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Mail, telephony, etc. between Germany and UK during war?


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singwiththespirit

Does anyone know whether - and if so, how much - commication was still possible between Britain and Germany during the war? Specifically, if an Englishman had German relatives, would it be possible at all for them to communicate - by mail, telephone, or telegraph - or was there a total moratorium on such communications during the war?

Karen Mercedes

singwiththespirit [at] yahoo [dot] com

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I cannot speak for the Great War but I do know that it was impossible to communicate (legally) directly between Italy and the UK and even Italy and Ireland during WWII as is quite clear from the archives that I look after. Some communication was possible - but extremely restricted - by use of the Vatican and the Irish Embassy in Rome. This of course applies only to non governmental comms - completely off the point I know, but for example the British Minister in the Vatican (the Earl of Danby) remained in post throughout the war (though having to abandon his official residence and live inside the Vatican proper).

I imagine the same non-comms situation applied in WWI, though there are cases of some comms between fairly senior members of the aristocracy/royal families (particulaly as regards news about relatives who might be casualties). I don't imagine you were thinking about them!

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Mail went to and from POWs/internees in Germany and internees in Holland and Switzerland, so routes for the transmission of mail obviously existed. I should have thought that unofficial communications via intermediaries in Holland or Switzerland were relatively easy, if one had the contacts, and humanitarian messages could presumably have been sent via the Red Cross. At government level, the belligerents communicated throughout the war via neutral Embassies and the Red Cross.

The situation would obviously have been more difficult in WW2, when there were no neutral coastal countries and no overland access to Switzerland.

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Mail went to and from POWs/internees in Germany and internees in Holland and Switzerland, so routes for the transmission of mail obviously existed. I should have thought that unofficial communications via intermediaries in Holland or Switzerland were relatively easy, if one had the contacts, and humanitarian messages could presumably have been sent via the Red Cross. At government level, the belligerents communicated throughout the war via neutral Embassies and the Red Cross.

The situation would obviously have been more difficult in WW2, when there were no neutral coastal countries and no overland access to Switzerland.

In WW2 some humanitarian phone calls were permitted to Germany via Spain and France (doubtless very closely supervised at both ends) In WW1 there was a year when Italy was in the war but not at war with Germany. I understand during this time that some Italians still traveled to Germany via Switzerland and could sometimes act as messengers (Somerset Maugham refers to this somewhere). Because the US did not control outgoing telegram messages it was theoretically possible to get a wire to Germany via the USA and back through the Swedish cable. Ironically the electronic message would pass back through Britain as the Swedish cable came ashore in the UK (where it was secretly tapped by Naval intelligence - the Swedes and Germans, who the Swedes were illegally allowing to use their cable, mistakenly thinking this was technically impossible to do without being detected).

Some direct Allied/German government contact appears to have been maintained, very discreetly, in the Hague.

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Very interesting. It is also the case that the Vatican was used by both sides and in both wars for communications between both sides. In the years before WWI there were relatively few diplomatic mission (about a dozen, I think) at the Vatican and I am pretty sure that these were all RC countries. Possibly establishing missions was not made easier because of the state of relations between the popes and the Italian State dating back to 1870. With Benedict XV's involvement in diplomacy during the war, the number of missions increased, such as one from the UK. Benedict XV made a big hit, mainly to do with treatment of PoWs etc I think, with the Turks. He is probably the only pope who has a statue erected of him (at least by the government) in Turkey! On the other hand, I do not think it was a major conduit of negotiation/discussion between the hostile powers.

As regards comms between hostile countries, the point I was trying to make that it was not so much that these did not happen but the people/institutions who had the ability were not keen for them to be used for anything much except the official or the strictly regulated. And, of course, there were communications (strictly censored, not always successfully) with PoWs and home; we have some quite sad ones in the archives I look after.

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Hi Karen. The consensus seems to be that officially there was no communication between ordinary civilians. If people had relatives on the other side, it would have been possible to communicate using a neutral country. From other reading I have done, contact was very restricted. Albert Einstein, resident in Berlin during the war was extremely isolated even though he was already a famous scientist. His communications were mainly through USA and these dried up when America entered the war. Siegfried Sassoon had many German relatives but does not make much mention of contact that I can remember, in his memoirs. Phoning was not possible as long distance calls needed the operator and in fact required a chain of operator contact between the callers.

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The Dutch papers could be aquired in both Britain and Germany (and occupied Belgium). I believe that the personal adds columns could be used for messages like 'Cousin Heinrich is fully recovered now'. Sir Basil Thompson certainly refers to Belgian and other refugees using this approach to communicate with relatives left behind. However the intelligence services on both sides would be scanning these for messages to and from agents (and doubtless using them themselves) so that using this too frequently could bring some unwonted attention.

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I doubt that the vast proportion of any population would have even considered making an international phone call in the WW1 era (pre and pist war). I can remember my mother having to book a phone all to Gibraltar from Liverpool in 1953, and it took about three hours to connect (via neighbour who had a telephone).

In the WW1 era I would think that most eople had never made any phone call let alone one to those funny foreigners (do telephones work in other than English?)

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singwiththespirit

I asked the question originally to work out a plot detail in the novel I'm writing. The person making the phone call would be a rather cosmopolitan German-American operatic diva married to an Englishman and living at the time the novel opens in Paris and London; her career being based mainly in Europe, she has travelled that continent extensively, so the notion of communicating with "funny foreigners" would certainly not be mystifying to her, and telegraphy if not telephony would be a "bread and butter" means of communication. She's the type of lady who is used to being ingeniously inventive in how she exploits contacts and "pulls strings".

In this case, she is trying get information about her son-in-law, a French baritone-turned-soldier who was taken prisoner by the Germans during the Battle of Soissons in January 1915 and sent (most likely) to Groningen.

Her ex-husband is a German professor, working at the University of Berlin. What I'm trying to figure out if there is any way she could leverage that relationship to get her ex to make enquiries that are not possible for her to make herself. It doesn't matter if he CAN get any information. What matters is whether she can put pressure on him to do so. Obviously, if there's no way for her to communicate with him, it won't be possible. On the other hand, perhaps she could get someone in America to contact her ex for her?

Or will she just have to wait around like everyone else for the Red Cross to pass on info? It's not a huge plot point, but it is illustrative of her way of dealing with things, so I'd like to include it if it's credible.

Karen Mercedes

I doubt that the vast proportion of any population would have even considered making an international phone call in the WW1 era (pre and pist war). I can remember my mother having to book a phone all to Gibraltar from Liverpool in 1953, and it took about three hours to connect (via neighbour who had a telephone).

In the WW1 era I would think that most eople had never made any phone call let alone one to those funny foreigners (do telephones work in other than English?)

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Could she do what Sibelius did and use an intermediary in Denmark?

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Up until the US declaration of war a telegram via the US (perhaps re sent by a friend in the US) would seem to be the best bet

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Were the Central Bankers talking to each other in the Great War as they did in WW2? - I was surprised that meetings continued in Switzerland of financiers during WW2 with safe passages across German territory being issued. The sanctity of hard cash lets it rise above mere international squabbles.

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