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Passed Censor

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The following is a guest post by Justina Moloney, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow who worked with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer.

Correspondence, be it analog or email, is a running theme within the collections of the Veterans History Project. Of the nine World War I collections I worked with this summer, almost every one contains a series of correspondence between a veteran and his family.  Letters home served as a valuable way for men of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) to send word that they were safe, and inform their family about their daily activities. Letters provided space to write about their impressions of the voyage abroad, the culture and habits of other people and the process of going “over the top” of the trenches for the first time.

This blog post could really just be about the importance of mail during World War I—how each man commented on the snail-paced mail they received abroad, or their attempt to write home in between the demands of their service.  Instead, throughout my time working with each collection, I became increasingly interested in the censorship of these letters.

The United States began censoring soldiers’ mail during the Civil War. Company censorship officers, regimental censorship officers and base censors handled this responsibility—a thankless job, to be sure. Military information, just as it stands today, was extremely valuable. Censors would redact from letters any mention of exact locations, future transportation movement and many of the realities of life at war, either by cutting out the detail, leaving a hole in the letter or crossing the information out using black ink. Maintaining morale at home was also an important factor, and a soldier’s desire to write about the bleakness of war could be censored too. Soldiers were taught to self-censor as well, often writing phrases like, “somewhere in France,” or giving no details of their location in the heading.

Photo of letter in pencil.  One area of the letter is blacked out.
Letter to mother from Wallace E. Rand (11/2/1917). Wallace E. Rand Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/102665.

Almost every VHP collection I examined features some element of censorship.  As necessary as censorship during war is, it can be comical after-the-fact. I discovered one of my favorite instances of comical censorship in Wallace E. Rand’s collection. When writing to his family about his highlights of France, he mentions the following.

Perhaps you have read of the ‘_________’ (the statue), well I saw the original in one of the oldest cathedrals in France the other day.

Who knows what statue he was mentioning, as there are many old cathedrals in France? Luckily the censorship officer did not cut out the detail that it was a statue, or Rand’s family would have no idea what he was asking about!

Letter on American YMCA paper written in pencil.
Letter to wife, Clara, from John M. Kennelly (10/26/1918). John McRae Kennelly Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/64503.

While many World War I service members wrote in ink on any paper he could get his hands on, the occasional man wrote in pencil. This made the censor’s job easier, as he could just erase the valuable information and write-in “censored,” instead of cutting out portions of the letter as seen here in John M. Kennelly’s letter dated October 26, 1918. Kennelly wrote regularly to his wife Clara, and in this letter he mentions:

We are billeted in a little censored town which the Germans have had for about four years.

The censor also noticed that Kennelly wrote “Somewhere in Belgium” at the top of his letter, but decided that was valuable military information. The location is still quite visible, as the censoring officer only scratched through “Belgium” rather than blotting it out.

Letter written in pen on Army and Navy Young Men's Christian Association
Letter to mother and father from Edgar D. Andrews (12/17/1917). Edgar D. Andrews Collection. Veterans History Project, AFC/2001/001/103623.

More often than not, as I read through some of VHP’s World War I correspondence collections this summer, what was most visible was not the straightforward censorship as the letters above, but the “O.K.” signatures on many soldiers’ letters.  Most men of the AEF self-censored, and were careful about informing their families of their inability to share important details about their war experience.  Some soldiers used personal diaries to maintain detailed notes about each location in which they were stationed. But even in diaries, soldiers, like Thomas Estévez Terry, rarely wrote detailed accounts of their experience that included valuable military information.  If the wrong person had discovered their personal writings, it could have brought comfort to the enemy.

Undoubtedly, censorship of soldiers’ mail is necessary during wartime. Although it can make a letter confusing, as a researcher and Junior Fellow, it added another level of mystery as I interpreted these veterans’ collections. And while some details were not obscured as well as the censor might have hoped, we may never know to which statue in France Wallace E. Rand was referring.


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