Censorship of mail sent by Alsatian-Lorraine soldiers in 1917

Since the start of the 1st World War, and German mobilisation in August 1914, the mail of soldiers from the imperial territory of Alsace-Lorraine (Reichsland Elsass-Lothringen) has been subject to more restrictive rules. In March 1917, these rules were tightened even further.

The situation before March 1917.

At the end of 1916 and the beginning of 1917, the propaganda put in place by France and England succeeded in stirring up people's minds to a greater extent than before in Alsace-Lorraine, but also at the front and among the Alsatian-Lorraine soldiers fighting in the German troops. This excitation was noted by the German intelligence services and by postal control.

Indeed, the mail of soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine was subject to more thorough postal control than that of soldiers of German origin, even if this control remained random.

Letter from an Alsatian soldier in the 101st Infantry Division (Serbia-Greece border) delivered to Feldpoststation 241, 14th February 1916. Destined for the Rombas ironworks (Rhombacher Hüttenwerke), it was opened and controlled by the Metz postal control centre.

Marked "Metz P(ost). K(ontrolle). Geprüft U(nd) zu befördern" (Metz postal control, checked and to be forwarded).

Closing label "Militärischerseits unter Kriegsrecht geöffnet in Metz" (Opened in Metz for military reasons and according to the law of war).

In the Army Detachment B (ex-Armee-Abteilung Gaede) occupying Upper Alsace, soldiers and non-commissioned officers could only write to their families twice a week (cards and open letters). These soldiers could not use the civilian post office, but had to give their mail to their unit, which collected it and sent it to an intelligence officer who was responsible for reading it. The mail was then handed over to the military post office [1].

In other units with soldiers of Alsatian-Lorraine origin, the unit leader could read his soldiers' mail before handing it over to the Feldpost. This practice was banned by the Ministry of War on 21 December 1916.

The German High Command noted that in Upper Alsace (particularly in the zone of operations), military secrecy could be violated through soldiers' mail and that several cases of desertion had been provoked by the mail that soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine received from their families.

He concluded that all of these soldiers' mail needed to be more strictly controlled. However, he also noted that the existing postal control centres (Postüberwachungsstellen) were unable to cope with this additional workload due to a lack of staff, and that it was impossible to create new centres for the same reason.

The conclusion of this exchange was that postal control should be carried out within the units.

The regulation of 20 March 1917.

On 20 March 1917 [2], the Ministry of War published regulation 1426/17, which tightened controls on the mail of soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine. The regulation was justified by the "systematic and growing excitation of the population of Alsace-Lorraine" by the Entente countries. It was considered necessary to "protect Alsatians and Lorraine at the front from the harmful influence of mail from their homeland".

In the introduction to this regulation, we learn that around 5% of mail from Alsace and Lorraine bound for soldiers was checked, and that around 90% of this sample was considered by the authorities to contain objectionable material. The result, in the eyes of the authorities, was that a large proportion of mail from Alsace-Lorraine reached the troops unchecked while containing objectionable material.

The War Office then recognised that it was not possible to ask the existing postal control centres to increase their workload, and that part of the control would therefore have to be decentralised. The postal control centres were nevertheless to retain responsibility for maintaining lists of suspected Alsatian-Lorraine soldiers and collecting evidence against them.

However, this regulation was divided into 2 parts:

- Mail from Alsace-Lorraine to the military.

In summary:

  • All mail from Alsace-Lorraine bound for the military was to be handed over open and was to be examined.

  • Existing postal control centres were to do everything in their power to increase the percentage of letters they had to check themselves.

  • All mail not checked by the postal control centres was to bear a special "Pr." stamp in red to identify it as coming from imperial territory and was to be handed over to the military post office for forwarding.

  • The Army High Command ensured that, depending on the number of Alsatian-Lorrains in their zone and insofar as the postal control centres were not sufficient, "auxiliary postal control centres" (Postüberwachungshilfsstellen or P.Ü. H. St.) were set up by the Army Corps or Divisions. Under no circumstances could control be handed to the soldiers' direct superiors.

