Category Archives: First World War

The Battle of Festubert: 100 year anniversary

The Post Office Rifles is an often forgotten battalion, formed largely of postal workers, that fought on the Western Front during the First World War, their story is one of the many that will be told in The Postal Museum. Our Head of Collections, Chris Taft, tells us about their first experiences on the Front Line.

In May 1915 the Second Battle of Artois was launched to try and push the German line eastwards and improve communications between Northern France and Paris. The campaign, which was to last over a month, would see many casualties and a number of smaller battles, including the first engagement for the Post Office Rifles.

Post Office Rifles Regiment

Post Office Rifles Regiment

The Post Office Rifles had been formed long before the outbreak of war in August 1914, fought in conflicts such as the Boer War. Recruitment to the 8th Battalion City of London Regiment, as they were officially known, was almost exclusively from men of the British Post Office and in March 1915 after months of training at home the battalion left for France. In May 1915 they moved close to the village of Festubert, located between Béthune and Lille, which at the time was on the Front Line.

Recruitment poster

Recruitment poster

On 9 May the main battle began with an attack by the British Army at Aubers in support of a French attack at Vimy Ridge. The attack was a failure and casualties were high. The battle however continued and further attacks on German positions were planned. The Post Office Rifles were to see their first action when, along with the 7th Battalion of the City of London Regiment, they were to attack the German line. One member of the Battalion involved in the battle, Thomas May, kept a diary of the events, which we hold here at the BPMA, and he recalls:

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

11 May 2015: ‘Very dangerous advance as bullets were flying all round. Two men and myself kept about 50 yards of unoccupied trench all the night firing from different parts so as to deceive enemy.’

The battle dragged on: the Germans launched a counter-attack and the Post Office Rifles were now holding a front line trench position and were subjected to day after day of heavy bombardment which, combined with poor weather, created thick mud and appalling conditions as May records:  ‘Very heavy shelling of our trenches all the day and also it rained all the day’.

Some days of stalemate followed as the artillery bombardment continued for days on end in an attempt to weaken the German front line. Thomas May described the scene: ‘Most awful sights. Dead and wounded laying about … We all were gasping for water and food but could not obtain any.’

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

On 20 May the offensive was resumed and eventually the objective was captured by the British, but not without heavy casualties; in the Battle of Festubert alone over 16,000 British troops were killed. The Post Office Rifles lost over half their men as May’s diary records:

I must say that during the last few days we have lost nearly half the battalion also losing six officers and several suffering with slight wounds and nervous breakdowns. It was heartbreaking to see the boys return from the trenches, the boys were knocked to the wide, and some platoons who numbered about 61 men only about 14 left in some cases.

The Battle of Festubert was to be the Post Office Rifles first engagement, but there were many more in the following years of war. Festubert, however, remains synonymous with the Battalion and many of the dead from the battle are buried in the British Military Cemetery in the village, which is now officially called, the Post Office Rifles Cemetery.

-Chris Taft, Head of Collections

100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania

As the First World War Centenary commemorations continue more and more stories of bravery and tragedy emerge. Some are well known such as the events on the battle fields, others such as the vital role played by the British postal service less so. Within The Postal Museum galleries these heartwarming and often tragic stories of how the General Post Office kept a world at war in touch will be revealed to the public. Our Archive Catalogue & Project Manager Gavin McGuffie looks at one such story.

One hundred years ago, on Friday 7 May 1915, the British ocean liner the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland when almost home on a voyage from New York to Liverpool.

'WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

‘WRECK OF THE LUSITANIA’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0126/06

The loss of 1,198 passengers and crew led to an international outcry, especially in Britain and the British Empire, as well as in the United States (128 of 139 US citizens on board died). The German government’s announcement almost two years later that having ended attacks on passenger ships it would again conduct full unrestricted submarine warfare was a major factor in persuading the United States to declare war on Germany on 6 April 1917.

RMS Lusitania had been holder of the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic, and briefly the world’s largest passenger ship. Launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, the Lusitania had the designation ‘Royal Mail Ship’ or ‘RMS’. This prefix dates back to 1840 and was used for seagoing vessels carrying post under contract to Royal Mail.

'LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED' - Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

‘LUSITANIA AT FULL SPEED’ – Lantern Slide, 2012-0039

Given that the main connection with the Post Office was the fact that the ship was carrying mail it is not surprising that the only file in The Royal Mail Archive entirely about the Lusitania concerns the loss of mail is entitled ‘SS Lusitania sunk May 1915. United States mails missing. Salvage and compensation claims’

It starts with a newspaper cutting from the day after reporting on the tragic event and a letter from Cunard expressing their gratitude for the Post Office’s sympathies.

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of newspaper cutting, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Cunard letter, POST 29/1277A

The file goes on to reveal that the quantity of mail on Lusitania’s last voyage was not particularly large. She carried mail that had been especially endorsed for the Lusitania; the US liner New York, leaving about the same time, carried most of the European mail. According to a note in the file, 83 sacks of mail were dispatched on the ship containing 922 registered articles, about 47,000 unregistered letters and 1800 prints.

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

image of list of registered articles from US Post Office, POST 92/1277A

Following the sinking the Post Office received many enquiries about lost mail in particular relating to that with a financial value. One enquiry concerned four lost dispatches from the Governor of Bermuda to the Colonial Office sent in a weighted bag that would cause them to sink in case of disaster at sea.

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

image of Bermuda letter, POST 29/1277A

Perhaps the most interesting story within the file relates to the small amount of mail salvaged. Originally believed to have been washed ashore at Castletownshend, County Cork, it was subsequently found that a mail basket including a parcel of diamonds was in fact picked up by John Hayes, skipper of the fishing boat ‘Pet’. Within our file is a water damaged bill of lading from the Lusitania which accompanied the parcels which were being returned to their senders on the ship.

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

image of American Express Company bill of lading from the Lusitania, POST 29/1277A

Correspondence concerning this basket and Hayes’ desire to be properly rewarded for the salvage of the receptacle continued until 1922 involving a £10 reward as an ‘act of grace’ and even a question in the House of Commons.

The Lusitania was not the only mail ship to be sunk during the First World War. In October 1918 the RMS Leinster was torpedoed in the Irish Sea killing more than 500 including 21 postal workers, the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea.

To find out more about the vital role played by the General Post Office and those who worked for it visit our online exhibition Last Post

Daily Life at the Front Line: Thomas May Diary

Last month we introduced you to Thomas May, a member of the Post Office Rifles (PORs), who fought in the First World War 100 years ago.  Thomas’ diary is in BPMA’s collection and through it we can gain an insight into his personal experience of the war during his station in France in 1915. Histories of the First World War tend to focus on the action: the battles, the excitement and, of course, the horrors. However, there was another side, one full of parades, drills, inspections and endless marching. This daily drudgery is more than apparent throughout Thomas’ diary and will be the focus of today’s blog.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. PORs changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Photograph of six people holding brooms and rifles. Post Office Rifles changed into this when they were cleaning their uniform. Thomas May is third from left.

Inspections and Exercises

Troops generally worked to a pattern of two days at ‘the front line’ in the trenches and two days at rest, in Thomas’ case usually in Bethune, a French mining town. These rest days were by no means peaceful however. Rising at 6am Thomas would frequently have to prepare kit and weapons for inspections. On Sunday 18 May, after the men had been in France for over a month, Thomas notes that it was the ‘first time I have ever paraded with rifle’. Two days later his morning consisted of ‘Rifle, Ammunition Inspection, Bayonet fighting exercises’. This is a stark reminder not only of the realities of warfare 100 years ago – where hand to hand combat was still a distinct possibility – but also of the relative inexperience of these young men.

Marching through the Land

Throughout the diary there are several days where May and the troops seem to spend most of the time marching, either because they were moving off to a new base or billet, or simply on a route march as on Wednesday 28 April: ‘Route march from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Distance 12 miles. Weather very hot and roads very bad for marching. Properly knocked on return.’

