History Wars World War I

This chain letter will protect your doughboy…somehow

It may seem insane to a generation that grew up with chain emails being a joke, but even powerful folks used to get drawn into chain letters.
Logan Nye Avatar
doughboy chain letter
The mail arrives during the Battle of the Somme, France, World War I, 1916. Artist Unknown. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Are you superstitious? Do you have a lucky pair of socks? A pre-game ritual? Do you hand-copy and send dozens of copies of a chain letter to friends and acquaintances to protect your World War I doughboy? Because your grandparents and great-grandparents might have.

The appeal of chain letters

It may seem insane to a generation that grew up with chain emails being a running joke, but even powerful folks used to get drawn into chain letters. Once a chain gets going, then taking part in it is good luck and “breaking” it is bad luck.

Chain letters could go “viral.” If each recipient copied and sent the letter four times, the message quickly spread. We’ve previously talked about the fundraiser for U.S. soldiers in Cuba to get ice that resulted in so many donations that the family had to take out ads asking recipients to break the chain.

Sometimes, these chain letters had real and valuable impact, like the ice fundraiser. In another case, Americans resisting U.S. involvement in World War I gave instructions for conscientious objection to escape the draft.

But one of the most common types of wartime chain letters was luck or religious chain letters that promised protection.

Luck and holy chain letters

Unsurprisingly, troops and their families sought ways to save themselves and their loved ones from the dangers of combat. The Himmelsbrief, the “Letter from Heaven,” spread across Europe at different periods and enjoyed some popularity in the U.S. in the early 20th century. It often purported to be written by Jesus Christ. People carried it because it claimed that it protected from all manner of dangers.

And whosoever shall have a copy of this letter written with my own hand and keep it within his [home or person], nothing shall hurt them…

A North Carolina Himmelsbrief

Obviously useful in the trenches.

Many letters focused on luck rather than a religious appeal, though. The “Flanders” letter claimed it was written by an American officer serving in Flanders.

This letter was sent to me by a friend and I am sending it to you, so as not to break the chain. Copy this off and send it to four persons, within 24 hours, in whom you wish good luck. This chain was started by an American officer in Flanders and should go round the world three times. Do not lose it as you will have BAD LUCK. It is positively remarkable how this prediction has been fulfilled since the chain started. Send this copy away as soon as possible and see what happens on the fourth day.
Pass this on and DO NOT KEEP IT IN THE HOUSE.

“Flanders Chain of Luck” as quoted in Chain Letter Evolution

Some of the appeals worked as part of a scam, demanding that families send payment along with copying the luck letter to a certain number of recipients. It should be obvious that sending a few dollars to a random address won’t save any soldiers overseas, but nervous families were easy marks.

But soldiers have lots of historical superstitions. And there are plenty of modern superstitions to join the ranks every time and old one like chain letters falls off.