Tag Archives: soldiers

Christmas Airgraphs

In the lead-up to Christmas we are sharing with you 12 Posters of Christmas, a dozen classic postal posters from the Royal Mail Archive. Today’s is…

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, 1944 poster by Leonard Beaumont. (PRD0392)

Send him Greetings on a Christmas Airgraph form, 1944 poster by Leonard Beaumont. (PRD0392)

This poster designed by Leonard Beaumont in 1944 promotes the airgraph service, a method of sending messages to servicemen by airmail during the Second World War. Messages were written onto a special form that was then given an identification number and photographed onto microfilm. The microfilm was flown to its destination, developed into a full size print, and posted to the recipient.

Airgraph form, Christmas 1943 (POST 52/692)

Airgraph form, Christmas 1943 (POST 52/692)

Sending 1600 airgraphs on microfilm weighed just 5oz compared to 50lbs for the same number of letters. Copies of the microfilm were kept so that if they were shot down the messages could be re-sent.

Christmas time is often the most difficult for serving military personnel and airgraphs were eagerly anticipated by troops. Today, the British Forces Post Office (BFPO) uses an electronic system called eBlueys – read more about it in this blog about our visit to the BFPO in 2009.

Visit our website for more on the Airgraph Service – did you know that Queen Elizabeth (later The Queen Mother) sent the first airgraph?

Queen Elizabeth taking a look at an airgraph film. The Queen sent the first airgraph to launch the service in 1941.

Queen Elizabeth taking a look at an airgraph film. The Queen sent the first airgraph to launch the service in 1941.

Mail to troops fighting the First World War

In wartime one of the most important means of maintaining troops’ morale is provision of an efficient mail service. Letters from family and loved ones are eagerly awaited, as is news from the front to those at home.

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

Writing Home in Dug-Out (2011-0511/01)

300 members of the Army Postal Service travelled with the British Expeditionary Force to France in August 1914, but by the end of the war this had grown to nearly 4,000 across all spheres of conflict.

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Suvla Bay Post Office (2011-0502/11)

Lantern slides, recently catalogued by our curatorial team and volunteers, show some of these personnel at work. A field post office established at the side of a road in France is typical of the makeshift facilities employed to run the service.

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

British Field Post Office France (2011-0502/07)

Other images show foreign troops receiving their mail.

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

India Military Camp Post Office (2011-0502/16)

As artefacts, these lantern slides are fascinating for many reasons. The crude colourisation of some of them tells us about the technology of the time, and the desire of the image-makers must have had to show us the world as it is – in colour. But more interesting are the glimpses of the conditions endured by the troops, even when they weren’t fighting at the front, and the expressions on their faces, showing obvious delight at receiving news from home.

Visit Flickr to see more of our First World War lantern slides.

Employment of Disabled People

With the Paralympic Games taking place in London right now there has been considerable interest in the history of the event, and the way in which it and other initiatives have challenged prejudice towards disabled people.

The First and Second World Wars saw large numbers return home with severe physical injuries, and within both government and the medical profession there was a drive to offer these veterans the best care and opportunities. Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a neurologist who worked at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, where military personnel with spinal injuries were treated, had observed that his patients benefitted from physical activity and in order to encourage this he organised the first International Wheelchair Games (IWG).

The IWG was held parallel to the 1948 London Olympic Games, and was so successful that it was held again, at the same venue in Stoke Mandeville, in 1952. By 1960 the Games had become known as the Paralympics, and were being held in the same host cities as the Olympic Games. An increasing number of athletes from around the world were taking part, and the Games were no longer open solely to war veterans.

The aftermath of war also saw concerted efforts by government to advance employment opportunities for disabled people and within the Royal Mail Archive are records showing how the Post Office responded to this challenge. One interesting item in the Archive is this design for a stool enabling disabled veterans to undertake postal duties.

Part of a design for a special stool for disabled soldiers, circa 1919. (POST 30/4652c)

Part of a design for a special stool for disabled soldiers, circa 1919. (POST 30/4652c)

Employment of disabled people by the Post Office pre-dated World Wars 1 and 2, and included the blind Postmaster General Henry Fawcett, but attitudes to disabled employment have been difficult to change.

