Tag Archives: First World War Centenary

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

Sending WWI Trench Cake

In today’s post for Explore Your Archives week, Archives and Records Assistant Penny McMahon shares the story of Trench Cake – a First World War recipe intended to be sent to troops on the front.

This summer members of the Great British Bake Off production asked us how much it would cost to send a trench cake to the front in 1916. I had no idea that cakes were sent to the front but it is a natural thing for family members to send cakes to loved ones, especially at Christmas.  It would have cost 1.s 4d to send a cake over 3lb between 7lb and would have cost 1s. 7d to send a cake between 7lb and 11lb.

No sellotape used - only brown paper and string!

No sellotape used – only brown paper and string!

The question intrigued several members of staff. We wanted to find out if we could still send a Trench Cake in the post and whether it would turn up in one piece. We carried out some research and found a notice detailing the packaging required to send food stuffs overseas from 1916. We also found a notice from 1918 asking members of the public not to send out Christmas cakes to men at the front. The notice went as far as to reassure the Great British public that the men serving oversees would be provided with a Christmas pudding.

We baked several cakes inline with an authentic recipe. The recipe has an interesting ingredients list. Presumably the cakes were made so that they’d be able travel, last well, and wouldn’t use too much rationed food. We packaged the cakes inline with the guidelines given on the notice. Then we posted the cakes to destinations including our own offices, to a cake baking competition in London (more on this later), Scotland and France.

Me with my Trench Cake before it was sent to Scotland.

Me with my Trench Cake before it was sent to Scotland.

I sent my cake to my brother in Scotland. It arrived in one piece the next day and he assures me that it tasted good.

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The Archive Services of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found a recipe from the Ministry of Foods Nutrition Collection and are having a cake baking competition. We have sent one of our efforts off to the competition so hopefully it will arrive safely. Our Head of Archives, Vicky Parkinson, is taking part in the judging. We’ll let you know via Twitter how we get on!

Trench cake sent from our office in Islington to our Clerkenwell Office. It arrived in one piece and we are enjoying it this morning!

Trench cake sent from our office in Islington to our Clerkenwell Office. It arrived in one piece and we are enjoying it this morning!

Post Office Time capsule opened after 93 years

On Monday, the centenary of the First World War, the contents of a time capsule created by Dundee postal workers in 1921 were unveiled. Head of Collections Chris Taft attended the event along with representatives from Royal Mail, Post Office Ltd, the Communication Workers Union, the High School of Dundee (where the former Post Office building from 1921 is now located), The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum and The Great War Dundee Partnership.  

Inside there were documents relating to the period including publications, newspaper cuttings, letters and photographs from soldiers.

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Field Marshall Douglas Haig in Dundee 1920. (Image credit: The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum/ University of Dundee)

Group photo of Dundee Postal War Memorial Committee.

Group photo of Dundee Postal War Memorial Committee. (Image credit: The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum/University of Dundee)

Pte J Brady Black Watch showing tricycle used by collectors 1914.

Pte J Brady Black Watch showing tricycle used by collectors 1914. (Image credit: The McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum/University of Dundee)

A store of photographs of local dignitaries, soldiers and postmen and scenes of Dundee, including visits by Princess Mary in 1920 and Winston Churchill in 1921 were found in the capsule.

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There is also a number of sealed envelopes including a Letter from Lord Provost Spence (1921) to the Lord Provost in 2014 and a Letter to the Postmaster of Dundee in 2014 from the Postmaster in 1921.

Letter from the Postmaster to the current Postmaster.

Letter from the Postmaster to the current Postmaster.

The capsule and its contents will be on display at the McManus: Dundee’s Art Gallery & Museum, and we will be sharing more about the contents soon!