Monday 4 June 2018

My mother was a very nice woman. I just felt it was my job not to frighten her to death and, allied to a cheerful disposition, my letters read like a piece of cake!

In an age long before mobile phones and the internet, those who served in the First World War relied upon letters to keep them in touch with their loved ones at home. Private Thomas Baker wrote regularly from Gallipoli to his relatives back in Britain.

I used to write home, I suppose it would take about a week for a letter to go home. I just told them, you know, the conditions. We didn’t have to tell them very much about the war itself, but we just told them in general how we felt and the conditions in general. Also that we’d like to be home quick as we could as a rule! Oh yes, I used to write to my relations. I used to write to my sisters and I’d got two brothers and my mother and my old grandfather; used to keep him informed how things were going.

As a member of the Royal Navy, James Cox spent long periods of time away from his family, so exchanging letters was vital to him.

I was always a good correspondent. I always wrote to my wife letter by letter perhaps once, once a week perhaps one week; twice a week the next week and so on, according to how the letters came. We was both good writers: she could talk well, she could write well. And we didn’t write a lot of silly gossip or anything like that, we did write opinions and exchanged views and things that were happening. Even tastes and dislikes, where we went to and all kinds of things and we were both very descriptive – we could both write.

Despite the temptation to describe the realities of war, many soldiers – such as British officer William Hildred – chose to keep such details out of their correspondence.

I was naturally a very cheerful man with a very good sense of humour. And my mother was a very nice woman. I just felt it was my job not to frighten her to death and, allied to a cheerful disposition, my letters read like a piece of cake. Every single letter is thanking them for something from Fortnum and Mason: sausages; cakes; tobacco; magazines. Nothing else, no talk about the name of the village and anything very unpleasant

But sometimes, events at the front were too interesting to keep from family members. Here, Marmaduke Walkinton – known as Leslie – reads from his letter home following the 1914 Christmas Truce.

My dear father, mother and girls – Just a line to let you know that I have had quite a merry Christmas and a very novel one. Would you believe it, by mutual consent our battalion and the Germans opposite had a little armistice and didn’t fire a shot all day. We met one another, had a chat halfway between the two lines of trenches and exchanged buttons, cigars and cigarettes. It was really funny to see the hated antagonists standing in groups, laughing and talking and shaking hands. Of course, we didn’t talk about who was going to win or anything touchy like that. They had just heard that the Germans had taken Buckingham Palace. Their clothes were not very good; they seemed a bit jealous of our goatskin coats. Tons of love, Happy New Year, Leslie.

A British officer writing a letter home on the Western Front, May 1917. Although subject to censorship, letters were important links with home and were written and read in every front line situation.
A British officer writing a letter home on the Western Front, May 1917. Although subject to censorship, letters were important links with home and were written and read in every front line situation. © IWM (Q 5242)

Responding to adverts in a newspaper, French officer Ernest Karganoff got in touch with a number of pen pals, known as ‘Marraines de guerre’.

War being a tough game, soldiers needed some compensations and during that war we had the compensation of the so-called Marraines de Guerre. We received many letters, very friendly letters, sometimes with a picture of the girl or the lady. And when on leave I used to visit my Marraines, go to a theatre together or to a restaurant or to movies, having as good a time as we could possibly have during the war. At the time I was in correspondence with seven of them. As my leave was ten days I had time to meet all of them.

Another means of communicating with those at home were field service postcards. George Wray, of the Royal Naval Division, described them.

No one ever bothered very much about writing letters. We used to get those field postcards, they were all ready, ‘I am well’ printed on them. The questions and answers were written on the cards and you used to… all you had to do was tick that this was right, you know ‘I have had no letter from you since so and so’; ‘Hope you are well’, that kind of thing, you know.

Alexander Burnett liked the brevity of these postcards, but wrote letters too.

I was a great believer in that postcard where you’d say ‘I am well’ and then, ‘Hope you are well’ – the field postcards, very laconic! That’s what I liked about them! No, I used to write to my mother because she was a dear old soul. Father done all the writing back again, but mother had to have the letter. I couldn’t understand how some people didn’t write home. One or two of them I knew said, ‘I don’t need to write home, they know I’m alright or they’d have heard by now’ – but I used to write.

