Write that Letter Home, Part II: Senders, Recipients, and the Content of World War I Correspondence
By James R. Miller, Historian and Philatelic Genealogist
The National Postal Museum is pleased to share part two of a three-part blog series by historian and philatelic genealogist James R. Miller. A presenter at the National Postal Museum's Tenth Winton M. Blount Postal History Symposium, Miller is deeply engrossed in philatelic genealogy; that is, using letters, postcards, and covers to reveal family trees and other intricate, genealogical details. In "Write that Letter Home: Senders, Recipients, and the Content of World War I Correspondence," Miller illuminates the context - both personal and historical - of several WWI postcards and letters. More examples of how postal history and genealogy work together can be found on the author's philatelic genealogy website: Philgen.org.
Letters and postcards sent by United States military personnel during World War I are unique sources of information about their training, why they served, and their experience of war. Each letter and postcard show details about military service that cannot be found elsewhere. Genealogical databases and online family trees help identify the sender and recipient that enable notification of their descendants. The smallest detail in a letter or postcard can be a treasure for a descendant learning about someone in their family.
Some correspondence indicates the sender’s exact location on a specific day, enabling descendants to revisit a place where their ancestor was, especially when accompanied by written comments on a postcard photograph. Edward McClure wrote 13 March 1919 from Camp Hospital 52 in Le Mans, France to his brother Maurice in Philadelphia. McClure annotated the postcard photograph of Le Mans. (Figure 1a-b)
Thomas W. Courcelle, private, 102nd Machine Gun Battalion, wrote 7 February 1919 from Mansigné, France to his future wife Susie Wilson in Rutland, Vermont.1 He wrote “Here is a view of the town we are now staying in.” (Figure 2a-b)
Although General Pershing, the United States military commander in Europe, stated “the prompt dispatch and delivery of mail was difficult, yet its bearing on the morale of the army and the folks at home made it very important,” soldiers were concerned with the speed and certainty of mail delivery.2 Fred Putnam, sergeant, 319th Field Signal Battalion, sent a postcard to his wife Edna in McKenzie, North Dakota with “Will send you one of these cards … as it may get there quicker [than a letter]” (Figure 3)
Consistent with soldiers’ concerns, members of Congress received complaints from “heartbroken” mothers regarding undelivered mail.3 Congress was told of mail sacks unopened for two months and officers who dismissed concerns because “These boys are here to fight and not to read letters from home.”4 The House Post Office Committee approached President Wilson, who asked Secretary of War Newton Baker, already in Europe, to investigate.5 Baker replied that mail service in Europe was not working as well as desired.6 Otto Praeger, second assistant postmaster general, testified before the House Committee that “the responsibility for bad mail service abroad does not rest with the Post Office service, but with the American military authorities in France.”7
“The primary objective of AEF [American Expeditionary Forces] field censorship was to prevent leakage of military information … [that] could be utilized by enemy agents.”8 Postal history provides many examples of the censor’s work and influence. Oliver Beymer, 2nd lieutenant, Air Service, wrote 9 May 1918 to his future wife Myrtle Springer in Scotia, New York “what I pick up around here I cant tell in letters ‘cause its ‘agin the law,’ so I don’t know nothing” (Figure 4).9 John Edward Clay wrote “Dear Mother you asked me several questions that I cannot answer till I come home, but would sure like to as it would help you keep from worrying so much.” (Figure 5) These soldiers wanted to write more but stopped themselves out of a concern for censorship.
Soldiers apparently considered ways to communicate to avoid censorship. William H. Kramer, private, 331st Field Artillery, and later Military Police, wrote 4 October 1917 to his future wife Clara Blahna in Eastman, Wisconsin.10 “I don’t believe its any use writing the way we said Clara, you know what I mean, as I don’t believe the letters are opened, you know what I mean, about the stamps.” While possibly of no significance, the stamps on Kramer’s envelope were attached upside down. (Figure 6a-b)
...Stay tuned for Part III, coming tomorrow!
Courcelle-Wilson marriage, 5 November 1923, “Vermont, Marriage Records, 1909-2008,” Ancestry, Vermont State Archives.
John J. Pershing, My Experiences in the World War (New York: Frederick A. Stokes company, 1931), vol. 2, 150.
New York Times [NYT], “Army Mail Delays Laid to Officers,” 29 April 1918, 13.
NYT, “Flood of Protests Over Troops’ Mail,” 28 April 1918, 17.
NYT, “Flood of Protests.”
NYT, “Army Mail Delays.”
NYT, “Army Mail Delays.”
Theo. Van Dam, ed., The Postal History of the AEF, 1917-1923, 2nd edition (Fishkill, N.Y.: The Printer’s Stone, Ltd., 1990), 145.
“New York State, Marriage Index, 1881-1967,” Oliver H. Beymer-Myrtle Springer, 1919, marriage 16497, Ancestry, New York State Archives.
Army transport lists, Suwanee, departed St-Nazaire 2 June 1919, Fold3, National Archives and Records Administration.