Tag Archives: France

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

New stamp polarises French political landscape

Joanna Espin discusses the latest incarnation of Marianne.

A newly unveiled stamp, issued to mark the presidency of François Hollande, has unleashed a political storm. The stamp, selected from a shortlist compiled by students and unveiled on Bastille Day, was intended to mark the President’s commitment to the country’s youth. Designed by Olivier Ciappa and David Kawena, the stamp depicts Marianne: a symbol of the French Republic who is often depicted in French Revolution imagery as a bare breasted, militant woman striving for liberty.

The controversial Marianne stamp.

The controversial Marianne stamp.

Olivier Ciappa subsequently took to Twitter to explain that the inspiration for this incarnation of Marianne was Inna Shevchenko. Shevchenko, co-founder of feminist group FEMEN, has recently been granted asylum in France. FEMEN lists its aims as combatting patriarchy in religion, dictatorship and sexual exploitation. The controversial protests made by the group, which have included topless demonstrations and cutting down a Christian statue, have received much press coverage and have divided opinion.

A host of responses for and against the representation of Inna Shevchenko as Marianne have been made across France, including calls for a boycott of the stamp from the political right. Supporters of the stamp argue that Shevchenko, and her fight for equality, embodies the qualities of Marianne. The stamp has become a battleground of opposing political opinion in France and, due to widespread coverage on the internet, internationally.

Concorde – A British Design Classic

Having recently catalogued all Great Britain Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal commemorative registration sheets of stamps, it dawned on me how much the ‘First Flight of Concorde’ stamps of 1969 stood out; both in terms of their slick design and ultimately the subject that they embodied. After all, this ‘Supersonic’ airliner, of Anglo-French origin is as an aviation and engineering icon.

During the late 1950’s, The British, French, Soviets and Americans were in competition, as each nation industriously worked towards developing a form of commercial civilian supersonic transport. It was the British and French however (both funded by their respective governments) who jetted ahead in this particular pursuit. Subsequently they developed designs called the ‘Type 233’ and ‘Super-Caravelle’ respectively, which ultimately saw them leading the commercial aircraft market at the time, which until then had been dominated so ardently by the United States.

First Flight of Concorde - 4d value, designed by M. and S. Goaman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde – 4d value, designed by M. and S. Goaman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde - 9d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde – 9d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde - 1s6d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

First Flight of Concorde – 1s6d value, designed by David Gentleman, issued 3 March 1967.

Due to the impending costs which ensued with the production costs however, the British and French combined forces, forming an international treaty (rather than an agreement on commercial terms) in the early 1960’s, where their newly formed British Aircraft Corporation (BAC) and Aérospatiale companies merged, on what famously became the ‘Concorde’ project. It was this partnership which proved triumphant, as the first Concorde prototype was presented in 1967.

Concorde’s maiden flight on the 2nd March 1969 was heralded as ‘faultless’. The aircraft took off from Toulouse and reached 10,000ft. The following day three postage stamps were issued in Britain, with one design (4d) by M. and S. Goaman and the other two (9d and 1s 6d) designed by the prolific and imperious David Gentleman. Looking at Gentleman’s designs specifically, the simple but bold minimal style sits well within current trends in graphic design, thus evoking a timeless appeal. Printed by Harrison and Sons on chalk-surfaced paper, with two phosphor bands, the stamps pay homage to this British design great.

French Stamp – ‘First Commercial Flight of Concorde’, 10/01/1976

French Stamp – ‘First Commercial Flight of Concorde’, 10/01/1976

French Stamp – ‘Regions of France – Pyrenees’ featuring Concorde, 10/01/1976

French Stamp – ‘Regions of France – Pyrenees’ featuring Concorde, 10/01/1976

Although a success, Concorde’s maiden flight never actually reached above 300mph, thus failing to achieve its potential ‘supersonic’ status. Concorde’s first supersonic flight (for those inquisitive amongst you) came on the 1st October 1969 where it achieved closer to the 1,300mph it was capable of. Concorde’s first commercial flights took place on 21st January 1976 – Air France flew from Paris to Rio and British Airways’ Concorde flew from London Heathrow to Bahrain. Concorde’s final flight was on 26th November 2003, following the tragic aftermath of Concorde’s only crash on 25th July 2000, and the global economic downfall of the subsequent years.

