Tag Archives: WW1

4 August 1914: Commemorating the First World War

To commemorate today, 100 years since England entered the First World War, Head of Collections Chris Taft reflects on the essential role of the Post Office and its people at home and on the front.

Exactly 100 years ago today the world descended into chaos and changed forever, as England declared war on Germany. In the words of Wilfred Owen, poet and soldier, the ‘Winter of the World’ closed in. Every person in Britain was to be impacted as was every industry. For no industry can this be truer than for the British Post Office, it touched the lives of everyone. For many it was an employer, for even more it was a part of their community and for everyone it was the primary means of communication. By 1914 the Post Office was managing postal communication, telephones and the telegraph. It was also a central point of contact with government departments where people could collect forms, licences and pensions. Any global event was to have an impact on such a key organisation, and certainly the First World War was to.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May (second from left on front row) of the Post Office Rifles with the rest of his company outside some tents. (2013-0021/3)

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May (second from left on front row) of the Post Office Rifles with the rest of his company outside some tents. (2013-0021/3)

As the European or Great War as it was known at the time broke out the Post Office was immediately called up. On the day war broke the Postmaster General was instructed that the Post Office was to take charge of censorship, initially this was just for letters coming from or going to Germany but gradually this role expanded until by later in the War censorship became a major weapon in the fight.

The duties expected of the postal service were many, from censorship already mentioned to managing the separation allowances, relief fund, war bonds and ration books. All this on top of the ordinary duty of delivering mail, as well as the massively expanded task of delivering mail to a World at war.

OB1995.162 30 01

The role the Post Office was to play in the First World War is explored on our online exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War. The story is also told in the Last Post Exhibition which is currently on at the Coalbrookdale Gallery at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum and touring at venues around the country.

The biggest impact however was to be in respect of the people. Over 75,000 men of the Post Office went off to fight. Over 8,000 of these men were to never return. After the war, memorials began to be erected up and down the country to colleagues who lost their lives, today there are over 350 such memorials to postal and telecommunication workers.

Home Depot, Armistice Dat 11 November 1918 (POST 56/6)

Home Depot, Armistice Dat 11 November 1918 (POST 56/6)

As the men left to fight tens of thousands of women took on new role helping to keep the communications lines open both by delivering mail at home and helping to sort the mail for the troops in sorting offices in Britain and in Northern France and Belgium. Their contribution was immense.

As we remember the dawning of the ‘Winter of the World’ we must most of all remember all those people who played their part in the war that was meant to end all wars.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

To commemorate the beginning of the First World War, we have added all new content to our online exhibition, Last Post.

The Role of the Post Office in the First World War

Join us this Thursday from 7pm-8pm to learn more about the vital role of the Post Office during the First World War from delivering mail to setting up quick forms of communication through telgraph lines. In this quick post, Head of Collections, Chris Taft introduces what you can expect. You can book your place online.

Sorting mail in the Home Depot at Regents Park, London (POST 56/6).

Sorting mail in the Home Depot at Regents Park, London (POST 56/6).

At the outbreak of the First World War postal communication was a vital way of troops keeping in touch with loved ones at home. The British Post Office’s role in the war effort was therefore essential. Its role however was far broader than just delivering mail. Over 75,000 men of the Post Office went off to serve in the armed forces throughout the war years and the postal service at home had to carry on as well as expanding to deliver mail to a world at war. The contribution however went far beyond this and with the loss of men to the war effort the Post Office was employing thousands of temporary workers, including women taking on roles previously the reserve of men for the first-time.

Human Ladder For Telephone'. Two men in uniform, one standing on the other's shoulders.

Human Ladder For Telephone’. Two men in uniform, one standing on the other’s shoulders.

The Post Office was also managing the Separations Allowance and Relief Fund and of course managing the parcel traffic. This talk will explore the variety of these roles and the contribution the Post Office made as well as touching on the commemoration of the war that still plays a role in the modern Royal Mail.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

£3 per person. £2.50 for concessions*

* Concessions 60+ (accompanied children under 12 free)

Book online or via phone 020 7239 2570

Limited number of tickets available on the night.

