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Katie Elizabeth Stewart

Censorship - what were it's limitations and loopholes?

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Katie Elizabeth Stewart

I'm not entirely sure - would there be any way that a company commander censoring the letters of a 2nd Lieutenant could be less stringent for personal reasons? What was the procedure of censorship from that point onwards, and what about the Captain's own letters? Who read them?

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truthergw

Although there were guidelines, in practise, the censor was more or less expected to use common sense. The censorship was very leaky most of the time. I would imagine that the strictness or lack of it was extremely variable from censor to censor and from time to time. The idea was to prevent the dissemination of knowledge that would prove useable to an enemy. How one would define that, in absolute terms, is beyond me. Letters were subject to censorship en route as well as at the point of posting. Green envelopes were distributed which were subjected to very little censorship, the men were on their honour and contravention was looked on severely. Other ranks were subject to more censorship than commissioned officers. Above the rank of Captain there was very little censorship and this was obvious in the early days in particular when the smart places frequented by officers knew all about forthcoming attacks. The Adjutant would censor officers' letters. and The CO would do his.

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Katie Elizabeth Stewart

I can remember reading about green envelopes in Ben Elton's 'First Casualty' (that stupid book - you must forgive me for mentioning it). So, the Captain's own letters would probably only have been thoroughly censored if the Adjutant disliked him, perhaps?! Supposing the platoon commanders said some pretty unsavoury things about their company commander, there would probably be no grounds for censoring that, would there? Hmmm... enemy movements... presumably would have included graphic descriptions of the horrors of life in the trenches, because they might have frightened those at home and prejudiced recruiting?

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truthergw

Hi Katie. As far as criticising a superior officer, that would be frowned upon. Any complaints ought to be taken to the adjutant or CO. There was no mechanism in force for ' whistleblowing'. There tended to be a very schoolboyish ethos which went against official complaints. You will have read ' Goodbye to all that'. That and Sassoon's memoirs give a subalterns' view of these matters. Think Public School with prefects and first formers. These schools were the breeding ground for the Army. They inculcated the ' proper form ' and the knowledge of what was the ' done thing'. Tom Browns Schooldays gives a very good idea of how these officers thought and what they thought was the proper way to behave. A stiff upper lip and accepting whatever indignity was inflicted by those put in charge were the signs of a good chap. As the war progressed and the junior ranks contained more and more men who lacked Public School education, so this ethos changed. There was a fierce reaction after the war when the old guard attempted, with some success, to revert to ' proper', pre-war conditions.

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IanA

There were many ways round censorship which were either looked upon indulgently or missed by the censoring officer. Men (and officers) would arrange a code on home leave which would be used to let the folks at home know where the battalion was stationed. Letters may have a faint dot under them, spelling out a town, or the primary letter in a series of sentences might do the same. Personal information could also be used: "We are 12 miles north of that town where Uncle Tom had such an interesting experience in 1912."

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Katie Elizabeth Stewart
There were many ways round censorship which were either looked upon indulgently or missed by the censoring officer. Men (and officers) would arrange a code on home leave which would be used to let the folks at home know where the battalion was stationed. Letters may have a faint dot under them, spelling out a town, or the primary letter in a series of sentences might do the same. Personal information could also be used: "We are 12 miles north of that town where Uncle Tom had such an interesting experience in 1912."

I remember Wilfred Owen doing something similar. He spelt out place names, he said something random like 'beer is not quite Wilfred' - don't know how that works, but there you go!

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DaveBrigg

I was under the impression that officer's letter were rarely censored. I have some postcards sent from France where the location has been crossed out in purple pencil or ink, but some can still be read. I don't thinkit was a very popular task for the officers to have to read personal letters, but it did give knowledge of some of the complicated home lives their men faced.

The newspapers of 1915 and 1916 carried some graphic front line stories from the soldiers that cannot have been censored very strongly.

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Katie Elizabeth Stewart

That's a great deal of help to me, thank you everyone. From various bits of fiction I have read, I have also gleaned that quite often, soldiers would write home to say 'we're going to attack'. Was this legal, or were the Officers perhaps lenient given the extreme emotional stress of the circumstances? I'd also like to know, if anybody has the knowledge immediately to hand, were there any prohibited articles that could not be sent for gifts?