Henry Fawcett was accidentally blinded by a shotgun at the age of 25, but did not let his disability deter him. He became a Professor and a Member of Parliament, and served as Postmaster General from 1880 until his death in1884. (Image from BPMA Portfolio Collection)

Henry Fawcett was accidentally blinded by a shotgun at the age of 25, but did not let his disability deter him. He became a Professor and a Member of Parliament, and served as Postmaster General from 1880 until his death in1884. (Image from BPMA Portfolio Collection)

A report produced by the Post Office in 1946 found that many ex-servicemen had been employed to perform duties which were often monotonous and had little prospect of promotion. The report recommended that disabled persons should be encouraged to undertake as wide a range of duties as possible.

By the 1980s Girobank, then still a part of the Post Office, won awards for its role in employing disabled people. There were even Paralympic athletes employed by Royal Mail during this time, such as five-time medal winner Ian Hayden who worked as an Equal Opportunities Officer at Royal Mail Oxford.

Visit our website to find out more about the history of disabled employees in the Post Office, or read other articles on this blog about the Paralympic Games.

The Post Office in the First World War

Even today we are reminded from time to time of the importance and value of a letter or packet to British troops serving across the globe. The receipt of a letter or parcel containing news from home or small mementoes or gift is a vital life line. This was also true during the First World War. Now over 90 years since that conflict ended the story of just how important a postal service was is still being told. The BBC Radio 4 series, included some touching extracts from letters sent by British soldiers, and even letters from German soldiers back to the family of fallen British officer. A number of these letters are today preserved as part of the British Postal Museum collection.

Delivering mail to troops during the First World War (POST 118/5429).

Delivering mail to troops during the First World War (POST 118/5429).

The First World War was fought at a time when other forms of communications were still in their infancy, most homes for instance still did not have the telephone, and indeed the Post Office themselves had only be managing the network for two years when war broke out. Written communication was therefore essential not only to maintain morale of the troops and allow news of the war home, but it was also a vital part of conveying military information.

The breakout of war across the world posed a massive challenge for the postal system that not only had to maintain a service at home but was now also having to provide a service to ever changing theatres of war around the world and at sea. The British Post Office not only had to rise to this massive challenge, but had to do so with reduced numbers of staff. The organisation sent thousands of men off to fight in the war and also to help run the postal service at the front lines. Many of these men were to never return home. Women were employed in huge numbers to fill the gaps left by men. The Post Office were to lead the way in providing employment for women that was to go on after the war to help in the cause of women’s suffrage.

Women working on parcel sorting during the First World War (POST 56/6)

Women working on parcel sorting during the First World War (POST 56/6)

The Post Office’s roles of operating a postal system and sending men off to fight were however far from its only contributions. As The Peoples Post has shown the Post Office also played a pivotal role in censorship and espionage. On the one hand the Post Office were catching spies through the interception of mail, and on the other were helping to prevent the leaking, either accidental or deliberately, of military secrets. Letters sent from the front were subject to inspection by the postal censor, unless they were sealed in a signed ‘honour’ envelope, where the sender would sign a declaration conforming the contents of the letter did not reveal military information.

Honour Envelope – obverse (PH32/27)

Honour Envelope – obverse (PH32/27)

Other methods were also employed to help reduce the chances of military positions or details escaping, such as the field service postcard (referenced in the radio series) that limited the things that could be said by way of multiple choices.

If this was not all enough the Post Office also operated and managed the Separation Allowance, paid to those left at home while the wage earner was off fighting the war, and the war savings bond, a government launched savings scheme set up to help pay for the war.

The Post Office’s contribution to the war was on many levels, and really was essential to the eventual victory in so many ways. Perhaps the most remarkable element to all this is how this was all being done while so many of the organisation’s most experienced staff were off serving in the armed forces. Many of these never to returned, and even today Royal Mail is one of the largest custodians of war memorials in this country. For those that did come back the Post Office established its own hospitals and convalescence homes to care for its returning heroes.

The story of the Post Office in the First World is huge and fascinating and there is so much more of it to tell. Find out more in our online exhibition The Last Post.

– Chris Taft, Curator

For more on today’s episode of The Peoples Post see our webpage The Post Office at War. Further images can be found on Flickr. Use the Twitter hashtag #PeoplesPost to comment on the show.