Whilst marching is the most common of any army exercise, as Thomas shows it could be tiring work, particularly in the hot French weather which these English men were far from used to.

The Jolly Old Weather

Unsurprisingly comments on the weather are frequent in this Englishman’s diary. In the first couple of months the weather was ‘very warm for marching’ as we have just seen, but May brought heavy rain. This coincided with a major offensive by the Post Office Rifles at Festubert, making for horrid conditions. On 17 May Thomas writes ‘Still it was raining and we were up to our necks in mud…wet through to the skin and covered in mud, also cut about in trying to get through the German barb wire.’

Taking a Bath

Hygiene was an important concern as these muddy, dirty conditions at the front meant fleas and lice were common, as well as more serious illnesses. Some of the billets also left something to be desired. On 23 April Thomas was billeted in ‘a dirty old barn. Inside the barn was rats, mice, chickens, ducks and one bull, but all the boys slept soundly’.  Thomas does not seem to have relished the opportunities for a bath however: ‘Paraded 5.50am for Bathing much to our disgust’.

Ensuring an entire Company of men stayed clean cannot have been an easy task however and on some occasions the activity seems to have taken most of the day:

‘Bathing parade at 9.30am after marching all round France found baths at 1.30pm. Allowed 10 mins for bath. Returned home at 5pm.’

Extracts such as this from the personal diaries of those who experienced the war first hand support the themes that came through the printed media of the time. A famous postcard designed for the officers and soldiers of the 4th Division was entitled ‘Fighting Fleas in Flanders’.

Action and Inaction

Daily life at the front was full of such frustrations and the dichotomy of being ready to spring into action at a moment’ s notice and waiting in this state for hours on end is a powerful one.

20 May : ‘Stood by ready to move off at a moment’s notice. But all orders were cancelled.’

Nights were often interrupted with ‘Stand to arms 2.0am’ and on occasion full night operations made for a long day: ‘Paraded 1-30pm for trench digging, home 6.15pm. Night operations. Paraded 10-30pm. Trench digging, home 3-15am next morning.’

On May 7 at 5pm Thomas ‘was ordered to dig dugouts in readiness for a bombardment. Wind up all round, and had to sleep with boots and putees on. Nothing occurred.’

Food and Drink

Thomas’ subtle wit can be seen throughout the diary as on May 16 he writes ‘Since the exciting evening of May 7th had nothing else but bullied beef and biscuits also no boots and puttees off’. Bullied beef and biscuits was the staple diet for the Rifles, and although Thomas complains about it, he also realised that sometimes a bland diet was a blessing. On 29 March after one of the first shellings that the PORs experienced May writes ‘For once had a good dinner, but was spoilt owing to the horrible sight’. On 4 May dinner was accompanied by ‘Plenty of Champagne because of leaving for trenches’ May tellingly puts in brackets after this ‘(Usual Occurrence)’. Alcohol was often used to try and lift morale and create cohesion between the men of the fighting unit as well as aid in the transition between extreme fighting situations and the ‘rest’ days. In contrast to the front, there were concerns back at home that alcohol was harming the productivity of war workers and thus the war effort.

These were some of the components that made up the daily life of Thomas May and his fellow Post Office Rifles while at the Front. It was often frustrating, boring and tiring yet, as we will see in the next blog, the preparation was vital if the Post Office Rifles were to be successful in their first major offensive, that of the Battle of Festubert in May 1915.

– Emma Harper, Curator

The Road to War: Thomas May Diary

Here at the BPMA we’re often donated items by people who want the stories of their relatives to live on. These stories are often incomplete or comprising of only one item however sometimes we get given collections of items which tell of remarkable experiences. One such example of this is the story of Thomas William Ernest May, who joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman. Thomas, like so many others at the time, was an ordinary man who was thrust into an extraordinary situation – the First World War.  In 1915,  at the age of 20, he joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles and along with many of his colleagues, went to war.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May (second from left on front row) with the rest of his company outside some tents.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May (second from left on front row) with the rest of his company outside some tents.

