The Army Postal Service – Censor’s Stamps

The Haldane Reforms of the early 20th Century saw the winds of change sweep through the British military.  Richard Haldane, Secretary of State for War between 1905 & 1912 (and Lord Chancellor for three years thereafter), had introduced a huge range of army reforms in the wake of the war in South Africa, all designed to create a mobile expeditionary force that could swiftly support the French should a hostile Germany launch an attack.  Presumably in the wake of this, 1913 saw the formation of an Army Postal Service, under the auspices of the Royal Engineers – who else, bearing in mind their motto of ‘Ubique’ – comprising ten officers and nearly three hundred men, intended to supply an expeditionary force of six divisions in time of war.  Thus, when the B.E.F. crossed the Channel for the first time in August 1914, men of the postal service went with them. 

Bags of mail from home being unloaded from a truck at a roadside sorting point in a French town early in the war.  For the first month of the war, soldiers were expected to pay a subsidised one penny postage charge per letter if they wanted to reply (mail from the Continent was normally charged at twopence).  Many soldiers simply posted unstamped letters, leaving loved ones at home to fork out for the postage when the letter arrived.  Whether as a direct result, I don’t know, but at the end of the month the issue was raised in parliament where the Postmaster General announced that ‘…in future all letters written by soldiers on active service may be sent to this country without any prepayment by the soldier, and without any charge being made upon the recipient of the letter. In other words, correspondence written by the soldier on active service to his relations or friends will be carried free of charge.’  Which is why, dear BigNote reader, none of the examples in this post have postage stamps.

By late 1914, all mail to the troops abroad was being sorted at the London Home Depot in Regent’s Park in London.  By the end of the war the site, purportedly the largest wooden structure in the world, covered some five acres of the park, and had handled around two billion letters and 114 million parcels.  The above photograph shows post for troops in the Mesopotamian & Mediterranean theatres of war being sorted by both male and female staff (compare with the first photo in this post) on Armistice Day, 11th November 1918.

Diagram showing the routes the mail would take from the London Home Depot in Regent’s Park to the French ports,…

…and onwards to the troops in the field.  Theoretically, mail would take only two days from posting to reach France, but how long it would then take to reach an individual soldier in the trenches would depend on his exact whereabouts.  Post coming the other way – from the soldiers back to Blighty – would follow the same routes but in reverse.  The major difference between outgoing and incoming mail, apart from the postage charge, was the Army censor.  All mail to the U.K. would be deposited by the soldiers at either a Field or Army Post Office – I’ll explain the difference in a minute – where it would be checked, usually by a subaltern, who would then censor any sensitive details,…

…more often than not place names, as seen in these examples (above & below),…

…although with varying degrees of success (again, above & below).

The censoring officer would then stamp the mail with the censor’s cancellation stamp (in red, above left), and add his signature (centre bottom), before the mail would receive the official Post Office cancellation stamp, with date (top right).  So, apart from the lack of postage stamps, as already mentioned, all of the examples that follow bear two ink stamps, one a date stamp, the other a censor’s stamp, along with a signature.  Note that quite a number are also headed ‘On Active Service’, as in the example below, or O.A.S. (above), or even the full ‘From a Soldier on Active Service’, an example of which you will come across later.

So, using examples from my small but beautifully formed, if I say so myself, collection, let’s take a closer look at censor’s stamps, the first of which was introduced in 1914 and featured a circular stamp, as seen on the above envelope, posted on 27th October 1914,…

…and this postcard, dated November 1914.

The circle was replaced early in 1915 by a square stamp.  The example above is from early April 1915,…

…and this must be a very late example, with a postmark dated 30th May 1915,…

…because these examples from late April & May 1915 (above & below) already show its replacement, a triangular stamp, suggesting that there must have been a certain amount of tolerance allowed when new censor’s stamps were introduced.  You will notice that the date stamp also includes the words ‘Field Post Office’, as do most of the examples in this post,…

…although here we have ‘Army Post Office’ instead, and as I said I’d explain earlier, so I will.  The ‘Army Post Office’ stamp was used if posted from base, headquarters, or from hospital, the ‘Field Post Office’ stamp used if posted at Divisional or Brigade H.Q., or at one of the railheads, and you can substitute ‘large iron chest with appropriate flag’ for ‘Field Post Office’ before you get any ideas that a post office on the Western Front was anything like one back in Blighty.

The triangular censor’s stamp was used for the remainder of 1915, this example from December,…

…before being replaced by the hexagonal stamp in early 1916, this example from February,…

…this from August,…

…and this one from October.

January 1917 saw the introduction of the oval stamp, this example from March,…

…this one from June (the second in this post with the ‘Army Post Office’ stamp),…

…and this one from September 1917,…

…before the final example, the rectangular stamp, was introduced in October 1917 and was used until the end of the war, this example from November 1917,…

…this one from April 1918,…

…and this one from August 1918.

There were, however, two more stamps introduced in 1917 & 1918, both for use in theatres other than Europe.  The octagonal stamp was introduced in October 1917 for use in Egypt and Salonika,…

…and, finally, a shield-shaped stamp was introduced in April 1918 for use in Italy,…

…for reasons explained by these two Italian Postcards from 1917 (above & below), both of which feature an Italian censor’s stamp, although both were censored by a British officer and posted by a British soldier at a British Army Post Office.

Quite simply, there was no bespoke British censor’s stamp for use in Italy prior to the spring of 1918, and thus the Italian censor’s stamp was used until one was introduced.

We’ll finish with the obverse of the featured postcards in this post, in case you’re feeling short-changed,…

…and, as you can see, even some of these inoffensive scenes were subject to the censor’s pencil.

All of which means you now have the knowledge with regard to Great War British censor’s stamps, and doubtless are already wondering how you ever managed to get by without it.

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6 Responses to The Army Postal Service – Censor’s Stamps

  1. Alan Bond says:

    Thank you it must have kept a whole department of Civil Servants busy for whole period of the war thinking up what shape stamp to use next

  2. Everett Sharp says:

    Very nice article on a group of very efficient men and women. One can only imagine receiving something from home when you are in a war zone, or having a letter or card delivered to you from your son/husband or other loved one.
    Nice memorabilia collection.
    Can I have permission to use any of these images in a book I am writing on volunteers for the military in the West Country 1846 – 1916 (conscription). I will of course reference your name and this site, if used.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Thank you Everett. Of course you can use whichever images you wish. I can supply larger files if required.

  3. nicholas Kilner says:

    A wonderful collection of postcards. Thank you for sharing them with us. Great info too.

    • Magicfingers says:

      Been meaning to do this post for a while now. I might do one on the German postal service one day – I have the examples to use, just lack the knowledge! In the meantime, watch out for a peek into another of my collections – well, it’s the whole collection, actually – coming next weekend. Heh heh heh. That’s was a mysterious laugh, btw. I twiddled (!) my moustache whilst making it.

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