Tag Archives: troops

Christmas mail for HM Forces

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…

Poster advertising final posting dates, 1974. (POST 110/0079)

Poster advertising final posting dates, 1974. (POST 110/0079)

Military personnel are constantly on the move, so spare a thought for the British Forces Post Office which has the unenviable task of getting mail to them. In 1974, as now, the families of those serving in the Army, Navy and Air Force had to be very organised to ensure their loved ones received their Christmas cards and parcels. Mail from home is a great morale boost to servicemen and women on operations far from home, especially at Christmas time.

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.

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.

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.