In How to be Topp (1954), Nigel Molesworth unveils ‘the Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank-you Letter’. The sender is instructed to strike out the words which don’t apply, before thanking the present-buyer for the
Train. Tractor. germ gun. kite.
delicious present. sweets.
Space pistol. Toy socks.
The letter ends with a blank space to be filled in with a date to remind the recipient when the next present is due. Nigel’s creator, Geoffrey Willans, was parodying a document which still lingered in the British national consciousness: the Field Service Post Card, or Army Form A. 2042, produced during the First World War.
A. 2042 was designed to be sent to family or friends at home by those on active service. It began by warning that ‘nothing is to be written on this side’ other than the sender’s signature and the date, and ‘if anything else is added the post card will be destroyed.’ It then offered a series of phrases, each of which could be deleted, to create a rudimentary narrative. The opening words, ‘I am quite well,’ could be crossed out or supplemented with more troubling news: ‘I have been admitted into hospital.’ That phrase could then be modified to give a little more information: ‘sick’ or ‘wounded’, then ‘and am going on well’ or ‘and hope to be discharged soon’. The phrase ‘I am being sent down to the base’ began and ended a new topic. The next line read: ‘I have received your letter/telegram/parcel’, followed by a space to insert the date. Next came the reassuring ‘Letter follows at first opportunity.’ The card ended with a more plaintive message: ‘I have received no letter from you lately/for a long time.’
In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell argued that A. 2042 ‘uniquely characterises the modern world’. It is ‘the progenitor of all modern forms on which you fill in things or cross things out or check off things’. In fact, the earliest blank form predates A. 2042 by several hundred years. Printed papal indulgence letters, offering partial remission from the penalties of sin in this world or the next, first appeared in the mid-15th century. They contained blank spaces, known as ‘windows’, which allowed the handwritten name of the purchaser to be inserted together with an authorising signature. Early printers, including Gutenberg and Caxton, produced thousands of copies of these documents of absolution.
A. 2402 constructed the sender not as a writer but as a crosser-out of words. It was very different from the German Feldpostkarte or the French carte postale, both of which gave space for the soldier to write. Fussell thought A. 2042 expressed ‘implicit optimism’: it allowed no provision for a message such as ‘I have lost my left leg,’ or ‘I have been admitted to hospital and do not expect to recover.’ This sense of optimism was based on what Fussell termed the ‘egregious quite’ of its opening phrase: ‘I am quite well.’ But Fussell, being American, seems to have misunderstood the British use of quite, taking the phrase to mean ‘I’m doing excellently’ – rather than the more fatalistic ‘I’m doing as well as might be expected under the circumstances.’
The first printing of A. 2042, in 1914, ran to a million copies. It appeared not just in English, but in Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi. Later, it was adopted for the use of American soldiers. As is almost always the case with blank forms, we don’t know who its author or authors were. But its language was carefully crafted. A. 2042 was trying to ventriloquise all ranks of the British army, as well as soldiers from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The tone is relatively classless, though the rather archaic-sounding ‘am going on well’ hints at the colloquial.
It was often sent by soldiers after a large-scale operation, when the sender, deleting everything but ‘I am quite well,’ anticipated the worries of those at home following events in the newspapers. Sometimes troops assigned to a particularly dangerous task signed and dated a copy of the card, but left every line undeleted for it to be completed and sent off on their behalf later. If they were killed, the card was never sent. A. 2042, of course, made the job of censoring correspondence easier. A swift glance was all that was needed to reveal an illicit inscription. Some senders invented codes to circumvent scrutiny. Wilfred Owen made an arrangement with his mother that, if the phrase ‘I am being sent down to the base’ was crossed out with a double line, it meant he was being sent back to the front. How many of the surviving copies of A. 2042 contain such hidden messages that are now lost to us? What the form did not say is implied in every line: it amounts to a message that reads, simply, ‘I am not dead.’
Wars create paperwork on a gigantic scale. In 1914 the British Expeditionary Force in France set up the Base Stationery Depot, staffed by nine enlisted men led by a junior officer and tasked with distributing logistical paperwork. But as the Western Front fell into stalemate, the volume of printed material needed by the army grew hugely, leading to the establishment of the Army Printing and Stationery Service, or APSS. By the end of the war the APSS was the size of a battalion, mustering nearly a thousand personnel and commanded by a lieutenant colonel. Its printed output was prodigious. Using modern printing presses at Abbeville, Boulogne and Le Havre, manuals such as Defensive Measures against Gas Attack (1915) or Notes from the Front (Part 4): Field Almanack (1918) were produced in runs of 100,000 copies or more. The publications were multilingual, with documents issued in French, Flemish, various Indian languages and Chinese.