Thanks in advance,

Katie

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Drover

Katie

First post so hope etiquette in order!

There was a publication "Censorship Orders for Troops in the Field" printed by the Army Printing & Stationery Services, Le Havre. I don't have a copy but would love to see one if you happen across it.

Officers signed the outside of their own envelopes to signify their adherence to censorship regulations. I've never seen evidence of such covers being subject to independent censorship unless they were being sent to addresses outwith the UK. If you keep your eyes open, you can sometimes spot 'celebrity' signuatures on covers: I've managed to collect Douglas Haig, Kitchener, Wullie Robertson, Hamilton amongst others.

I read somewhere that, as previously mentioned, officers censoring their men's correspondence was not a popular task, but it was also used to judge morale, and this assessment was apparently fed back 'up the line', (where it was probably ignored). Censorship was generally quite rigorous in respect of placenames and orders. Initially there was a way of avoiding military censorship by arranging for mail to be carried by hand back to the UK and posted in a civilian post box. This was quickly stamped upon with threat of severe punishment.

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Terry_Reeves

I can't comment specifically on the question of officers, but to cut down the amount of censorship required, Army Form

W 3078 was introduced in March 1915. This is the green envelope mentioned in a previous post. I have an example in my possession which has an address panel and the words "On Active Service" with a note which says "Correspondence in this envelope need not be censored Regimentally. The contents are liable to examination at the Base."

On the flap of the envelope was a promise which had to be signed by the writer: " I certify on my honour that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but private and family matters."

Terry Reeves

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Desdichado
I'm not entirely sure - would there be any way that a company commander censoring the letters of a 2nd Lieutenant could be less stringent for personal reasons? What was the procedure of censorship from that point onwards, and what about the Captain's own letters? Who read them?

This might be a bit long-winded but it may be of some assistance. It doesn't concern the letters of individual men per se, but you can see how the law might be applied to them.

In August 1914, the Defence of the Realm Act was passed without debate. The Act conferred upon the government wide powers to suppress written criticism; to imprison without trial (internment) and to commandeer resources for the war effort. Anyone publishing information - and this was highly subjective - that was either indirectly or directly of use to the enemy became a criminal offence.

The government also created the War Office Press Bureau, the job of which was to censor news reports from the BEF and then issue a sanitised version to the press. The BEF had its own press officer, so to speak, by the name of Colonel Ernest Swinton. Swinton's reports were personally approved (censored) by Lord Kitchener himself before they were given to the news media.

It was the Americans who finally persuaded the British government to rethink its policy on how the war was being reported. The Cabinet met in January, 1915, and it was decided to allow five specially selected journalists to report. Their names were Philip Gibbs, Percival Philips, William Beach Thomas, Henry Perry Robinson, and Herbert Russell. Their reports were submitted to an editor based in France. A former jouralist from The Manchester Guardian, C.E. Montague, was given this task. As you can see, a pretty tight lid was kept on news coming from the front. There was no independent journalism.

The DORA applied in many other areas of public life in Britain during the war but that's a whole topic in of itself. - Des

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Taiha

Is there a good reference for military censorship in WWI?

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healdav

I was talking to a Luxembourg enrolé de force during WW2 who had been on the Russian Front.

He showed me a box of the letters he had sent to his now wife, and they were all in French. I expressed surprise that they were allowed to do this, and his reply was that the German army forgot to forbid it, and by writing in French they could write what they liked as none of the German censors would admit to speaking French ("How come, that's an anti-Nazi activity") (and probably couldn't) so they let the letters go without interfering.

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Robert Dunlop

Officers and ORs would bypass censors by sending information, especially diaries but also letters, with colleagues who were going on leave. On another note, many letters from senior commanders to their wives contained significant details of both forthcoming and past actions.

Robert

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centurion

Some soldiers knowing that their letters would be read would include comments as a deliberate means of communicating their feelings to (and about) officers in a way that could not bring down a charge on their heads I've seen the following phrase quoted from one soldiers correspondence "the officers know how we feel about this (after all you read all our letters)"

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stuartd

It's not he best example - I don't have them to hand - but sometimes leters sent back to loved ones were addressed to Mr S. Omme or Mrs Y. Pres to give loved ones an idea of where they were. The examples I saw were better and usually more subtle than those two quoted, but you get the point!

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