Today's Honour Roll

Today's Honour Roll recognizes 93 Australians who fell on this day in history.
See Full List
Name Date of Death Conflict
KENNEDY, John Joseph 15 Jun 1969 Vietnam War
JOHNSTON, Roy Victor 15 Jun 1915 World War 1
JACKSON, Peter Joseph 15 Jun 1969 Vietnam War
MARRIAGE, Stanley Joseph 15 Jun 1943 World War 2
GILLETT, Arthur Samuel Thomas 15 Jun 1915 World War 1

​Letters To And From The Front

Jerusalem. Diggers collecting their mail, 1940

The story of how communication in terms of letters, messages and phone calls are sent to and from the front during times of war is a fascinating one with constant technological evolution. This is also a story of grappling with challenges such as the logistics of delivering a message across the world in war time and being mindful of government censorship along the way. In this article we will also explore how the families of Australian veterans received the sad news of their loved ones passing.

For most of Australia’s history, most of the communication between soldiers at the front and their friends and family back home has been conducted through letters sent via the mail network. This has not always been a speedy process. In the First World War, letters had to be transported by sea and because of this, the significant distances that separated Dominion and colonial troops from their families impeded regular correspondence. Canadians waited at least three weeks and often well over a month for mail from home; Australians and New Zealanders, twice as long.[1]

Bad weather, submarine warfare, and human error could cause even greater delays. One extreme example of the lengthy delays was that of a birthday card, mailed from England on 29 January 1917 to a soldier in Egypt, which finally arrived two years later.[2]

Australian mail in the First World War was handled by the Australian Army Postal Corps, and they would use a combination of sea, rail, truck, and hand transport to take mail from Australia through a sorting centre in London and to the soldiers wherever they were fighting. Ordinary soldiers in the trenches would receive their mail as deliveries from their rations party. The receipt of letters from home was often one of the most anticipated experiences that the ordinary digger had, and dealing with the lengthy delays was often frustrating.

When sending mail back to Australia, a common practice was to bundle up a whole series of messages to send at once, asking that these be forwarded on by their family. These soldiers would then pass on these letters to one of the field post offices set up near the front lines. Often, these were not in the best shape. In the video below, which outlines the entire chain of the Great War mail system, we see a field post office set up in the ruins of a building.

How the Digger gets his mail: the Australian Army postal services at work

The practice was very different for soldiers in both World Wars who were on leave from the front. Whether they were in England, France, Egypt or in many other parts of the world where Australians spent the war years, they had the opportunity to deposit their mail in an ordinary post box or post office. Not going through the official AIF channels had the advantage that these letters were far less likely to be caught in the censorship net, which also meant that messages might reach home faster.

Along with logistical delays, censorship was one of the major reasons for these delays in the mail system, with an elaborate system of government censorship established at the outset of conflict in order to protect war secrets and raise morale on the home front.

The British Empire was well prepared to establish postal censorship at the outbreak of war in 1914 due to the experiences of the Boer War, where both military and prisoner of war censors were established in South Africa. A similar setup was established in the First World War, with the censorship of dominion mail, including Australia, being overseen by British censors.

Censorship stations were set up both near the fronts in France and the Middle East as well as in England and back in Australia, with each state setting up an office to handle local censorship.

Soldiers of the 3rd Battalion reading outside a tent in Egypt.

A similar regime of censorship was also established at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 with the Menzies Government establishing a Department of Information. The Department was based in Melbourne with offices in each state as well as in New York and London to aid in the censorship of Australian communications.

Melbourne, Vic. 1943-07-14. A mail censor cutting indiscreet material from a letter with the rejected passages joining the pile of deletions from other letters.

Letter - Censored, Private William 'Eric' Murphy, World War II, Jan 1942

In a 1944 newspaper article, Colonel Anderson, the Victorian District Censor explained that 100% of all mail from neutral, enemy, and occupied countries was examined, as was all mail to allied countries but mail coming from the United States and United Kingdom was only selectively scrutinised. He also wanted to assure people that all incoming and outgoing prisoner of war letters were censored.

Interestingly, he claimed that there was very little censorship of internal Australian mail.[3]

Throughout the period of censorship in the two World Wars Australians of all backgrounds and occupations were well aware of what they could and could not disclose and a kind of “self-censorship” was common. Some men and women on active service were also conscious that they did not want to upset their families back home and would avoid writing about the unpleasant aspects of war.

Although most Australians simply dealt with the censorship system as expected. Many found ways to either send hidden messages through code words that they knew their family and friends would understand. Others found slightly more sneaky ways to get around the rules.

“To beat the official censors who read mail sent by Australians serving in New Guinea in World War 2, those servicemen sometimes got their mates going home on leave to carry letters and post them in Australia. It was a simple and effective way to evade the prying eyes of officialdom, whose job it was to make sure that important military details didn’t accidentally fall into enemy hands and that the people at home didn’t hear too much about the grim reality of the war. Accounts I have read by servicemen suggest that mail from home was cherished and anticipated, and the attention of the official censors to private correspondence was not exactly appreciated.”[4]

A 1944 letter that has been passed by the censor.