  • If possible, these auxiliary postal control centres should be staffed by soldiers or officers convalescing or in garrison. No posts were to be created for this purpose.

The red "Pr." stamp referred to in this paragraph is therefore not a mark of censorship, but rather an indication of non-censorship. When it is applied by a postal control centre in Alsace-Lorraine, it indicated that the mail could not be controlled on departure, but that it must be controlled on arrival by an auxiliary postal control centre or Army postal control centre.

The abbreviation "Pr." stands for "Prüfungsstelle", or mail examination centre.

6 December 1917, card posted in STRASBOURG. The STRASBOURG Postüberwahungsstelle stamped "Pr/SB", but did not check the card. The control took place within the 1st Bavarian Reserve Infantry Division, to which the 3rd Bavarian Reserve Regiment belonged.

To make it easier to identify where the "Pr." mark had been applied, the postal control centres in Alsace and Lorraine added their initials:

Colmar: Pr/C

Haguenau: Pr/H

Metz: PR (no other indication)

Mulhouse: Pr/M

Sarrebourg: Pr/Srbg.

Sarreguemines: Pr/Srgd.

Strasbourg: Pr/SB

St Louis: Pr/L

Thionville: PR (no other indication)

Wissembourg: Pr/W

With regard to the first part of the regulation, there are usually 3 possible scenarios:

  • Mail inspected on departure by one of the 10 postal control centres in Alsace-Lorraine, bearing one of their censor marks;

  • Mail not checked at the departure point bearing the "Pr" mark as well as a control mark from a postal control centre on arrival (in Germany or on the Front);

  • Mail not checked bearing the "Pr" stamp and no apparent examination mark on arrival.

- Mail sent by soldiers from Alsace and Lorraine.

  • All mail posted by soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine in the Army or General Government zone had to be sent by the units concerned to the auxiliary postal control centres of the Divisions or Army Corps or to an Army postal control centre controlled by them. This meant that soldiers had to deliver their mail to their unit rather than directly to the Feldpost. All breaches of this rule were to be punished.

  • Units not attached to a military post office had to send the mail to be controlled directly to the STRASBOURG postal control centre. It was therefore recommended that these auxiliary postal control centres be placed in suitable locations to avoid delays or an additional burden on the Feldpost as far as possible.

Regarding the 2nd part of the regulation, there are 2 scenarios:

  • Mail controlled on departure by an auxiliary postal control centre set up in a Division or Army Corps (Postüberwachungshilfsstellen), or an Army postal control centre (Postüberwachungsstellen) in the rear area, in Alsace Lorraine, or in Germany. Some Armies with small contingents of Alsace-Lorraine nationals decided to have their mail checked by their own postal control centre located in the stage area. The auxiliary postal control centres were therefore not set up there.

  • Mail checked on arrival by an Alsace-Lorraine postal control centre.

22nd May 1917. Card from a sailor from Lorraine stationed in the port of Wilhelmshaven. Checked on departure by the Wilhelmshaven postal control centre: marked "militärisch geprüft" (militarily checked). The sender saw fit to add "Elsass-Lothringen" under "Feldpost".

4 August 1917, Card from an Alsatian soldier in treatment at military hospital no. 124 in LIBAU (LIEPAJA, Liltuania), processed by Feldpoststation 161.

The card was examined by the LIBAU auxiliary postal control centre, stamped "Postüberwachungshilfsstelle A/Deutsche Feldpost 161".

24 August 1917, postcard for a territorial soldier stationed at the Kommandantur 221 served by military post office no. 195 (Deutsche Feldpost 195).

This post office was in Ukraine. The COLMAR postal control centre did not check the card, but stamped it "Pr./c.". Control on arrival, by the auxiliary postal control centre n° 195: stamps "Überwachungshilfsstelle Nr 195" + "GEPRÜFT".

This regulation ended with a request to Commanders to inform their soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine about the above-mentioned measures and to make it clear to them "in an appropriate form, that under recent conditions, difficulties cannot be avoided by well-meaning Alsatians-Lorraine, and that these difficulties must be endured with respect for general patriotic interests”.

