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Remembered Today:

'Secret language' letters


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While talking with other members of a local history group this morning, the topic turned to a local group within a much larger, and international society, that taught and tried to expand the use of the international language of Esperanto. During this conversation which covered how one can still read and translate via google this auxiliary language I mentioned that I recalled seeing an article and/or book that told of the story behind a number of WWI letters that were sent home from someone in France to his sister using a 'secret language' that they had made up during their childhood. In thinking about the article/book, the letters were found a few years ago and someone had taken on the task of trying to decipher the contents. Am I correct, if so does anybody know of the article/book; or indeed of what became of the research into the letters?


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Officers had to censor the letters of the soldiers under their command and each other's letters. If letters came through in foreign languages that the officer could not understand or in a "secret language" he would be expected to reject the letter. I have some early war AIF letters, where the officer censoring the letters cut out sections with a razor blade. As the war progressed, this would have become an unacceptable luxury and the letters would have either been returned to the soldier or destroyed.


If a soldier, (most likely an officer) wrote letters in a secret childhood language, rather than being intended to confound the officer censoring the letter, I would expect that the intention was to limit which of the family members would be able to understand the contents. In the case in question that he intended to reveal certain things to his sister that he did not wish to share with his parents or other family members likely to read the letter. Again the author would most likely be an officer, as he would probably need to convince his brother officer who is signing off as censor that the secret language does not reveal military information. 

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Fritz Limbach, a private, wrote a lót of letters in his short stint in the German army.

One letter stands out, the one he wrote on 2nd February 1915, from Kevelaer/Germany where he had his training.

"I will give this letter to Mrs Mais [Friends of the family back in Barmen/Wuppertal], who is still here. She will take the letter with her to Barmen and post it there. An added advantage is that in this way I bypass the censor in Geldern [German town near Kevelaer], and can write you anything I like. "


"Please post the enclosed letters. I’d like to take advantage of this convenient opportunity."


Can't see anything in that letter that would reveal military secrets.

Other than that every soldier's outfit would cost the German state 300 Marks?

Or that a German sergeant colluded with the "Roten Hahn" guesthouse to have recruits stay there?

Or that the rumour goes they're moved to "Donne, near Arras" [= Don, between Lille and Lens]?





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I often wondered about this and the letters.

How much intell could be gained by such letters?

If sent home to Australia, what little intell the soldier may have given would be long out of date?

I believe the main reason was not to control Intell but the see what the soldiers were thinking and what they were saying to the folks back home about the war.

Our Newpapers are full of stories from soldiers at the front during the war and are a gold mine for details on what the soldiers were thinking and seeing.

But what little any German intell could be gained about Troops movements and any real time Intell is limited to nil?

Reading back in my old letters I found most commented on the war not Troops and operations, other then what places I visited, but such details was well known to the enemy as we fought them.

When you concider most units moved around a lot during the war from front line to reserve trenches to back areas and switch to another area.

I surpose names of commander and other officers, could gain some small intell on units, but that would be gained by prisoners in any raid 

One only has to check most letters from that war, and many such letters are not censored by anyone. Possibly because the officer knew what soldier was more likely to give the game away then others?

I could be wrong but the days of snail mail took a long time to move letters and there was not garentee it would get there.

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As stated in the original post, I can't remember where I read it but it was certainly about letters that were sent home during WWI. I also recall from what I remember of the article/book that they were passed by the censor without any questions being asked, which I think the writer of said report mentioned.

15 hours ago, stevenbecker said:

I could be wrong but the days of snail mail took a long time to move letters and there was not garentee it would get there.

I have seen in local newspapers from the years 1914-18, books, articles, etc. that the post was far more efficient than it is today. With two or more (depending on where the recipient lived) deliveries per day. Not unknown for a writer in France to have his letter being read at home the following day and the day after that to have reply. What with letters, parcels (some with food) going to France and further afield the Army Post Office had their hands full but I don't recall reading of any complaints about any delays or of items lost - a world away from how we deal with the PO and the multitude of delivery companies that seem to lose an amazing amount of goods despite the use of GPS tracking...almost seems that some people have lost the ability to correctly read a road street sign and house number - yes, have been on the wrong end of that!


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3 hours ago, chrislaidler507 said:

but I don't recall reading of any complaints about any delays or of items lost

Oh, but Fritz Limbach, a German private, moaned a lot about delays in the Post in his letters! "It now takes at least three days for a letter to arrive! And some don't even arrive!" Usually it took 2 days at the most for a letter from the front line to Germany or vice versa.

Seeing the amount of letters and packages the German Post had to deal with in WW1 (I read "a billion" somewhere?) that is quite a feat.

And the German Feldpost did not give up easily when a card wasn't addressed correctly: they tried 5 times? but it was "Return to sender" unfortunately.



As regards "coded letters": wouldn't that be between civilians in opposing countries, subject to censoring?

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Michael Roper's "The Secret Battle: Emotional Survival in the Great War" (2009) talks about censorship and secret codes:


Officers, able to censor their own letters, enjoyed a significant privilege. Their mail might be opened by the Base Censor but this rarely happened and many used the privilege to discuss topics that were technically out of bounds. Second Lieutenant Frank Wollocombe would refer to 'Lord C' when he was about to attack and he, like many others, used family names and other agreed codes as a means to convey information that might otherwise be censored. Wilfred Owen told his mother that if she received a Field Service postcard with a double line through the sentence 'I am being sent down to the base', this meant that he was actually at the front. That cipher like this was expressly prohibited by the Censorship and Publicity Section of the General Staff suggests it was prevalent. Officers thus operated something of a double standard, censoring their men's letters while describing military action in detail in their own.


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My understanding was that another officer had to censor an officers letter, rather than "censoring" their own letter. Regardless, having a close colleague censor your letters, while you censor his - the censorship process is likely to be very soft. 


A key element of censoring soldiers' mail was to monitor the state of morale. So knowing your company officers were reading your mail automatically led to soldiers self censoring a variety of things they would probably have preferred to share with their families. If censorship had been at division or corps level within the postal service, people may have been more open about their experiences at the front.  

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Hedd Wyn(Ellis Evans) nearly had his Eisteddfod application rejected due to his letters etc being in Welsh.

38th did have a system for Welsh communications to be censored at higher level even though a higher amount of officers could read/speak Welsh. The RWF did have a higher Welsh speaking officer cohort than the Welch, with the SWB much more English(The Mons being a different aspect)  There was no deliberate rejection of Welsh letters as some claim but occasionally it would need to go higher to find an officer to censor said letter. 

Not sure how Gaelic worked out? Some from the outer islands monoglot even for speech? How many Gaelic speaking officers?  

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