A staggering two billion letters were sent to and from Britain during the First World War between 1914 and 1918. They were the only way UK servicemen and loved ones could stay in touch with each other. This is the story of those letters – and, a century after the war ended, how they have become a vital way for younger generations to learn about what happened through the people who fought in the conflict.
A vast network was set up to handle the extra 1,000 tonnes of mail every week, with a coded system of addresses to deliver to locations that needed to be kept secret from the enemy.
Beyond the extraordinary war-time distribution of letters, there was the enormous undertaking of censorship. Each letter was subject to a strict checking process to prevent vital information – innocently shared – being intercepted by spies.
A far quicker device was also introduced to avoid the need for censorship altogether – The Field Service Postcard, which became a kind of social media status update for its time. Soldiers were able to choose between a few descriptions to describe their health (from “I am quite well” to “I am wounded”), confirm receipt of a letter or parcel, or report a breakdown in communication.
While the messages were impersonal, they were gratefully received by those desperate for news of their loved ones and remain among the fascinating elements of First World War communication passed down from generation to generation.
The lasting treasures, though, remain the longer letters detailing the human experience of every element of the conflict, right up until the final shot was fired before the German Empire surrendered.
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