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.
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.
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:
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.’
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