A “Painful Duty”: sneak peak at this week’s talk

This Thursday, 12 June 2014, Kathleen McIlvenna will be giving a talk on the changing attitudes and procedures seen in the Home Front Post Office as its workers adapted to change and continued to do their duty. Tickets are still available. In this post, Kathleen introduces what you can expect from her talk.

Researching the First World War is hard. Like all research it’s a matter of countless catalogue searches, digging in archives and endless reading. But as a social historian it doesn’t take long to realise what a difficult time this must have been to live through.

It could be easy to imagine the Post Office was an idyll of bureaucracy consumed by forms and logistics, and in many ways it was, but dig a little deeper and you uncover a workforce.

Women mending parcels (POST 56/6)

Women mending parcels (POST 56/6)

In my research I have uncovered diaries and oral histories of some of the remarkable employees of the Post Office during the First World War. From Amy Grace Rose, the temporary postwomen in a Cambridgeshire village supporting her daughter and disabled husband, to Edwin Purkiss, postman for London’s South-Western District and avid fundraiser. Using these sources with the records of local offices and reports produced after the War a rich picture of life on the home front is created, a mix of pain and happiness, as well as logistics and experience.

This was a time that saw the decrease in deliveries and collections, notably the end of Sunday deliveries and collections, something that one hundred years later may now return, but also saw the increase in the financial service provided by the Post Office, including separation allowance. The building of new post offices and projects were delayed, but the telephone network was developed as an air raid alarm system. New temporary staff were taken on, discovering a new world, whilst current staff tried to adapt to it. Politics found its way into post office corridors through suffragettes and consciousness objectors. But for the public if often came down to letters, paper that could either be welcome news from a loved one, or the worst news possible, starting ‘It is my painful duty to inform you’.

A 'Women on War Work' Black Cat cigarette card giving information about the jobs being done by women during the war (2010-0535)

A ‘Women on War Work’ Black Cat cigarette card giving information about the jobs being done by women during the war (2010-0535)

In my talk this week I hope to explore what it was like to work for the Post Office during this extraordinary time and discover how this government department tailored its operations and inevitably touched the lives of many.

Kathleen’s talk, ‘A Painful Duty to Inform’, will take place from 7-8pm this Thursday at the Phoenix Centre. Book your tickets today! 

Last Post: Remembering the First World War

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. To mark the year of the centenary, our First World War exhibition, Last Post, is now open at Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museums group.

The exhibition explores the contribution of millions of people to wartime communication and the far reaching role of thePost Office on both the battlefield and the home front.

Field Post Office

Field Post Office

An Oxo tin among other things

Demonstrating the huge variety of items that could be sent through the post in wartime, you can see on display an OXO tin posted home from the fighting front by William Cox, a former Post Office worker. He posted the OXO tin back to his brother and sister, containing a button from the tunic of a fallen soldier and a piece of shrapnel.

Cox's OXO Tin

OXO tin sent home by Cox

Battlefield will and a favourite plant

You can also view the story of Private Leonard Eldridge of the 8th London Regiment (The Post Office Rifles). Soldiers were encouraged to write battlefield wills whilst on the Front. Private Eldridge’s will is on display in the exhibition.

Eldridge writes: ‘everything I possess except the aspadastras plant of mine, I give to you. The plant, I, with my last wish, leave it, and must be given to, Miss Florence Smith… She must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect.’

Post Office Rifles

8th London Regiment – The Post Office Rifles

Wilfred Owen

Also on display in the exhibition are two original poems written by local Shropshire-born First World War officer and poet Wilfred Owen, kindly lent to us for the exhibition by The British Library.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, perhaps Owen’s most iconic poem, is on display. The poem was written in October 1917 and revised a few months later, in early 1918. Owen sent the poem to his mother, Susan Owen, with the message: ‘Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final).’

Field Post Box

Soldiers waiting for post

We also fittingly have on display Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘The Letter’. The poem depicts a soldier writing a letter to his wife back home. Whilst writing the letter, the soldier is fatally hit, and a comrade finishes the letter off for him.