In terms of speed and efficiency, the APSS’s printers rivalled the operators of the rotary presses used for producing Northcliffe’s Daily Mail or Beaverbrook’s Daily Express. In April 1915, SS 406: Precautions Necessary When Firing Rifle Grenades was published at Boulogne in an edition of 15,000 copies. The text was delivered late in the afternoon and the entire run was printed, gathered and bound ready for dispatch in a single night. The service produced small batches of secret directives and orders in numbered copies; training manuals in hundreds of editions issued in thousands of copies; daily standing orders and instructions; multiple copies of detailed trench maps which were strictly prohibited from being taken into the front line; and notes on planned tactical manoeuvres or new weapons. The APSS also produced books of regulations, pay books, memo pads, certificates, receipts, chits, menus, mess cards, Christmas cards and even formal regimental dinner invitations.
Although a good deal of this ‘job printing’ (including the production of A. 2042) was undertaken by commercial printers in England, the APSS’s daily task was to produce an unceasing tide of blank forms. To prosecute war on an industrial scale, the British army needed to collect enormous quantities of data, gathered by using forms. The section listing army forms in the Classified List and Alphabetical Index of Army Forms and Books (1917) ran to well over a hundred dense pages. These forms were derisively called ‘bumf’ – toilet paper – by the troops. But they had to be filled in. Every day, a front-line unit had to submit multiple reports to its brigade headquarters. At dawn there was a situation and wind report (wind direction was important if gas was being deployed), followed by a strength and casualty return, and an artillery intelligence report. These had to be delivered by 11 a.m. In the afternoon, a further situation and wind report was required, as well as an intelligence report. The day’s paperwork ended in the late evening when a request for the next day’s supply of materials for trench maintenance and construction was submitted. Each of these reports or requests had to be written or typed on the correct blank form.
In Good-Bye to All That (1929), Robert Graves complained about the ‘army forms marked “Urgent”’ which ‘constantly arrived from headquarters’ and were ‘all contradictory’. These forms were prefixed ‘AF’ and indexed with a number and a ‘class’ letter, which in 1917 ran from A to W. The class letter indicated the general subject or the branch that had issued the form. Class A forms were ‘General Forms’, such as ‘A. 6 Wounded in Action – Nominal List of’, or ‘A. 2000 Horse Return’. Class B, ‘Regiments and Corps’ forms, ran through topics such as ‘B. 4 Leave of Absence Officers’ or ‘B. 258 Weekly Church Parade States’, and ended with ‘B. 5103 Medal Entitlement’. Underlining what Graves saw as the bureaucratic absurdity of the war, there was even a form reminding you to fill in a form: ‘C. 347-1 Reminder, the reply to _______ not having been received’. Commanding officers began to wilt under the barrage: ‘“Curse all paper” is the fervent cry of every CO out here,’ a battalion commander wrote to his wife in December 1916, and a month later, ‘the Bumf blizzard has commenced to blow in earnest. I have about 5 hours work in front of me answering papers.’
One series of forms, B. 104, was sent to the next of kin of soldiers who had been reported sick, wounded, missing or killed. The families of officers killed in action were notified by telegram; but for the families of enlisted men death arrived more slowly, via a copy of B. 104-82, entitled ‘Notification of Death’ and sent in the post. A family might receive a succession of B. 104 forms, beginning, perhaps, with ‘B. 104-81A Notification of Wound’, or ‘B. 104-80 Notification of Serious Illness’. ‘B. 104-80A Notification Admitted to Hospital’ or ‘B. 104-80B Notification of Transfer of Hospital’ were all too often followed by B. 104-82. Those who received ‘B. 104-82A Notification Soldier Posted Missing Now Considered Dead’, had some prospect of the resurrection of the missing soldier as a prisoner of war. But if his body was later located and recovered, a copy of ‘B. 104-82B Death Notification’ would arrive, followed by ‘B. 104-121 Notification of Burial Location’, and then ‘B. 104-126 Forwarding Articles of Private Property of Deceased Soldier’. An alternative story might begin with ‘B. 104-83 Notification Soldier Posted as Missing’, with the inquiries of the family being met with ‘B. 104-83B Notification Unable to provide any further detail on soldier’, followed by the finality of ‘B. 104-84 Notification No further information received regarding Soldier’.
