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.
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.
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.
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.