It was also asked to oppose any complaints from former Germans living in Reich territory (in particular officers' wives and civil servants) and to make it clear to them that the general situation did not allow for any exceptions.

The outcome of this regulation.

Aware that this regulation implied a great deal of effort, the troops were given time to set up postal control. The auxiliary postal control centres in the divisions and army corps were to have been set up by the end of June 1917. On 17 May 1917, the Generalquartiermeister requested that these centres be identified with the Feldpost number of their Division or Army Corps.

Unsurprisingly, some postal control centres in Alsace-Lorraine pointed to their lack of resources to cope with this extra effort. In a report from June 1917 [3], the postal control centre at Thionville (Diedenhofen), for example, pointed out that it only employed 36 examiners (out of the 52 planned) and that it could not examine any more mail. It will only be able to check a maximum of 5% of incoming mail, but more regularly only 1%.

As planned, the auxiliary postal control centres and the Army postal control centres took over. Overall, the control rate was high. We do not have statistics for all the postal control centres, but the example of the 75th Reserve Division on the Eastern Front and its Postüberwachungshilfsstelle no. 959 is quite telling [4].

Despite this, only a very small proportion of mail slipped through the cracks, which may explain why some letters or cards to the Front bear only the "Pr" mark affixed at a postal control centre in Alsace-Lorraine.

27th July 1917. Card sent by a soldier of a machine-gun unit of the 60th Reserve Regiment of the 221st Infantry Division resting in West Flanders.

Intended for an inhabitant of STRASBOURG, the card was initially checked by the Division's auxiliary postal control centre and stamped "Geprüft! P.Ü. Hst".

Very soon after this regulation was introduced, soldiers of German origin whose families lived in Alsace-Lorraine also complained that they were affected by paragraph 2 of the regulation. The Ministry of War therefore felt compelled on 15 May 1917 to publish a note explaining what it meant by "Alsatian-Lorraine" or “Imperial Territory” (Reichsland) soldiers. [5]

"In order to eliminate any difference of interpretation, it is determined that the term is to be understood as referring to soldiers whose parents are Alsatian-Lorraine, i.e. parents of Alsatian-Lorraine nationality. Consequently, it does not include former German soldiers who were in Alsace-Lorraine at the start of the war and who were conscripted there, or those who simply acquired Alsatian nationality because their former German parents were born in Alsace-Lorraine (for example, as officers or civil servants). The aim of this provision is to supervise the mail of soldiers who, because of their origin, might have a dubious mentality".

This note reiterated that mail from Alsace-Lorraine to the Front, whether it came from the families of former Germans or Alsatians-Lorraine, had to be checked.

Finally, as well as being subject to postal controls, soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine could also have their mail delayed. This was because some units preferred to wait until they had a large quantity of mail to send to the auxiliary or army postal control centres, rather than sending small quantities on a piecemeal basis.

Conclusions.
This type of control focused solely on a population and soldiers, combined with other measures, probably had the opposite effect to that intended.

In August 1917 [6], the High Command of Army Detachment Woyrsch alerted the Commander-in-Chief of the Eastern Front to the effects of the measures taken against soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine. This army detachment was very concerned by the matter, as since May 1917 it had been asked to integrate Alsatian-Lorraine soldiers considered dubious from Army Detachment B (Upper Alsace) in exchange for German or Polish soldiers of the same age group whom it was to send back to the Western Front.
In this report, he pointed out that "Experience has shown that these measures have had a detrimental effect on the state of mind of troops of Alsatian-Lorraine origin. In conjunction with other provisions of this type, the men have the impression of being treated as second-rate soldiers”.