B. 104-82 was designed to be sent with an ‘enclosed message of sympathy from their Gracious Majesties the King and Queen’. The message’s wording was chosen by Rudyard Kipling and the secretary of state for war, Lord Derby. Kipling wanted to use a form letter with blank spaces, allowing for what he termed ‘M. S. interpolation’, but the proposal was vetoed by Derby on practical grounds. Thwarted, Kipling agonised over the precise shades of meaning the message should convey, writing to Derby on 8 December 1917 that the phrase ‘the country’s service’ was ‘too impersonal for people new to this sense of loss’, whereas using the words ‘his country’ or ‘our country’ ‘brings everyone into the family as it were’ – Kipling’s only son, John, had been posted missing in September 1915.
B. 104 forms were sent from army records offices. By 1916, twelve offices had been established in Britain and Ireland, each commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel who, in a large office such as that at York, oversaw the work of around a thousand personnel. Their main duty was to process B. 104 forms. Earlier versions of B. 104-82 began with the printed salutation ‘Dear Sir’, which often had to be crossed out, and ‘Madam’ inserted by hand. Later versions of the form left this space blank. By 1917, a completed B. 104-82 began with the handwritten words ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ followed by the printed opening: ‘It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has been received from the War Office …’ The key information was then inserted by anonymous orderlies: a reference number and the branch of the record office handling the information; the form’s date of issue; the soldier’s service number, name, rank and regiment; and the location where he had been killed, which was kept deliberately vague, using phrases such as ‘with the B.E.F. in France’, or ‘in the field, France’, or even ‘at place not stated’.
There followed a further blank space for the words ‘killed in action’, which were sometimes handwritten, but often inserted with a rubber stamp. Using a stamp saved not only time but also the mental wellbeing of orderlies who would otherwise have to write out the phrase again and again. The forms were signed by the ‘Officer in charge of Records’. This signature was never facsimiled or rubber-stamped, even though after a period of heavy fighting a records office might have to process several hundred forms very quickly. But what B. 104-82 almost never revealed was what the family most wanted to know: how had their relative died? Further information might arrive later, in the unofficial letters of condolence sent by commanding officers or comrades. But these letters rarely revealed the true circumstances of death. Vera Brittain, whose brother, Edward, was killed in 1918, and who had worked as a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in France, knew exactly how soldiers died. In Testament of Youth (1933) she wrote sardonically of these consolatory letters: ‘The number of officers who were instantaneously and painlessly shot through the head or the heart passed far beyond the bounds of probability.’
After the war, forms such as ‘C. 330 Certificate of Conduct and Ability’ were retained by survivors as proof of war service to be shown to an employer. Other forms were kept for different reasons. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Siegfried Sassoon’s alter ego, George Sherston, recalls being transported on a hospital barge down the Seine: ‘A label was attached to me; I have kept that label, and it is in my left hand as I write these words. It is marked Army Form W. 3083.’ Sassoon seems to have kept ‘AF W. 3083 Hospital Identity Tag’ as a memento.
There’s no official history of the APSS. Much of what I’ve been able to learn about it, I’ve discovered through the work of a handful of largely anonymous amateur historians on the internet – enthusiasts, as the members of greatwarforum.org are sometimes described. Most of the countless millions of sheets of printed paper once issued as army forms have disappeared. A small handful of B. 104 forms can be found in the collections of the Imperial War Museums and the UK National Archives. Invariably, these forms were discovered in bundles of ‘private papers’. My great-uncle was killed in June 1917, during the Second Battle of Arras, aged 23. In the early 1970s, his sister showed me the forms that had arrived at her parents’ home afterwards. An item described in one form lodged itself in my teenage memory. The form was a completed ‘B. 104-126 Forwarding Articles of Private Property of Deceased Soldier’ and the item, sent back to England, was a ‘Wristwatch, strap broken’. Such attention to detail. But forms are like that. When you have to fill one in, it’s always best to be precise.
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