Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A new project: censored letters of the First World War

Chief Censor Colonel Gibbon. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-013982-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22787758

From the outbreak of the First World War until November 1920, the private letters of mothers, lovers, soldiers and workmates were subject to a strict censorship. A team of diligent readers in post offices across the country poured over pounds and pounds of mail. Some were stamped and sent on. Others made their way into the hands of Police Commissioners. In an era when post was paramount, the wartime censorship of correspondence heralded the largest state invasion of private life in New Zealand’s history.

Although hundreds of books exist on New Zealand's war effort, and soldier's diaries and letters, “neither the restrictions imposed nor their effects upon the political life of the community has previously been subjected to careful scrutiny,” wrote John Anderson back in 1952. “No adequate attempt has ever been made to trace the development of wartime censorship as a weapon in the armoury of authority.” Despite censorship being mentioned in numerous books and theses since, Anderson’s unpublished work remains the primary study of domestic censorship during the First World War. Indeed, The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History dedicated a mere paragraph to the topic.

This is the task I have set myself, and the topic of my forthcoming book. Using the actual censored letters, I hope to share a fascinating insight into postal censorship, state attitudes toward dissent, and the New Zealand home front during the First World War.

The letters also allow us to hear voices often silenced by traditional histories. Most ordinary working-class women and men did not keep diaries, publish their thoughts, or fill the shelves of manuscript libraries with their personal archives. Writing about the remarkable exception of Wairarapa labourer James Cox, Miles Fairburn notes how illiteracy, work-related fatigue, the stress of economic insecurity, and lack of spare time deprived many workers of the opportunity to keep diaries. Letter writing was far more common, yet even these snippets of working-class life are wholly dependent on whether they were kept, or in the case of this book, detained.

It is early days however! I have only just begun my research and writing, but it is a topic I've covered in my previous work. Watch this space for updates and snippets.

no adequate attempt has” Anderson, ‘Military Censorship in World War 1: Its Use and Abuse in New Zealand’, Thesis, p. 5.
Miles Fairburn notes how” Miles Fairburn, Nearly Out of Heart and Hope: The Puzzle of a Colonial Labourer’s Diary, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, p. 6.


Weldagirl said...

Hi there, This looks like an interesting book. I look forward to reading it. Rather interesting that censorship and spying should be as topical now as it was then. I am currently sculpting a full sized warhorse in steel for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of WWI. I have read a few books for research purposes and the censorship was mentioned. Interesting stuff. Thanks, Sharon.

Jared Davidson said...

Thanks Sharon, and good luck with your creative output. You are very correct to make the connection to today: the war brought about New Zealand's first official secret service, the Special Branch, in 1920. This became the model for future agencies, including the NZSIS...