One of the main objects that Thomas’ daughter, Edna, kindly donated to us was the diary Thomas kept when he went to France with the first group of Post Office Rifles in March 1915. 100 years on, we’ll be sharing with you Thomas’ experiences of the war as a Post Office Rifle through a series of blogs.

The diary is bound in green leather and was given to Thomas as part of a pack troops received before they embarked for France from Vickers Limited – an Engineering and Construction Company heavily involved in building the ships that troops would travel on.  The diary includes a map, useful phrases and tips in case soldiers found themselves lost in France. Written in pencil (ink pens would not have been practical for men to carry in their packs) it gives an insight into the contrasting boredom and horrors of the Front line.

Portrait photograph of Sergeant Thomas William Ernest May in uniform.

Portrait photograph of Sergeant Thomas William Ernest May in uniform.

The diary starts on 17 March  when Thomas travelled from Watford to Southampton to make the crossing to Havre Harbour at 12.15pm. Two days later on Friday 19 March the Post Office Rifles left Havre camp to the railway where at “4.30pm entrained 37 men in each truck most uncomfortable journey. Lasted 23 hours.” They then went on a 3 hour march to an old coal mining village, Auchel, where they reached their billet, or living quarters which Thomas notes was “by no means clean”. This was the start of the road to war for thousands of men like Thomas. The rest of the diary details not only the battles and horror of war but also the daily routines that Thomas and the Rifles were subject to, it’s this that will be the subject of the next installments of Thomas’ story.

Page from Sergeant Thomas May's Diary written in pencil in the years 1915 and 1916 whilst a member of the Post Office Rifles,with details of his daily life, including thoughts on 'going over the top'.

Page from Sergeant Thomas May’s Diary written in pencil in the years 1915 and 1916 whilst a member of the Post Office Rifles,with details of his daily life, including thoughts on ‘going over the top’.

-Emma Harper, Curator

Censorship and Propaganda in the First World War

Here at the BPMA we welcome students of any age to explore our collections. In this post year 9 student Olivia talks about how our collections helped with her project on censorship in the First World War.

My name is Olivia and I am in year 9 at Channing School in London. Back in October, the whole year was asked to write a project on a topic of their choice. At that time, my grandfather found a letter written by my great-great grandfather from the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. This letter contained some censored material and inspired me to choose the project ‘Censorship and Propaganda in the First World War’.

Olivia and Curator Emma Harper

Olivia and Curator Emma Harper

I noticed that The British Postal Museum and Archive was holding a talk on censorship in the First World War. I contacted the museum to see if it was possible to talk to one of their experts on this topic.

Emma Harper contacted me immediately and we met in early December.

Emma showed me the archive and items from the museum collection, which included not only post-related items but also paintings and uniforms. We also looked at First World War censored letters and postcards, and discussed how censorship worked.

Front and reverse of a postcard sent from the front, showing the censor stamp. All post passed through censorship to ensure vital information was not leaked.

Front and reverse of a postcard sent from the front, showing the censor stamp. All post passed through censorship to ensure vital information was not leaked.

Afterwards, she answered my interview questions and read a copy of my great-great grandfather’s letter. We also discussed why some parts of the letter were censored, yet others were not.

Field Service Postcards were a form of self-censorship whereby soliders simply crossed out what didn't apply to them. Any additions could mean the card would be destroyed, Obviously the censor who checked this through thought the holiday greeting was harmless enough!

Field Service Postcards were a form of self-censorship whereby soliders simply crossed out what didn’t apply to them. Any additions could mean the card would be destroyed, Obviously the censor who checked this through thought the holiday greeting was harmless enough!

I have now started writing my project and would like to thank Emma for all her help. I hope to share my finished project with the museum and will keep you updated!

-Olivia, Year 9 at Channing School

Looking for more information on how our collections can support First World War learning? Check out our FREE downloadable First World War learning resource for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3.

