Censoring Soldiers’ Letters

The process of censoring letters sent from the Front is as follows. A “Passed by Censor” [hand]stamp is in the possession of the commanding officer of each infantry battalion, each battery of artillery, and each regiment of cavalry, and another stamp is used at each infantry brigade headquarters, the headquarters of each Division, and so on. Each of these stamps bears a different number, so that the person who impressed any particular letter with the Censor mark can be easily traced.

Taking an infantry battalion as our example, the commanding officer is responsible for the proper censoring of every letter written by every officer, n.c.o. or man of his battalion. As, of course, he cannot, in the nature of things, read every such letter, he deputes his powers as Censor to his officers, in some battalions to platoon commanders, in others only to company commanders and the captains second-in-command of companies. These sub-censors are supposed to sign each letter at the end, and on the envelope, with their names without adding their ranks. The letters are then handed in to the battalion orderly room, still unsealed, in order to be impressed with the censor mark. The Commanding Officer can thus himself again censor any or all of the letters before they are sealed up and franked. The officers’ letters are sometimes censored by the commanding officer, but often by the writers themselves.

The actual stamping is of course done by the orderly-room clerk, who also seals up the letters. They are then handed over to the regimental postman, who is usually a lance-corporal or senior private told off for the purpose, who takes the mail-bag daily to the Brigade Field Post Office, and returns with the incoming mail.

As readers of The Postage Stamp will remember, the first type of military censor mark was circular in shape (Fig. 1). This was superseded at the beginning of the present year by a new square-framed mark (Fig. 2) which was again in its turn supplemented at the beginning of April by the present triangular type (Fig. 3). The number on the stamp of an obsolescent type did not correspond with that on the stamp by which it was superseded, so that any one battalion had a different number on its censor stamp each time the type of mark was changed. Each time the new hand-stamps were issued the old ones had to be handed in. The frequent change of shape is doubtless due to a desire on the part of the authorities to frustrate any attempt at forgery.

It will be obvious that this censoring of letters is bound to delay their dispatch, no letters practically being sent off till the day after they are written, sometimes not until two days or more have passed. This depends on what are generally officially described as “the exigencies of the military situation.” In other and plainer words, on what the unit to which the writer belongs happens to be doing at the time. Obviously, if it is resting in billets, the regimental authorities have more time to spend on the regimental correspondence, than if it is taking part in an attack, or repelling one.

The delay may be avoided by making use of the printed Field Service Post Card, which does not require censoring, or of one of the two special envelopes which are issued. These are printed on green and red paper respectively. The green envelope, officially called Army Form W3078, is of Court size, and bears on the flap at the back a printed form of certificate that the letter therein enclosed refers to nothing but private or family affairs. This certificate has to be signed by the writer on his honor, and the envelope can thereupon be sealed up, and the letter is not liable to be censored regimentally. The contents are, however, liable to be censored at the Base, though this is seldom done, but of course any reference to the war or anything military in such a letter is a serious military crime, which would be dealt with by court-martial. These envelopes were only brought into use at the beginning of March, and are supposed to be issued regimentally at the rate of one per week for each officer and non-commissioned officer and for selected privates of good character. As a matter of fact, they are in most cases issued less frequently.

The other special envelope, made of red paper, is of foolscap size and is officially known as Army Form A2043. It is intended for registered letters or other letters containing important documents relating to private and confidential matters. The letter is censored and the envelope sealed up in the presence of the writer, and a certificate on the front is signed by the commanding officer to the effect that its contents deal exclusively with personal matters of an urgent nature, and that no mention is made of military operations or anything connected therewith. This envelope has to be stamped with the censor mark, though the green envelope need not.

Incoming mail matter, that is to say, correspondence from England or elsewhere addressed to the Front, is of course liable, like everything else, to be censored, but as a matter of fact, it practically never is. The Battalion mail-bag is collected daily from the Brigade Field Post Office by the regimental postman, and at Battalion Headquarters the letters and parcels are sorted among the four companies. A company orderly then takes his own company’s mails to his company headquarters, where the missives have again to be sorted among the four platoons. The platoon sergeants then distribute the letters and parcels to their men, who by this time, having seen the arrival of the mail, are eagerly awaiting them.

When a battalion is in the trenches, the letters and parcels from home are brought up and given out with the following day’s rations.