It goes on to say that the number of deserters has increased since the introduction of stricter postal controls. From January to March, there was around 1 deserter from Alsace-Lorraine per month, whereas in April (when the regulations were introduced), there were 6, then 3 in May, 4 in June and 11 in July. The report ends with: "The higher authorities are therefore asked to ensure that the exceptions concerning the control and delivery of letters applicable to Alsatian-Lorraine are lifted as soon as possible".
Another report from the Imperial Directorate of the STRASBOURG Post Office stated that examinations carried out on 80% of the mail from Alsace-Lorraine passing through the auxiliary postal control centres showed that “letters sent from Alsace-Lorraine, while not directly hostile to Germany, are not of a friendly nature either. Stricter control of the exchange of letters from Alsace-Lorraine is therefore necessary, even at the risk of the small percentage of well-meaning people suffering as a result". If we look at the statistics of the 75th Reserve Division, we can see that on average between June and October 1917, only 0.2% of letters were considered to be inappropriate, which is very few. This percentage, even if it is not representative of all the Divisions, is therefore very different from the findings of the Ministry of War or the STRASBOURG postal control centre.

Inappropriate mail from Alsace-Lorraine, which was not checked on departure, was seized and returned by the postal control centres (auxiliary or Army) to the STRASBOURG postal control centre, which then forwarded it to the postal control centre of origin. The latter was identified by the initials in the "Pr" stamp. Inadmissible mail from the front was seized by the postal control centres (auxiliary or army). For minor cases, a request for information was made to the company commander of the soldier concerned.
In the most serious cases, the mail was passed on to the intelligence services, who would launch an investigation if necessary.

The postal objects seized do indeed show many small cases of transgression of military regulations, such as the soldier's precise indication of his unit's location. They also show complaints about the poor quality or lack of food or the lack or absence of leave to see relatives in Alsace-Lorraine. These complaints and transgressions can also be found in the correspondence of soldiers of German origin.

Finally, some correspondence shows a lack of consideration on the part of soldiers or officers of German origin felt by soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine.

All these examinations and their possible consequences required a great deal of administrative follow-up, although the German authorities lacked the human resources.

However, on 20 October 1917 [6], the Ministry of War decided to partially repeal the regulation of 20 March 1917:

"The examination of letters sent by soldiers of Alsatian and Lorraine origin, which has now been going on for 6 months, has given rise to few objections. For this reason, the measures relating to their examination - section II - contained in the order of 20th March 1917 n° 1426/17 g. A1 - are repealed. The inspection of mail from Alsace-Lorraine carried out by postal control centres or auxiliary postal control centres in accordance with section I of the order of 20.3.1917 remains in force”.

As postal control over mail from Alsace-Lorraine continued, the "Pr." stamps remained in use until the end of the war.

The auxiliary postal control centres saw their numbers reduced, but did not disappear, as they continued to control mail from Alsace-Lorraine that had not been initially controlled, as well as a certain amount of mail from the front, particularly for soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine considered dubious.

In conclusion, this regulation of March 1917 led to a limited number of special stamps being put into service in the 10 postal control centres in Alsace-Lorraine. It also led to the creation of auxiliary postal control centres in Army Divisions or Corps where there were Alsatians and Lorraine. These centres used a larger number of control marks.

Below you will find a table showing the "Pr." postmarks used in the 10 postal control centres of Alsace-Lorraine. This is a snapshot at a given moment of what was seen. There is no doubt that improvements in date are possible.

02/02/1918-04/11/1918

22x16 mm. Red.

COLMAR

18/04/1917-30/09/1918

24x19 mm. Red.

21/09/1917-25/09/1918

22x18 mm. Red.

01/09/1918- 09/09/1918

22x18 mm. Red.

The 1st type is the largest. The c is followed by a dot.

The 2nd type has a c aligned with the P. This c is 3 mm high.

The 3rd type has a c aligned with the r. This c is 4 mm high.

The 4th type also has a c aligned with the r. This narrow c is 5 mm high.

THIONVILLE DIEDENHOFEN

05/04/1917- 10/09/1917

Ø 25 mm. Red.

14/02/1918

Ø 25 mm. Black.

HAGUENAU HAGENAU

16/04/1917-18/04/1917

24x18 mm. Red.

21/06/1917-08/09/1918

23x22 mm. Red.