How did 12 million letters reach WW1 soldiers each week?

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1. The importance of letters

The most effective weapon used during World War One wasn’t the shell or the tank, it was morale. The British Army believed that it was crucial to an allied victory, and it looked to the Post Office for help.

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

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

2. What was sent

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

Alan Johnson interviews Chris Taft from the British Postal Museum & Archive about the items soldiers received and sent home.

3. The delivery process

Infographic detailing delivery of post to and from soldiers during World War One

It took only two days for a letter to reach the front. The journey began at a purpose-built sorting depot at Regent's Park. By the war’s end, two billion letters and 114 million parcels had passed through it.

From there, it was shipped to Le Havre, Boulogne or Calais where the Royal Engineers Postal Section were tasked with getting it to the battlefields. Staffed by just 250 men in 1914, the REPS grew to 4,000 by the end of the war.

4. Censorship at the front

The British Army took a number of proactive measures to censor what information made it home from the trenches.

However, censorship was crude. Forbidden subjects were either ripped out of letters or simply scribbled out. In some cases the censored words remained readable.

Field postcard

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

Honour envelope

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

Self-censorship

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

5. Why letters were censored

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

Alan Johnson discusses the extent and forms of censorship during World War One.

6. What got through?

Now that you know how the army censored letters in World War One, which of these statements do you think would have been blocked out?

Censored?

"I’m working at the back making roads for shifting the big guns."

You selected

Censored?

Yes

This message was censored. Soldiers were forbidden from mentioning locations of military importance.

Censored?

"We were ordered to make a bayonet attack on the German trenches! It was a criminal order on the part of the man who ordered it."

You selected

Censored?

No

Not all letters were caught by censors. This one made it through despite containing highly controversial remarks about a senior officer.

Censored?

"I got bashed up a bit. I’m well now. We were praised by the general and all, everybody said we had done well, quite a success."

You selected

Censored?

No

This letter was not censored. If soldiers wanted to talk about battle, they knew to keep it brief and upbeat.

Censored?

"My friends have been to the line, three of them were killed."

You selected

Censored?

Yes

This letter was censored. The death of soldiers was bad news that posed a threat to morale at home.