Although the postcards were often a welcome sign that someone was still alive, NCO Harold Bashford identified a potential risk associated with them.

Field postcards, they were sometimes issued. And on them it was all printed, you know, ‘I am doing well’; ‘I have been admitted to hospital’. All these things were printed so you just crossed out things not applicable and signed them. There must’ve been many occasions before this card was delivered to a home saying that you were quite well, that a telegram had been delivered and on opening it, ‘We regret to inform you…’ That must have happened, dozens of times, you know.

A huge volume of mail was sent around the globe during the war. In Britain, the Post Office set up a large sorting depot in London. Thomas Brown, of the King’s Liverpool Regiment, described what happened when the mail arrived at the Western Front.

Every battalion had a post corporal and his job was to go to the distributing centre, the army centre, and collect the post every day; divide it into units and see that it’s forwarded by runner to the front line, if you were in the front line. So there was a post corporal in every unit you might say.

But difficulties in transporting post to other parts of the world meant that for men serving further afield – such as Royal Naval carpenter George Clarkson – contact with home was subject to delay.

Nowadays of course you’ve got wireless and all that sort of thing, communications – there was nothing like that then. We used to get newspapers out two months, sometimes, because we weren’t getting mails for the simple reason that ships were getting sunk that were bringing them. I believe we did get a bit of a bulletin as to what was happening in the war. We would get that perhaps every couple of days; that would come from Cairo or somewhere like that. But apart from that, letters, news it was all stale by the time you got it. The letters were taking up to four months to get there. Imagine a married man and he’d get a letter probably to say that his youngster or his wife was ill, something like that. He wouldn’t know whether they’d died or anything; it was months before he got any information.

It wasn’t just vast distances that hindered delivery. When trooper Miles Reinke took part in the German advance into Poland, even getting word from neighbouring Germany was impossible.

A very great hardness which we had to undergo while driving the Russians out of Poland was the fact that we never got any mail from home. We never heard anything about their health; we didn’t know what happened to our neighbours. We were all by ourselves. We had no communication; we had no telephone, no wireless.

Parcels as well as letters were sent to the troops. After explaining the hardships of Gallipoli to his family, officer Malcolm Hancock received some useful items from home.

We got parcels. We had written, you see, saying what the conditions were: how hot it was, what a pest the flies were. And we used to get, people used to send us fly cream and stuff like that. The men got sent all kinds of things, mostly edible things, which of course were quite useless by time they got there. That sort of thing. Eventually we did get from, um, things sent out like chocolates and sweets and those sorts of things – which of course we didn’t get and we were very badly off for.

Letters from the front line were censored, due to concerns that valuable information might fall into enemy hands if they were captured. Donald Penrose – an officer in the Essex Regiment – disliked having to check his men’s mail, but found there was at least one positive outcome.

There was strict censorship. That was the job I didn’t like, too; we had to censor our own troops’ letters. The thing that I did find occasionally was useful, you read a chap’s letter home, you see – which as a censor you had to do to see whether anything needed to be struck out – and so you got to know something of their home problems, personal ones. But as a censor you weren’t allowed to say anything to the person. What I did find was helpful, now and again, if I found that a chap in his correspondence had been getting very worried or bothered about something or other, although officially I didn’t know, I used to if I could to try and get him to tell me by asking him the odd question. ‘How are things at home?’ or something, you see? Then perhaps he would tell you, and you were then perhaps able to comfort him a bit or straighten things out in some form or another or suggest something or other for him to do. But you couldn’t do that as a censor – you knew about it but there was nothing you could do. Beyond the fact that you had to try and worm it out of him I suppose is the word, and find out what the trouble was. And you could sometimes help that sort of thing.

The interior of a room with large windows, within which numerous men are working at long tables covered with paperwork. On the right an officer in military uniform stands beside a seated man wearing a suit, both of them looking down at paperwork on the table. All of the other men wear civilian suits.
'The Censorship: Strand House, Portugal Street, London' by A J C Bryce. ART 1671 An Australian soldier writes a letter home from his billet on the Somme, 1916. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1671)

German troops were also subject to censorship rules. NCO Walter Rappolt had no trouble with them.

We were allowed one letter a week and one page only because of the censorship. There were no detailed instructions about it. I wouldn’t write anything which was faintly suspicious and so on, so I never had any difficulties.