The poem highlights the importance of letter writing to soldiers and also the danger present at all times in the trenches. It also illustrates that the contents of letters home may not have accurately depicted the conditions of everyday life for soldiers.

 

The exhibition is open Monday to Friday, until 27th March 2015 and entrance is free.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition in person, we have launched a simultaneous online exhibition in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute.

Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

From research to panel: how my research made its way to the Last Post

Victoria Davis is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student who is conducting her research with the BPMA’s collections. In her first blog post for us, she talks about translating her research to two new panels for the Last Post exhibition. Last Post opens up this Friday in Ironbridge at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

History PhDs have traditionally been non-collaborative based so the opportunity to work with the archive and gain practical experience within the heritage sector is something I relish. Moreover, given the First World War centenary fast approaching, it seemed fitting to be bringing the Post Office’s role during the war to the public eye.

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam, at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916. © IWM (Q 692)

Lieutenant-General Sir Pratap Singh and the Rajah of Ratlam,
at Sir Douglas Haig’s Chateau in Montreuil, 17th June 1916, as seen in Last Post panel. © IWM (Q 692)

The brief from the HLF was open to interpretation with the theme being stories of empire during the war to be displayed on two new pop-up exhibition panels. In an initial meeting, Sally (Learning Officer), Dominique (Exhibitions Officer) and I quickly came to the conclusion of ‘how long is a piece of string?’ The Post Office is a seemingly ubiquitous but often overlooked institution and during the war this was no different. With limited copy available – each panel containing a maximum of 300 words of text – the content would be something the general public could relate to. Panel one comprised the process of mail reaching the front lines.

Section of panel that Victoria contributed to for the Last Post.

Section of panel that Victoria contributed to for the Last Post.

Panel two considered the problems of shipping mail to the empire including the use of coded memos.

Section of panel on Delivering mail to the Empire.

Section of panel on Delivering mail to the Empire with research by Victoria.

What I love most about research is the jigsaw puzzle element, of just choosing documents to see what they offer and this project was no different. I was given free rein to find the most suitable sources for the two panels and the somewhat tricky task of finding an image that linked war, post and empire, in a timeframe of a mere six working days fitted in around my own research. The BPMA has a wealth of documents and I quickly established using the catalogue how much related to the transportation of mail. Armed with my list of catalogue references, I called up those that appeared to the most relevant. This is akin to a game of Russian roulette – you are never quite sure what will happen. Some were less than informative, the shipping contracts had little reference to the routes and problems faced. Others contained vast amounts of detailed information and statistics relating to mail services between 1914 and 1919. Whilst detailed sources are great, I did not have the space of thousands of words to do so in (unlike a thesis) and managed to contain the research to 5000 words. This may seem small – less than half a thesis chapter – but producing concise text to be used as copy with limited editing was a hard task.  Newspapers and periodicals were delivered only a mere 24 hours after publication at the height of the war!

My favourite two documents were POST 33/1211A and POST 56/5. The former contains statistic lists showing the amount of mail posted to the front lines between 1914 and 1919. Shamefully, I had never considered the volume of mail that the Army Postal Service handled. Moreover, I never thought stats would excite me but I spent one evening making a spreadsheet to show the weekly, monthly and yearly averages.

Map of Postal services in the Calais area, March 1918 (POST 56/5).

Map of Postal services in the Calais area, March 1918 (POST 56/5).

Between 1st October and 31st December of 1914, 1.2 million letters were delivered to troops (on top of the 3,477,800,000 letters and 132,700,000 parcels being handled as normal mail in 1914[1]).  POST 56/5 is a leather bound volume offering a detailed history of the Army Postal Service including hand drawn maps of how post was transferred once in France, complete with delivery times and mode of transport. Once my research had been emailed over, my part of the process had finished. I saw one version of the approved panel copy to double check facts and figures but the look, design and images used were to be a surprise. I felt quite nervous walking into the V&A that Friday evening, not knowing what to the expect. Seeing the panels and the full exhibition was a surreal moment. It was my research being read by the general public, something I will not forget. I am thankful that the BPMA gave me the opportunity and keeping me involved from start to finish. PhD students rarely see their research used publicly and it has spurred me on to widen the audience of my thesis research. -Victoria Davis, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student


[1]House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1913-1914 [Cd. 7573] Postmaster General Report of 1913-1914 p.1

We’re taking part in Cityread London 2014

Rhyl Primary School, image courtesy of Cityread by Rosie Angus.

