at the Base. The censor obviously ignored the content of the letter which clearly indicated low morale amongst the men. Does the answer for its onward transmission lie in the forwarding address, which indicated that the letter would remain in the army postal system until it reached the recipient? A serving soldier!

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' ".

By 1916, the original green envelope had been replaced by a larger version with the 'certificate' now printed on the front instead of the back, which presumably made it quicker and easier for the censor to check that it had been signed. The example below was sent by 'Wilf and carried a 16th November 1916 date-stamp of "FIELD POST OFFICE T.23", that of the Train of the 23rd Division which was on the Somme between July‑October 1916.
Green envelope second version
Green Envelope - Second Version
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 van
s 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.

ww1 delayed green evelope
The sender of this green envelope did not sign the certificate on the front. The envelope was opened, inspected and re‑sealed with a "EXAMINED BY BASE CENSOR" label and franked with a type CM4 censor mark. In addition, the envelope received a boxed cachet "THIS LETTER HAS BEEN DELAYED AS THE CERTIFICATE WAS UNSIGNED AND SPECIAL EXAMINATION WAS NECESSARY." it said.
Green envelopes were extremely popular with the troops, but by 1917 a shortage of green paper led to them been produced with buff‑coloured paper instead, although the printing was in green. An example is shown below. It was mailed from "FIELD POST OFFICE 147" on 2nd May 1918.
Green envelope letter
Green Envelope - Third Version
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."
Although the rule which allowed the uncensored transmission of a green envelope was occasionally ignored by the sender of one, the work of the Army Postal Service was appreciated by all, and the Army benefited from it too. A Mr. E.T. Crutchley said,"It is impossible to access the comfort it brought to troops during the war, and from a purely military point of view, the degree to which it benefited their morale, to have a speedy and regular postal service between every unit in the various theatres of the War and ‑ Home."
4th Army Soldier Digging Trenches  & Complaining about Letters from home.
Soldiers ww1 letter

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.

Bombs dropped on Base Army Post Office 4

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.

ww1 APO40 card
This card was designed by A. Goodall for members of the Army Postal Service. It wished a happy Christmas to "AP04 CALLERS, OLD AND NEW." The left hand side of the card commemorated an incident which occurred in January 1918, when a German air‑raid on Calais completely destroyed the buildings of Base Army Post Office 4. The right hand side of the card celebrated 'Victory & Peace' and 'Christmas 1918'. On the back was a hand‑written message, "Wishing you the best of luck and happiness in the coming years."

The Last Post

Soldiers last letter from france

Mentioned previously on this 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.
Further Reading

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.)

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