Even today we are reminded from time to time of the importance and value of a letter or packet to British troops serving across the globe. The receipt of a letter or parcel containing news from home or small mementoes or gift is a vital life line. This was also true during the First World War. Now over 90 years since that conflict ended the story of just how important a postal service was is still being told. The BBC Radio 4 series, included some touching extracts from letters sent by British soldiers, and even letters from German soldiers back to the family of fallen British officer. A number of these letters are today preserved as part of the British Postal Museum collection.
The First World War was fought at a time when other forms of communications were still in their infancy, most homes for instance still did not have the telephone, and indeed the Post Office themselves had only be managing the network for two years when war broke out. Written communication was therefore essential not only to maintain morale of the troops and allow news of the war home, but it was also a vital part of conveying military information.
The breakout of war across the world posed a massive challenge for the postal system that not only had to maintain a service at home but was now also having to provide a service to ever changing theatres of war around the world and at sea. The British Post Office not only had to rise to this massive challenge, but had to do so with reduced numbers of staff. The organisation sent thousands of men off to fight in the war and also to help run the postal service at the front lines. Many of these men were to never return home. Women were employed in huge numbers to fill the gaps left by men. The Post Office were to lead the way in providing employment for women that was to go on after the war to help in the cause of women’s suffrage.
The Post Office’s roles of operating a postal system and sending men off to fight were however far from its only contributions. As The Peoples Post has shown the Post Office also played a pivotal role in censorship and espionage. On the one hand the Post Office were catching spies through the interception of mail, and on the other were helping to prevent the leaking, either accidental or deliberately, of military secrets. Letters sent from the front were subject to inspection by the postal censor, unless they were sealed in a signed ‘honour’ envelope, where the sender would sign a declaration conforming the contents of the letter did not reveal military information.
Other methods were also employed to help reduce the chances of military positions or details escaping, such as the field service postcard (referenced in the radio series) that limited the things that could be said by way of multiple choices.
If this was not all enough the Post Office also operated and managed the Separation Allowance, paid to those left at home while the wage earner was off fighting the war, and the war savings bond, a government launched savings scheme set up to help pay for the war.
The Post Office’s contribution to the war was on many levels, and really was essential to the eventual victory in so many ways. Perhaps the most remarkable element to all this is how this was all being done while so many of the organisation’s most experienced staff were off serving in the armed forces. Many of these never to returned, and even today Royal Mail is one of the largest custodians of war memorials in this country. For those that did come back the Post Office established its own hospitals and convalescence homes to care for its returning heroes.
The story of the Post Office in the First World is huge and fascinating and there is so much more of it to tell. Find out more in our online exhibition The Last Post.
– Chris Taft, Curator