Tag Archives: German military

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

The Battle of Britain stamps controversy

David Gentleman, whose many British stamp designs are currently being exhibited in our Search Room, is no stranger to controversy. In 1965 he wrote to Postmaster General Tony Benn (who had announced a new policy for stamp issues in late 1964 and was seeking suggestions) and requested that the design limitations of having to include the monarch’s head on stamps be addressed. Benn, a republican, was keen to remove the monarch’s head, and saw Gentleman’s design limitations argument as an excellent – and non-political – way to achieve this objective. 

Gentleman, and his wife Rosalind Dease, had already been commissioned to design stamps commemorating the death of Winston Churchill and the 25th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and supplied Benn with versions of the designs without the Queen’s head. Ultimately, it was decided that the monarch’s head should remain on British stamps (you can read the full story by downloading the PDF The David Gentleman Album from our website), but this was not the end of the controversy as far as the Battle of Britain stamps were concerned.

More than a month before their release date a number of newspapers published images of the stamps, with several tabloids highlighting two of the eight stamps, which showed German aircraft. The first of the two stamps in question showed the wing-tip of a Messerschmitt fighter overshadowed by the wing-tip of a Spitfire; the other stamp showed a Dornier bomber sinking into the sea while Hawker Hurricanes flew above it. The reason for the focus on these stamps was that the German aircraft pictured featured German military emblems, the Balkenkreuz (cross) on the Messerschmitt and the swastika on the Dornier.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The six 4d Battle of Britain se tenant stamps designed by David Gentleman and Rosalind Dease. The two other stamps in this issue showed anti-aircraft artillery, and an air battle over St Pauls cathedral. They were designed by Andrew Restall, and Gentleman and Dease, respectively.

The inclusion of these emblems, particularly the swastika, caused great concern, with several Members of Parliament and the House of Lords speaking against the stamps. At the same time, representatives of a number of organisations, and many members of the public wrote letters to The Queen, the Prime Minister and Tony Benn, requesting that the Battle of Britain stamps be withdrawn.

A London Rabbi, writing to Benn on behalf of 775 families of his congregation, wrote “Please don’t allow swastika on our stamps. They are the 20th Century symbol of persecution, oppression, suffering and all that is evil”. The president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Mr S. Teff, also expressed his concerns in writing to Benn: “The Board has already received numerous complaints from members of the Jewish community to whom the sight of the swastika in any form is offensive in the extreme.”

A common theme amongst many of the complainants, in particular those who had served in the war, was that issuing a stamp bearing the swastika was an insult to the war dead. Others objected to the swastika appearing alongside the Queen’s head.

Withdrawing the stamps would have been very difficult for the Post Office as the Battle of Britain issue was the first set of stamps to be commissioned since Benn had changed the policy to include stamps commemorating important anniversaries. Indeed, the Battle of Britain stamps had come about partly due to lobbying from the Royal Air Forces Association and a number of Members of Parliament. The issue was also the largest issue of commemorative stamps to date.

Benn and his department took the view that the reason for the objections to the stamps was that the tabloid press articles which had highlighted the stamps featuring German aircraft, had not made clear the purpose of the stamps, and that black and white images of the stamps which appeared in various publications did not effectively convey the subtlety of the designs.

“The purpose of the stamp is to commemorate the victory over Nazism and I am sure that when the stamp is seen in colour it will be quite apparent that the swastika on the tail of the Dornier bomber is both split and half covered by water; the shattered Dornier is sinking in the English Channel and high above four RAF fighters, objective achieved, are flying back to base” wrote one official, in reply to a member of the public.

“In effect, the stamp is meant to be symbolic of the crushing of the Nazis and all that they stood for. We hope you will agree that within the limits of stamp design, it is difficult to do justice to a subject without introducing features of this kind into a series illustrating the Battle of Britain…”

Benn himself said in one letter “I feel that the stamp is a true reflection of that period in our history and…will be seen as a reminder of a great victory over the evil of Nazism. Because of this I do not propose to withdraw it.” He also argued that no objections were raised to the swastika being seen in newsreel footage of German planes, and that the RAF had displayed and flown captured Nazi aircraft on numerous occasions.

Eventually criticism died down, and despite threats to boycott the stamps sales were healthy, although the GPO arranged for adequate stocks of ordinary small size stamps to be available for those who did not wish to purchase the Battle of Britain issue.

Writing in his 2002 book Design, David Gentleman reflected “the tabloids [made] a great furore over the inclusion of a swastika and an iron cross. But without an enemy there would have been no battle and, as the stamps showed the Germans getting the worst of it anyway, the whole manufactured fuss quickly died down.”

The British Postal Museum & Archive holds many files relating to the Battle of Britain stamp issue. Details of these can be found on our online catalogue.