Princess Mary Tin: Christmas on the front in 1914

In 1914 there was a popular view that the First World War, which had started on 4 August of that year, would ‘be over by Christmas’. As December rapidly approached however it was clear that the war would last considerably longer. It was in this atmosphere that Princess Mary, the only daughter of George V, expressed her wish to send a Christmas present to ‘every sailor afloat and every soldier at the front’. To help achieve this, a Christmas Gift Fund was established on 14 October 1914, taking  Princess Mary’s name. The public were immediately receptive to the idea agreeing with the Princess that ‘we should all be happier to feel that we had helped to send our little token of love and sympathy on Christmas morning’.

Princess Mary photo and christmas card

Princess Mary photo and Christmas card.

The form the gift would take was finally agreed on as a box containing tobacco and cigarettes along with the accoutrements such as a pipe and lighter. The box also contained a photo of the young Princess and a Christmas card with the message ‘With Best Wishes for a Happy Christmas and a Victorious New Year from The Princess Mary and Friends at Home’. Only a month after the fund had opened and with one month still to go until Christmas there was enough money left over to extend the gift scheme to every man ‘wearing the King’s uniform on Christmas Day 1914’. A non-smoker’s version of the gift was developed with a khaki writing case containing pencil, paper and envelopes as well as the Christmas card and photograph mentioned above.  Religion was also taken into account so that everyone received a suitable present with tobacco being replaced by sweets and spices for Indian troops.

Non-smokers version - khaki writing case.

Non-smokers version – khaki writing case.

Many of the tins were kept as souvenirs and survive in families to this day. We are lucky enough to have two in the BPMA’s collection. One doesn’t have any of the contents remaining but the tin itself is a lovely item decorated with relief patterns including a side portrait of Princess Mary in the centre with a wreath with decorative ‘M’ either side. On six sides of the lid is lettering in vignettes showing the names of the allied forces: ‘Belgium’; ‘Japan’; ‘Russia’; ‘Montenegro’; ‘Servia’; ‘France’. The other is a new acquisition into our collection and includes the contents of tobacco and cigarettes. It belonged to Alfred Greenwood who served with the Royal Engineers and can be seen at our Last Post exhibition in Coalbrookdale until March 2015.

princess mary tin

Princess Mary tin.

 

Princess Mary tin and contents.

Princess Mary tin and contents.

In all almost 500,000 men received a gift from the Princess Mary fund and they have become treasured possessions and heirlooms for many families throughout the country and a reminder of the sacrifice that was being given at the time.

-Emma Harper, Curator

Hounded from Pillar to Post: The Experiences of FWW Conscientious Objectors

This Thursday join Ben Copsey, Manager of the “Objecting to War” Project at the Peace Pledge Union, as he explores the lives and experiences of the 20,000 British Conscientious Objectors during the First World War. In today’s post we give you a sneak peak at a relatively unknown topic.

With the introduction of Conscription in 1916, men who believed they could not fight in the war were left with a difficult choice. Abandon their principles and take up arms, or face ridicule, arrest, assault and prison as Conscientious Objectors.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

Over three hundred Post Office workers from around the country made the difficult decision to refuse to fight and kill in the First World War. Whether religious, political or ethical men, each one made a stand on the principle that noone should be forced into the army – a stand that for many would lead to years in prison, ostracism, and for some, death. Their motivations, experiences and opinions make a fascinating collection of sometimes odd, often passionate and always interesting stories of resistance and dissent. Post Office COs came from every area and community – from Jewish Sorters in the East end and Anarchist Postmen in Glasgow to Quaker Telegraphists in Liverpool – and experienced everything that could happen to an objector during the war, whether working with an ambulance service, going on the run or stubbornly refusing to compromise from the inside of Wormwood Scrubs, the men of the Post Office who stood up to say “No” to war provide a perfect snapshot of Conscientious Objection.

Many of their experiences are coming to light for the first time, telling a fascinating tale of courage, resistance and conviction of men standing up for their principles and the right to refuse to kill. While myths of Conscientious Objection still paint them as cowards and traitors, this talk will discuss why ordinary men
made an extraordinarily brave decision – and what happened to them as a result.

Join us this Thursday (6 November) from 7pm-8pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more. Book your ticket online today to avoid missing out!