Last Post at the Royal Engineers Museum

by Amy Adam, Assistant Curator, Royal Engineers Museum

Today Last Post: Remembering the First World War opens at the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham Kent. This temporary exhibition has been curated by The British Postal Museum & Archive and the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms and features objects from the Royal Engineers Museum Postal and Courier Archive.

Letters sent by Royal Engineers during the war

Letters sent by Royal Engineers during the war

The exhibition tells the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front. But this is not just an exhibition about stamps! Learn about the Post Office Rifles, the Post Office’s own battalion or hear about the tens of thousands of women who joined the Post office workforce temporarily. The role played by the Royal Engineers Postal and Courier Section is brought to life through the objects on display and you can even have a go at writing your very own trench post card.

Write a postcard from the trenches

Write a postcard from the trenches

A key object of the exhibition is a biscuit that was posted from the trenches back to Great Yarmouth. This hardtack biscuit was delivered in tact despite the fact it was sent with no wrapping, it just had the address and stamped fixed straight onto the item of food!

Hardtack biscuit posted from the trenches.

Hardtack biscuit posted from the trenches.

Also on display are some of the original postal distribution maps used on the Western Front. These beautifully drawn maps show the routes that the mails took to get to those on the Front Line and are displayed alongside photographs of the men who distributed the post.

An original postal distribution map used on the Western Front

An original postal distribution map used on the Western Front

Last Post opens today, Wednesday 8 June 2011 and runs through ‘til Thursday September 1 2011.

The Royal Engineers Museum is open every day except Mondays. For further information on the Royal Engineers Museum please visit www.re-museum.co.uk, or our Facebook page ‘Royal Engineers Museum’. You can also email us at mail@re-museum.co.uk or call 01634 822312.

The British Forces Post Office

Recently a small group of BPMA staff and Friends visited the British Forces Post Office (BFPO). Based in an impressive purpose-built building at RAF Northolt, the BFPO provides a mail service to members of the British armed services, as well as a number of government departments and corporate clients.

The BFPO can trace its history back to 1799 when the office of Army Postmaster was established. Over time the service has formalised and expanded to become an important part of military life. From its initial beginnings as part of the Army it now ensures letters and parcels reach serving Navy and Air Force personnel too.

One reason for the longevity of the service is its value as a morale booster. During the Second World War (WW2) General Montgomery was heard to say that his soldiers could march for three or four days without food on the strength of one letter from home. These sentiments were echoed by Lieutenant Colonel J.A. Field, the present Commander of Defence Postal Services.

For this reason the BFPO and its predecessors have always been keen to use the technology of the day to deliver mail quickly and efficiently. Trials of airmail were conducted by the Royal Engineers (Postal Section) in 1918 and these proved so successful that a regular service between Folkestone and Cologne was established the following year. During WW2, Postal Section personnel were regularly detached with forward troops, often establishing postal services within hours of their arrival. In recent times the BFPO has used cutting-edge OCR technology to sort mail, and has established an innovative hybrid mail system called the e-bluey.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

The BFPO uses OCR technology (foreground) to read addresses on mail. Once an address has been read the item of mail is dispatched down a chute (background) and bagged for dispatch.

Families of British service personnel have long been able to send letters on special blue stationery (known as a blueys), as well as packages weighing up to 2kg, free of charge, but e-blueys enable them to send a message electronically – which will usually arrive within 24 hours. E-blueys can be hand-written and faxed, or sent through the BFPO website. Drawings and colour photographs can also be included, a feature particularly popular with personnel with young families.

Once sent, the e-blueys are delivered via an encrypted computer system to Field Post Offices, where they are printed out using a special printer which seals each message as it is printed. The messages are then distributed to troops with regular mail, having been seen by no one apart from sender and recipient. The e-bluey system is extremely popular, and photographs and drawings which have been sent in this way are said to adorn the walls of many a barracks.

In addition to its sorting, delivery and logistics activities, the BFPO has a Philatelic Bureau which issues a number of First Day Covers each year. The BPMA group was lucky enough to receive one of these to commemorate our visit. As part of an initiative to collect items from postal services other than Royal Mail, the BPMA’s curatorial team collected BFPO bag labels, e-bluey samples and a range of other material.

The BFPOs First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BFPO's First Day Cover to commemorate our visit

The BPMA would like to thank BFPO for allowing us to visit, and is particularly grateful to the Officers and staff who provided us with information and assistance.