During the war, millions of letters were sent back and forth each week.
And 375,000 letters (4 tonnes) were censored each day.
It was important for the war effort that soldiers could write letters, and that they would be delivered. This not only provided comfort for the soldiers, but their positive letters would also comfort those back home, helping the war propaganda.
But in order for this to work, all letters had to be checked by the censors. Some soldiers would try to send their letters through the French civilian post, though this was a punishable offence. Once letters were posted through legitimate means, the chief censor would each month provide his seniors with detailed reports and translated extracts of letters. In the case of the Muslim soldiers, this report would be compiled at the front in France and sent to England. Interestingly, the letters were categorised, not by regiment, but by faith and ethnicity: for instance, Punjabi Musalman or Sikh. This allowed the censor to detect any consistent issues in the letters that would help create an understanding of how the soldiers of each ethnicity were feeling about the war effort.
Aside from censorship itself, self-censorship was an important reality of war writing. Some soldiers did not want to write the full details to their recipients, either to stop their families from worrying, or in fear of being caught.
But to get their messages through, some soldiers used code language, such as ‘wedding’ for battle or ‘fruit’ for white women. Indeed, some letters document interesting attempts at evading censorship. A common code was ‘black pepper’ to refer to Indians, and ‘red pepper’ for Englishmen. One letter states: ‘The black pepper is very pungent, and the red pepper is not so strong’.
Another example of such an attempt was a letter from Ghulam Habib and Nur Rahman, in which they write that they are upset about the deaths of their ‘camels’ back home. The censor blocks this letter, describing it as a clear ‘parable’ for the deaths in their regiment.
One Pathan soldier, named Shahab Khan, of the Meerut Division Signalling Coy, was serving in France when he wrote a long letter to his brother Abdulla Khan of the 112th Infantry. The letter was full of names – first he describes a village quarrel, and then the litigation that follows it. But it aroused the censor’s suspicion because Khan kept mentioning that he ‘cannot write about the war’, and was blocked with the comment: ‘This letter is really a clever piece of work’. The censor reveals that the code ‘lies in the first letters of the names given’, so ‘Jullal Khan’ meant ‘Germany’, ‘Ahmad Din’ was ‘Austria’, ‘Rahmat Khan’ was ‘Russia’, ‘Baraket Ali’ was ‘Belgium’, ‘Sarwar Khan’ was ‘Serbia’, and so on. The censor concludes: ‘If the story be re-read in the light of this interpretation it will be seen to be a very fair account of the war up to date’.
The censors would pick up most of the soldiers’ codes quite easily, and it would give them a good idea of the kinds of concerns that the soldiers had.
Occasionally, though, soldiers would address censors subtly in their letters, using statements such as: ‘This is a matter of religion’, in the hope that censors would respect such a letter. Sometimes, the censor was addressed even more clearly: ‘I adure you, Censor, by the pure God, not to detain my letter!’, adding, ‘I write this paper with drops of my blood, and so send it to my brother’.
From Department Stores to the Tube
Not all letters were about the atrocities of war. Some letters show how Indian soldiers spotted little things in England that they could compare with home:
- Shops: ‘Every shop in this country is so arranged that one is delighted to look at them … Every shopkeeper tries especially to keep his shop spick and span and everything is in perfect order. Whether you buy much or little it is properly wrapped up, and if you tell the shopman to send it to your house you have only to give him your address and he delivers it’ (S.A.S Abdul Said)
- Butchers: ‘The butcher’s shops in Hindustan are very dirty, but here they are so clean and tidy that there is absolutely no smell’ (S.A.S Abdul Said).
- Police: ‘The police indeed deserve praise. If one policeman raises his hand every single person in that direction rich and poor alike, stands still where he is as long as his hand is raised. There is no need to talk’ (A. Ali, Brighton, on his trip to London in October 1915).
- Department stores: ‘We visited a shop where 2000 men and women were working and everything can be bought. There is no need of asking as the price is written on everything’. (A. Ali, Brighton, on his trip to London in October 1915).
- The tube: ‘Then we went in the train that goes under the earth, it was for us a strange and wonderful experience – they call it the underground train’. (A. Ali, Brighton, on his trip to London in October 1915)