Monty Cleeve of the Royal Garrison Artillery worked out a way of getting around the censorship.

A lot of our friends had taken an enormous interest in my war letters which I wrote home constantly. And my parents always knew where I was, because I had a secret code with them. Because I wrote on very thin paper and whenever I had a new move, I put a little pin hole – pin prick – through a letter. Say it was Colincamps – C, then another one, O; L; I; N – like that. And then, by holding it up to light, they could see the name was Colincamps or whatever it was. And in that way they knew all my movements. But my father being a military man then stationed at the War Office, and of course my mother being very good, they were very secretive about it. But they kept all those letters, all my letters from the front.

Not all letters were censored by a man’s commanding officer – as Graham Greenwell explained.

A man was given once a fortnight, I think, a green envelope and he could put in his letter to his sweetheart. In which case it was not censored with the battalion but it was liable to be opened at the base; they opened a certain proportion. But the green envelope was the man’s escape from his local censorship.

Walter Hare, a private in the West Yorkshire Regiment, made good use of his green envelopes.

You couldn’t tell them where you were or what you were doing or anything like that, you see, because they were always censored. But about once a – maybe even once a month – you got a green envelope, and that wasn’t censored. But you were under, you were obligation to not put anything in it that… occasionally one would be opened and might be censored, so you hadn’t to put anything in it that you shouldn’t do. But I always saved me green envelopes for my young lady…!

But George Jameson found the idea somewhat irrational.

Of course there was an issue of green envelopes, in which you could write a letter which was not subject to censorship. Now, that struck me as being a bit foolish, in a way. Because, if things had to be censored, then why give them the opportunity to write quite a volume uncensored? People who were wanting to do any trouble would use those things. Mind, they were – haphazardly – they were subject to check, but not on the battery position, not on the unit position. They might, somebody might pick one out of a mail bag and open it and censor, have it read it through – just as a casual checking.

One of Hawtin Mundy’s comrades was caught out by this – and paid the price.

We was allowed to write home, you was allowed one every so often what they called a green envelope. And you could write all private matters in that such as writing to your wife or anything like that, so it was supposed to be private and they would not be censored. In other words, they trusted you that you wouldn’t put anything in wrong. And your ordinary letters you left unsealed so that they could open them and look at them. Well now, on this particular occasion, poor old Fatty wrote to his girl at Bradwell – it was the girl he was courting – and told her where we was, how we’d got on, the times we was having; the laughs and jokes. Well now, by some chance they opened Fatty’s green envelope. That caused it. And do you know, when we went out to rest, Fatty had a court martial for that. He was sentenced to so many days tied to the wheel. Every day he had to spend so many hours tied, didn’t matter whether it poured or rained or whatever it was.

One type of letter that the families of those fighting dreaded was the formal notification that a man had been wounded, captured or killed. NCO Charles Shobbrock’s mother received such a communiqué.

It was while I was in a malaria hospital that my mother received a telegram from the War Office, warning her to expect bad news within the next few days. Now, my dad was ill in bed at the time and my brother – older than me – was up in the bedroom at the time my mother got the telegram. And she come up to the bedroom and read out this telegram. And my brother, oh the essence of diplomacy, said ‘Perhaps he’s dead already…’! My mother told me afterwards, she said, ‘I could’ve killed him!’ The very hour that she got that telegram which was about between 7 and 8 in the evening, I was out playing hockey; out in the hospital grounds playing hockey!

But sadly sometimes such messages reported the truth, as British schoolgirl Olive Shapley’s family discovered.

I had a brother five years older than myself and one I think about eleven years older. He was a big chap, Frank. And he was out one day with his Scout troop and a woman gave him a white feather – very common then – and said, ‘What’s a big chap like you doing, you know, playing? You get out and fight.’ And he went and joined up; joined the Navy before he came home that night. And he went to sea on HMS Indefatigable and he wasdrowned in the Battle of Jutland. And I think he was 17. I remember when the telegram came from the Admiralty to our house. I can see our breakfast table and this, in a green envelope, telegram from the Admiralty. And my mother bursting into tears. And parents didn’t show their emotions in those days. I couldn’t believe it. And that was it.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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