Image courtesy of Cityread by Rosie Angus.

Each April Cityread  asks  people in London to pick up the same book and read it together.  The book is usually for adults, but this year there’s also a children’s book  – Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo.

As part of the month of reading Cityread are running activities across London. We were keen to get involved because part of the plot of Private Peaceful unfolds through letters sent by soldiers home to their loved ones.

I recently took part in Cityread First World War Letter Writing and Exchange workshops for local schools. Classes visited the Camden Local Studies and Archives centre to find out more about the First World War in their area and use this as inspiration to write their own letters. Their letters will be sent to a partner school in London who in turn will reply with stories about the war in their area.

Here I am talking to students from Hampstead School.

Image courtesy of Cityread by Rosie Angus.

Image courtesy of Cityread by Rosie Angus.

As well as school workshops, we’re also excited to be taking part in the Cityread Family Day at the Museum of London this Saturday. We’ll be asking visitors to write their own postcards home from the front line.

We hope to see you there!

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

A Project Archivist Farewell

I’ve just completed my final task as Project Archivist: appraising and cataloguing a vast deposit of records on the Army Postal Service (APS). The files focus mainly on the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) and its successors, and date from before the First World War to the 1970s. I’ve catalogued nearly 500 files, volumes, photographic collections and plans.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he's been cataloguing.

Matt presents a small selection of the Army Postal Service files he’s been cataloguing.

There have been challenges along the way. I’ve had to battle an onslaught of Armed Forces vocabulary:  being able to tell a sitrep from a sapper was essential, and woe betide an archivist who confused the DAPS with a WOLO.* My geographical knowledge has also been tested: the deposit included files on British and Allied Forces’ postal arrangements in India, North Africa, the Middle East and Far East, with many locations identified by their old colonial names. The most unexpected item was a manual from an Army post office in Kiribati!

The deposit’s greatest strength is its rich insight into the APS during the Second World War and its aftermath. Virtually every theatre of operations is covered. There are Directorate-level files on postal arrangements during the Siege of Malta (POST 47/1034), the Battle of Madagascar (POST 47/871), the Dunkirk evacuation (POST 47/925) and the D-Day preparations (POST 47/747), to name just four. The handover of postal and telecommunications services to the government of newly-independent India is also documented.

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

Public confidence in the APS was vitally important during the War. This letter concerns one of many press visits to postal facilities organised by the Armed Forces and the Post Office. [Extract from POST 47/1028.]

The files also hold lots of personal stories about the careers of REPS officers. POST 47/780, for example, partly records a falling-out between the APS staff at HQ First Army and Allied Force HQ during the Tunisian Campaign and the interception of ‘artistic’ postcards that were being received by First Army soldiers. And if you ever wanted to know how many bugles were held by the Post Office Cadets at the Home Postal Centre in Nottingham in 1947, POST 47/942 will tell you.**

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

A list of band parts on loan to the Post Office Cadets in 1947, attached to a letter concerning a shortage of bugles. [Extract from POST 47/942.]

The APS files have been catalogued in POST 47 and 56. The deposit also contained large amounts of non-postal material on the REPS more generally. These have been catalogued as a separate ‘REPS collection’. All these files will appear on our online catalogue in the coming months.

This is the end of my year-long, grant-funded Project Archivist post. I’ve catalogued over 1,500 files from all over the Archive in that time. But I’m not leaving the BPMA! Instead, I’m regenerating into a new incarnation as a catalogue systems archivist. I’ll be doing lots of data-processing work and beta-testing our shiny new online catalogue before it launches later this year. Watch out for an update from me on this blog in the Spring.

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

* Sitrep = situation report; sapper = the Royal Engineers’ equivalent to a private; DAPS = Director Army Postal Service; WOLO = War Office Liaison Officer.

** Two (one substandard).