Evidently, Concorde was voted the winner in the ‘Great British Design Quest’ competition of 2006. Organised by BBC2’s The Culture Show and London’s Design Museum, the Concorde design beat competition from 25 other British design classics – including Mary Quant’s mini skirt, the Routemaster Bus and Harry Beck’s 1931 London Underground Map design (runner-up). This news came as a delight to Concorde fans, notably Tony Benn – the former Postmaster General – who himself has been so prominent throughout British Postal History. Benn was the Aviation Minister responsible for giving Concorde the go-ahead in the first place.

The 2009 stamp issue ‘British Design Classics’ features ten iconic designs, including Concorde and the other aforementioned ‘design classics’, plus others – thus tying in nicely with the British Design Classic theme of which Concorde so famously championed.

British Design Classics stamps - 13/01/2009

British Design Classics stamps – 13/01/2009

The full series of Queen Elizabeth II pre-decimal commemorative registration sheets are due to be made available via the BPMA’s online catalogue, each with a full catalogue description and a digitised section of each sheet, including of course the 1969 Concorde stamps.

You may also enjoy watching this video of Concorde’s maiden flight:

Stuart Aitken – Cataloguer, Philately

Foreign Postal Workers

Like many Museums and Archives, we have a number of items in our collection which we don’t know very much about. The recent cataloguing of lantern slides, mostly dating from the early 20th Century, brought to our attention a number which show images of postal workers from around the world. While many are illustrative of the British Post Office’s international operations (there are a few showing Indian postal workers and the Indian Post Office was under British control at this point) it is unclear exactly why these lantern slides were produced.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a group of men and women Post Office officials. (2012-0030/19)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a group of men and women Post Office officials. (2012-0030/19)

One theory is that they could have been shown to students at the London Postal School (LPS), which trained postal workers in a variety of duties. Perhaps the slides were used to highlight to the trainees that by working for the General Post Office (GPO) they were part of a global communications network? However, this does seem a little counter to the very practical emphasis at LPS, where a typical lesson saw students role-playing various scenarios, including counter transactions.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a Landes postman on stilts delivering a letter to a woman, France. There is another woman standing on the door-step behind and a man seated in front of a spinning wheel in the bottom right hand corner. (2012-0030/04)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a Landes postman on stilts delivering a letter to a woman, France. There is another woman standing on the door-step behind and a man seated in front of a spinning wheel in the bottom right hand corner. (2012-0030/04)

Another theory is that the slides were used in magic lantern slide shows, which were a very popular form of entertainment at the turn of the 20th Century. Lanterns shows could cover a variety of subjects, and slides such as the ones in our collection may have been produced for GPO lantern shows or acquired from other shows due to their postal connection.

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a parcel postwoman standing beside the horse of the horse-drawn mail coach, Germany. (2012-0030/02)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a parcel postwoman standing beside the horse of the horse-drawn mail coach, Germany. (2012-0030/02)

Whatever the reason for their existence, these slides give us a fascinating insight into postal operations around the world, including the myriad of uniforms and modes of transport employed by different postal administrations. One particularly nice example shows a postman in a top hat riding a donkey!

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a rural postman in Dominica, British West Indies, wearing a light blue top hat, white trousers and a blue jacket whilst riding a white donkey. (2012-0030/16)

A hand-coloured photographic lantern slide of a rural postman in Dominica, British West Indies, wearing a light blue top hat, white trousers and a blue jacket whilst riding a white donkey. (2012-0030/16)

In addition to the images illustrating this blog we have uploaded a number to our Flickr site. Search our online catalogue to see more of our lantern slides.