News from the front

Professor Stephen Badsey reflects on how letters, parcels, and newspapers – although subject to censorship – kept family and friends in touch with soldiers serving in World War One.

One of the constant themes of the ‘disillusioned’ school of fiction and fictionalised memoirs about the First World War written in the 1920s and 1930s was that civilians at home had no idea of what the war was like for the front-line fighting soldiers. Like all clichés, this has an element of truth, as it has for all wars. But one of the features of the First World War was the close ties between the home fronts and the fighting fronts. Any family with a relative or a friend away fighting as a soldier or sailor had ways of keeping in touch and finding out what conditions were like.

Letters and parcels

All the major armies recognised that it made a big difference to their soldiers to be able to write home and to be able to receive letters, along with parcels containing small comforts like food, tobacco or extra warm clothing. The postal service was a priority, and some armies like the British even provided field service postcards on which the soldier could just cross out the phrases that did not apply. In the course of the war, millions of soldiers sent billions of letters home. In almost all cases these letters were censored by the armies, to make sure that no information was given to the enemy. Military censors took samples of these letters in order to provide a picture for the generals about what their soldiers were thinking. Although the censors more often quoted complaints and criticisms than the letters of contented soldiers, the record that has survived is very important to historians. For example, the censors’ record of letters sent home by Indian Army soldiers in British service on the Western Front in 1914-15 give these men a voice that has otherwise been almost lost to history. 

Newspapers and newsreels

Especially in the early years of the war, letters home from soldiers would be passed on to local newspapers, and extracts published , although for security reasons this rarely happened in the national press. After the first few months of the war, armies were able to ban newspaper journalists from visiting and reporting on the front-line troops. Instead, armies and navies issued official communiqués and, in effect, wrote their own version of their battles for the newspapers to publish. Complaints led to this system being replaced, by the British in 1915 and the French in 1916, with official war correspondents , experienced reporters representing major newspapers but put in uniform and subject to military control and censorship. These were joined by official war photographers, and by official war cameramen, providing films and newsreels of the front lines for cinemas. Newspapers published at home were also available to the fighting troops, particularly for the French Army on the Western Front, where the zone of the armies was part of France. It was normal for troops to take part in a battle and then to be able to read about themselves a few days later. People at home were always anxious to hear about what was happening on the fighting fronts, including the official lists of casualties published in the newspapers .

What did they know?

Reports in newspapers were limited by censorship, and by a desire to show support for their own country in the war. Soldiers often had a healthy and humorous disdain for accounts of their battles which they felt had been exaggerated or were misleading, called ‘eyewash’ by the British, ‘brain-stuffing’ by the French, and part of ‘the swindle’ by the Germans. But outright lies and fabrications would have been spotted at once. Soldiers in their letters home were also limited by censorship and by their own judgements on what relatives and friends should be told about their experiences; and few soldiers were good enough writers to capture their own experience of the war. But within those limitations, the news from the front in the First World War gave most civilians a reasonably good idea of what was happening.

  • Stephen Badsey
  • Stephen Badsey is Professor of Conflict Studies at Wolverhampton University, where he specialises in wartime propaganda, military-media issues, and military ideas and doctrines. He has published widely on military aspects of warfare since the middle 19th century. His most recent works include Doctrine and Reform in the British Cavalry 1880-1918, and The British Army in Battle and Its Image 1914-18. He is currently writing a book on the ‘German Corpse Factory’, a famous First World War propaganda story, and its wider implications.

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