During the First World War, the GPO handled mail sent to and from prisoners of war. These included captured soldiers and civilians who had been in the wrong place at the outbreak of hostilities. Before mail reached its recipient, it would be examined by censors on both sides of the conflict.
I’ve just catalogued a set of nearly 40 GPO files from the First World War all about the censorship of mail for POWs. Many of the files deal with really specific problems. Here are two of my favourites:
BREAD DESTRUCTION OUTRAGE:
POST 56/243 (1916) concerns a series of complaints from the fabulously-named Bedford Bread Fund, a charity that sent parcels of bread to British POWs in German camps. The loaves were being sawn in half by the British censors to inspect them for concealed messages, leaving them entirely inedible by the time they arrived. The file also documents the censors’ trials of loaf-prodding by bone knitting needle. While less invasive, the needles alas broke off inside the loaves.
PENMANSHIP CRITIQUE EFFRONTERY:
POST 56/212 (1915) contains complaints forwarded by a countess from her POW husband. A concern was that mail was arriving at the camp with pencilled comments from censors, asking the prisoners to persuade their families to write shorter letters, and to write more neatly. Censors, he said, had no right to express this kind of stylistic criticism. As you can see from the GPO reply (above), the comments were apparently left by the German censors who, after all, had a job to do too.
I love these two files. They seem absurd, and yet they’re perfectly logical and justified under the circumstances. Other favourite cases include an intercepted parcel of construction textbooks sent to a French POW, and a query about whether letters to Russian POWs could be written in the Russian alphabet.
The censorship records are part of a collection of around 500 files that I’m cataloguing. The files document the Army Postal Service from the 1900s to the 1970s, including both World Wars, and are genuinely global in scope. Much of the material originated from the Royal Engineers Postal Section, a forerunner of today’s Royal Logistic Corps that drew many of its men from GPO staff. All these files will appear on the Archive catalogue in the next few months.
- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)