In Australia’s more recent wars and conflicts, the way that Australian service men and women sent and received letters continued to evolve in line with technology.

In the Vietnam War, most communication between soldiers and home was still done via the mail service but as technology progressed, this did begin to evolve. Although it was difficult, some soldiers were able to record audio messages on tape to be sent home to their families and in the more recent conflicts including Iraq and Afghanistan, telephone calls became much more common.

Those sending letters to Australian serving in Vietnam would address their mail to an Australian Forces Post Office (AFPO) and the mail system would find the appropriate recipient. This system for defence mail is still in use today by Australia Post and the Department of Defence.[5]

Current members of the Australian Defence Force are also given set “phone times” each week in order to call back home.[6] But these days, the most common and easy way that serving personnel communicate with friends and family is via email.

One constant throughout this century of history is that those serving far from home crave communication with their loved ones, and the receiving and sending of letters, news clippings, photographs emails or phone calls has always been a real highlight.

Gunner Ernie Widders of Armidale, NSW, an indigenous soldier, takes time out during a break in operations in Phuoc Tuy Province, to write a letter.

Vung Tau, South Vietnam. June 1971. Corporal Ron Dyer of Bordertown, SA, sorting a small portion of first class mail which arrives at the Australian Forces Post Office (AFPO) at the 1st Australian Logistic Support Group (1ALSG) at Vung Tau. The soldier posties handle 130 bags of first class mail for soldiers in the Vung Tau area per month.

Corporal (CPL) Natalie Jean Dudman, postal manager at Australian Forces Post Office (AFPO 20), The Force Level Logistics Asset - Baghdad (FLLA-B). 2008
Photo by Mal Booth,
Creative Commons, owned by the Australian War Memorial.

Notification of Death

In addition to the sending of regular letters to and from the front, another important consideration is that when soldiers were killed in the course of their service, there needed well established procedures for how families back in Australia were informed.

During the First World War, personal visits by the military to inform the next of kin seem to be the exception rather than the usual practice. When a soldier was killed, the usual practice was to send a pink telegram to their indicated next of kin but occasionally a message would be sent to the local reverend or pastor of the deceased soldier, who would then visit and inform their parents.

A pink telegram informing the family of Private R.B. Allen of the death of their son in 1916.

Similar telegram messages were also sent in the Second World War but this time to the families of those serving overseas who were killed. By this stage, a standard form of preprinted telegram had been established that required only personal information be entered in manually.

The message shown below was addressed directly to the deceased’s father.

A telegram informing parents of the death of their airman son in the Second World War.

During the First and Second World Wars, the Australian Red Cross would also conduct investigations into the cause of death, interviewing those who were close to them or were witnesses to find out what happened. These reports were often sent to the soldier’s family to provide a greater context for how they were killed and are a great source for historians in the current day.

Australian Red Cross Information Bureau letter regarding the circumstances of the death of 712 Second Lieutenant Henry Miller Lanser, 1st Australian Infantry Battalion.

There are also many cases of commanding officers, nurses, comrades, and chaplains taking the time to write a personal letter to a deceased member’s family to provide some details and, most importantly, comfort. Often, these letters would recount a few personal anecdotes and assure the family that the serviceperson died bravely.

Communication in times of war, conflicts and peacekeeping missions has been continuously evolving. Initially communication was dominated by the mail and telegraph system, with both service men and women and their families back in Australia having to be mindful of the government censors. In more recent conflicts, technology has evolved, and the use of the telephone has become a much more common method of communication. In conjunction with personal communication, paper communication was the dominant method of how families found out about the passing of a relative with this information being communicated via mail and telegraphs.

By Nicholas Egan

[1] Mason, A. and Parton, E. (2018). Letters To Loved Ones. [online] Imperial War Museums. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/letters-to-loved-ones.

[2] Mason, A. and Parton, E. (2018). Letters To Loved Ones. [online] Imperial War Museums. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/letters-to-loved-ones.

[3] Victorian District Censor Says Internal Mail Not Subject to Much Censorship (1944, August 6). Army News (Darwin, NT : 1941 - 1946), p. 1. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article47698688

[4] Ray, G. (2021). An uncensored letter from wartime New Guinea. [online] Photo Time Tunnel. Available at: https://www.phototimetunnel.com/an-uncensored-lett... [Accessed 28 May 2024].

[5] auspost.com.au. (n.d.). Delivery for Defence personnel. [online] Available at: https://auspost.com.au/sending/guidelines/mail-for... [Accessed 30 May 2024].

[6] Department of Veterans' Affairs (2022). Australian media and the Vietnam War: Great Debates. [online] Anzac Portal. Available at: https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/australian-media-and-vietnam-war-great-debates.