Tag Archives: WWI

BPMA objects displayed in student-curated Time Tunnel exhibition

We recently loaned The Langley Academy in Slough a selection of objects from our First World War handling collection for a special Time Tunnel exhibition. The Langley Academy is the UK’s first school with specialist Museum Learning status.

The exhibition was curated by the Museum Club – students from Years 7, 8 and 11 with a shared passion for museums. The Time Tunnel exhibition spans 65 million years of history, starting at the dinosaurs and finishing at present day with some of our objects representing the First World War.

MuseumClub (4)

Sumaiya, Karam, Daniel, Komalpreet and Saba from Museum Club talk more about the exhibition below:

One Wednesday during Museum Club we skyped the British Postal Museum & Archive to hear about objects that they could loan us and decide what we wanted to borrow and how we could use it. Sally (Learning Officer) and Emma (Curator) explained what the objects were and information about them. We talked about the history of the objects that we wanted to borrow.

When the objects arrived we decided how we wanted to display them. We arranged the objects such as First World War postcards and a field telephone by theme.

Langley Academy Museum Club 1

Here’s what Karam and Saba had to say about the Time Tunnel exhibition:

‘Being a curator of Time Tunnel was one of the best experiences of my life. I learnt how to choose objects wisely’

(Karam)

‘Being a curator was very exciting. There was a lot of interesting objects from the museums. My favourite objects in the exhibition were the post box and the field telephone’

(Saba)

TEACHERS: Bring the story of the postal service at war to life in your classroom with Last Post the BPMA’s free downloadable digital First World War schools learning resource.

-Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer

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

Hounded from Pillar to Post: The Experiences of FWW Conscientious Objectors

This Thursday join Ben Copsey, Manager of the “Objecting to War” Project at the Peace Pledge Union, as he explores the lives and experiences of the 20,000 British Conscientious Objectors during the First World War. In today’s post we give you a sneak peak at a relatively unknown topic.

With the introduction of Conscription in 1916, men who believed they could not fight in the war were left with a difficult choice. Abandon their principles and take up arms, or face ridicule, arrest, assault and prison as Conscientious Objectors.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

First World War conscientious objectors. Courtesy of the Peace Pledge Union.

Over three hundred Post Office workers from around the country made the difficult decision to refuse to fight and kill in the First World War. Whether religious, political or ethical men, each one made a stand on the principle that noone should be forced into the army – a stand that for many would lead to years in prison, ostracism, and for some, death. Their motivations, experiences and opinions make a fascinating collection of sometimes odd, often passionate and always interesting stories of resistance and dissent. Post Office COs came from every area and community – from Jewish Sorters in the East end and Anarchist Postmen in Glasgow to Quaker Telegraphists in Liverpool – and experienced everything that could happen to an objector during the war, whether working with an ambulance service, going on the run or stubbornly refusing to compromise from the inside of Wormwood Scrubs, the men of the Post Office who stood up to say “No” to war provide a perfect snapshot of Conscientious Objection.

Many of their experiences are coming to light for the first time, telling a fascinating tale of courage, resistance and conviction of men standing up for their principles and the right to refuse to kill. While myths of Conscientious Objection still paint them as cowards and traitors, this talk will discuss why ordinary men
made an extraordinarily brave decision – and what happened to them as a result.

Join us this Thursday (6 November) from 7pm-8pm at the Phoenix Centre to find out more. Book your ticket online today to avoid missing out!

World War I exhibition on tour

Last Post: Remembering the First World War, an exhibition curated by the BPMA and the Churchill Museum & Cabinet War Rooms, is once again on tour. The exhibition explores the vital role played by the Post Office during the First World War, telling the stories of postal workers at war and on the Home Front, and examining the essential role played by postal communications.

Last Post is currently on display at two venues, the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire, and the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum in Fife, Scotland. Later this year it will travel to the Guildhall Library, London, and Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

Telegraph lines in the trenches. (POST 56/6)

The Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum is a particularly apt venue for this exhibition on wartime communications. While Andrew Carnegie is best known for using his huge fortune to build libraries and cultural venues, and found the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his early years he worked as a telegraph messenger.

At the aged of 13 Carnegie emigrated from Scotland to Pennsylvania with his family, securing a job two years later as a telegraph messenger boy at the Ohio Telegraph Company. Carnegie was quickly promoted to telegraph operator, but left aged 18 to work at the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company. By the time he was 20 Carnegie was investing in railway companies and learning about how they were managed; he was later to become rich through investments in the oil and steel industries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries telegraphy was an important – and the fastest – means of communication, and Post Office telegraphists were vital to wartime communications. Last Post: Remembering the First World War examines the impact of telegraphy on the war, and includes rarely-seen images of frontline telecommunications from the BPMA and Imperial War Museum’s collections.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Visit our website to see the tour dates for Last Post: Remembering the First World War.

Andrew Carnegie’s life was commemorated on a United States postage stamp in 1960 – see it on Flickr.

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

Remembering the First World War in Hampshire

From today until Friday 27th September 2013 our exhibition Last Post: Remembering the First World War will be on display at the Museum of Army Flying, Hampshire.

Last Post explores the effect of the events of 1914-18 on the Post Office and its people and the contribution of postal communications to the war effort.

The First World War was a major turning point in the history of the Post Office. Many of the services that were reduced because of the war were never the same again. The volume of mail increased dramatically between 1914 and 1918, rising from 700,000 items in October 1914 to 13 million at its height.

