Tag Archives: First World War

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!

Behind the scenes at the Pop-Up Field Post Office

For the next two weeks we’re busy working with Big Wheel Theatre Company to deliver a First World War project for schools and visitors at the Coalbrookdale Museum of Iron.

This week over 300 school pupils will experience Meaning in the Mud: Letters to and from the Front Line, an immersive theatre workshop, and visit our Pop-up Field Post Office. Often little more than a table in a field, sometimes just a tent, or a temporary structure – Field Post Offices provided a vital link between the home and fighting fronts by distributing the letters and parcels sent to soldiers from loved ones.

Photo of a Field Post Office in the BPMA collection.

Photo of a Field Post Office from the BPMA collection.

Here are  a few photos of us building the set to show you more about what the pupils can expect to find out.

Hannah from the BPMA and Maureen from the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust hard at work.

Hannah (BPMA) and Maureen (Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust) working hard to build the set.

During the Meaning in the Mud workshop actors from Big Wheel will show how the war affected the people of Shropshire through an interactive performance using objects, archival sources, poems and photographs from the BPMA collection.

Field Post Office 1

The finished Field Post Office.

After the performance pupils will write their own letters from the Front Line and step into the Field Post Office to send them to their schools.

IMG_0914

Ta Dah! The finished set.

You can follow this project on Twitter #PopUpPost

Twitter copy

This project supports the BPMA’s Last Post: Remembering the First World War exhibition on display in Coalbrookdale until April 2015.

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

Meaning in the Mud and the Pop-Up Post Office are generously supported by a grant from the First World War: Then and Now Heritage Lottery Fund.

A War of Letters: Understanding WWI through letters

On Thursday 16th October Curator Emma Harper is giving a talk at the Guildhall Library entitled ‘A War of Letters’, here’s a little preview of what you can expect. 

Every aspect of the war was communicated by letter and, for many, letters were a way of maintaining some semblance of normality. Whilst accurate figures for the amounts of mail sent during the war are hard to pin point, we know that at its peak over 12 million letters a week passed through the Post Office’s temporary sorting office – the Home Depot.

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

Embroidered postcard. (OB1995-64)

 

Some survive in the BPMA’s collection and reflect the range of subjects that were written about. The weather, health and letter writing itself, or lack of it, were spoken about rather than the war itself, the effects of which were often played down as in this postcard from ‘Fred’ to his mother:

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

A postcard from a soldier to his mother. (OB1995.64/1)

‘Just a few lines hoping that you are in the very best of health Dear. I hope that you are not offended with me for not writing to you before now, but I knowed the one letter would do for the two of you. I am not very sound myself but you need not worry over me.’

Receipt of a letter was a huge boost to morale both for those at home and at the Front, the maintenance of that link was of vital importance and recognised as such by the Post Office. By writing ‘On Active Service’ at the top of their correspondence soldiers could write home for free.

One of the most common ‘letters’ received from the Front was the Field Service Postcard. These postcards only allowed soldiers to give basic details to family back home as rather than writing their own sentiments they had to pick from a list, deleting those that didn’t apply. This was a form of censorship as the limited space for personal expression meant that there was less risk of divulging confidential information or of tales that may reduce morale reaching the Home Front. Despite the fact that nothing else was meant to be written on the postcard there were always exceptions and some of them did get through the censor, such as this harmless Christmas message [also 2014-0062].

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. 2014-0062)

Field Service Postcard signed from George Sidebottom. (2014-0062)

Many of the letters received however did not bring such happy messages and some of the most poignant of the war are those last letters ever written, a selection of which I’ll be sharing in my talk. One of the letters in BPMA’s collection informs Mrs Peel of the death of her husband, Captain Home Peel of the Post Office’s own regiment, the Post Office Rifles [OB1997.212/46]. Unusually it was written by a German soldier, E.F. Gaylor [OB1997.212/37]. He writes: Although enemy and sometimes deeply hurt by the ridiculous tone of your horrid press, I feel it as a human duty to communicate you these sad news. Capt Peel was killed in action near Longueval & died, as it seems by the wounds received, without suffering.’

Captain Home Peel. OB1997.212/46)

Captain Home Peel. (OB1997.212/46)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. OB1997.212/37)

Letter from German solider to Home Peels wife. (OB1997.212/37)

The fact that Peel carried his letters round with him and that Gaylor still felt it his duty to communicate the news to Peel’s loved ones, his enemies, shows the strength of feeling and importance given to letter writing in the war. These letters now also play a vital role in deepening our understanding and remembrance of the war.

To find out more please do come along to Guildhall Library on Thursday 16th October at 6pm. You can still book your tickets online!

New objects at Last Post exhibition!

Our year-long exhibition, Last Post, is currently at Coalbrookdale Gallery, one of the museums at Ironbridge Gorge. Many of the paper items that have been shown over the last six months have been removed and replaced with other items that have never before been displayed.

The two original manuscript poems- ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, and ‘The Letter’, written by Wilfred Owen, that were on loan from the British Library have been taken off display and replaced by identical facsimile versions. The continued display of these ground breaking poems in facsimile form will enable the story of Shropshire-born Wilfred Owen to remain central to  the exhibition, until it closes on 30 March 2015.

For the first time ever, we will be displaying a Princess Mary tin, sent through the post as a Christmas gift to all serving soldiers during Christmas 1914. This was the initiative of the then 17 year old Princess Mary, daughter of King George V. A public appeal was launched to raise the money for the manufacture the tins and to buy the contents which included items such as tobacco or chocolate inside. Over 426,000 Princess Mary tins were posted to those serving on Christmas Day 1914.

Princess Mary tin

Princess Mary tin

We are also delighted to be displaying a First World War diary, recently acquired by the BPMA. The diary was written by a Post Office Rifle, Sergeant Thomas May, in 1915. Thomas May entered the Post Office as a Telegram Messenger Boy aged 14. His diary details his time in the Post Office Rifles  as he made his way to the Fighting Front in France. May was badly wounded during the War, but survived, and returned to work at the Post Office. A full transcription of the diary will be available in the exhibition for visitors to read.

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.

Three embroidered cards rounded up the changes to the exhibition. Embroidered cards were made by French women on the front for soldiers to send back to loved ones as momentos. The often contained a little message hidden inside an embroidered flap.

Three of the embroidered cards on display.

Three of the embroidered cards on display.

You can find out more by visiting Last Post or viewing our online exhibition.

-Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer