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.
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.
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.
-Emma Harper, Curator