Men sorting bags of parcels. (POST 56/6)

Men sorting bags of parcels. (POST 56/6)

The Post Office actively encouraged their staff to join the war effort. Over 75,000 men left their jobs to fight in the First World War. Of these, 12,000 joined the Post Office’s own battalion, the Post Office Rifles.

The Post Office Rifles on parade. (POST 56/6)

The Post Office Rifles on parade. (POST 56/6)

Postal communications played a vital role in the war effort. The Post Office set up telecommunications between Headquarters and the front line. It also ran an internal army postal system. During battle telegraphs and telephones were the main means of communication between the front line and Headquarters. Over 11,000 Post Office engineers made this possible throughout the war, using the skills they had acquired as civilians.

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Mobile telegraph machine. (POST 56/6)

Many soldiers had relatives and friends fighting in other units. From December 1914, the Post Office ran a postal service that carried mail between units. Writing and receiving letters and parcels were a vital part of sustaining morale and overcoming the boredom, which was a feature of trench life.

Mail being sorted at a Field Post Office. (POST 56/6)

Mail being sorted at a Field Post Office. (POST 56/6)

There is a charge for admission to the Museum of Army Flying, with entry to Last Post included in the admission price. For more information on opening times and prices please see the Museum’s website: www.armyflying.com.

Last Post on Tour

Last Post at the Museum of Army Flying is the first stop on its tour, as we move towards the commemoration of the centenary of the beginning of the First World War in 2014. Our twin exhibition version of Last Post is to be exhibited at Aysgarth Railway station heritage site, North Yorkshire, for the weekend of 4th to 8th May 2013. On leaving the Museum of Army Flying in September 2013, Last Post is then being exhibited for the month of October at the Guildhall Library, London. Also in October 2013 its twin exhibition version will be at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire.

From Spring 2014 our flagship Last Post exhibition will be on display for a year at Coalbrookdale Museum, part of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust site, accompanied by loans from other museums and organisations. Last Post is also being exhibited at Mansfield Museum from April to June 2013, Guildford Museum from June to September 2014 and finally Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight from September to December 2014.

– Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer

If you would like to share your feedback on Last Post or for more information on any of the exhibition dates, please contact the BPMA Exhibitions Officer on dominique.gardner@postalheritage.org.uk.

View our online version of Last Post: Remembering the First World War on our website.

The History of the Christmas Card

BPMA Archivist Anna Flood previews her upcoming talk on The History of the Christmas Card

It’s a treat as we head towards Christmas to showcase some of the festive items we have in our collections. Last year I had the pleasure of delving into our extensive Christmas card collection for a talk which I will be repeating this December at the BPMA.

Using a wide variety of cards from our museum collection I’ll be discussing the inception in 1843 of the Christmas card as we know it today, and how the custom took off to great proportions up to the mid twentieth century, a period during which the most attractive, intricate and inventive cards were produced.

Audience members will be able to see how cards could become covetable objects for Victorians, particularly those with novel qualities such as perfumed and fan-shaped cards.

Chromolithographed card from scrapbook, 1866 (E10869)

Chromolithographed card from scrapbook, 1866 (E10869)

Some of the cards really are works of art, produced using innovative printing and paper-cutting methods, paper lace, and embroidery. However, there will also be several prime examples of Victorian gaudiness!

Raphael Tuck and Sons celluloid Christmas card, c. 1914-1918 (OB1995.162/41)

Raphael Tuck and Sons celluloid Christmas card, c. 1914-1918 (OB1995.162/41)

The exchange of Christmas cards as a romantic gesture will be illustrated by images of some of the prettiest and most delicate cards in our collection. Alongside these ornamental numbers will be examples of the practical uses of Christmas cards, given as gifts which doubled as National Savings stamp books, and printed in the form of tradesmen’s calling cards to solicit tips.

Postman's Christmas greetings card, issued to customers in the hope of receiving a gratuity (POST 30/1813)

Postman’s Christmas greetings card, issued to customers in the hope of receiving a gratuity (POST 30/1813)

The touching messages, cheerful colours and spring-like floral embroidery of some of the First World War cards will reflect how sending Christmas greetings was important to sustaining morale and providing comfort to soldiers on the frontline and their girlfriends, wives and mothers back home.

Embroidered Christmas card by Visé Paris, c.1914-1918 (OB1995.162/30)

Embroidered Christmas card by Visé Paris, c.1914-1918 (OB1995.162/30)

I’ll also provide examples of Victorian cards which debunk the common belief that the rotund, red-suited Father Christmas was the creation of Coca-Cola advertising in the 1930s. Other themes, including pagan imagery, humour, religion and romance will also be discussed, alongside the significance of the custom of exchanging Christmas cards as a reflection of social relations, tastes and fashions.

Raphael Tuck and Sons Christmas card, c.1900 (Acc. No. 2005-0101/3)

Raphael Tuck and Sons Christmas card, c.1900 (Acc. No. 2005-0101/3)

The talk on the ‘History of the Christmas card’ will be held on Tuesday 4 December, 7-8pm, in the Phoenix Centre next to the BPMA. For further details please visit http://www.postalheritage.org.uk/talk-christmas.

Items from the BPMA’s Christmas card collection can be viewed by appointment. Please contact info@postalheritage.org.uk for details.

Get 20% off Christmas cards purchased at the BPMA Shop until 19 November. Read our blog on GPO Christmas Posters to get the discount code.