During the First World War, the Post Office contributed to military operations on a scale never seen before, providing an essential means of communication between the fighting lines and the Home Front.
The Post Office’s contribution to the war effort was hugely significant, and it played a vital and varied role. As well as maintaining the postal service at home and on the front lines tens of thousands of Post Office workers fought in the war, and over 8,500 were killed.
"The Post Office Rifles"
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 8th Battalion City of London Regiment known as the Post Office Rifles.
The Post Office Rifles had existed since 1868 and was made up almost entirely of Post Office staff. So many men were keen to enlist that a second battalion had to be created a month after war broke out.
The Post Office Rifles fought at many of the major battles including Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. For their services members were awarded 145 decorations for gallantry, including one Victoria Cross, and 27 battle honours.
The Post Office Rifles lost 300 men during a single battle near Longueval in 1918. One of these was Captain Home Peel who was killed in action on 24 March. In an act of kindness and humanitarianism a German soldier, E.F. Gayler, sent a letter to Home Peel's wife informing her of his death.
enemy and sometime deeply hurt by the ridiculous tone of your home press, I
feel it a human duty to communicate these sad news.'"
"Sergeant Alfred J. Knight V.C."
"'His several single-handed actions showed exceptional bravery, and saved a number of casualties in the Company.'"
Alfred Knight was the only member of the Post Office Rifles to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Three other members of Post Office staff were awarded the same honour, namely Major Henry Kelly, Sergeant John Hogan and Sergeant Albert Gill.
At Wurst Farm Ridge, during the battle of Ypres, Sgt Knight performed a series of brave manoeuvres including single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun position, by taking on 12 German soldiers, killing three and causing the rest to flee.
The Post Office circular that reported the incidents noted that ‘his several single-handed actions showed exceptional bravery, and saved a great number of casualties in the Company. They were performed under heavy machine gun and rifle fire, and without regard to personal risk, and were the direct cause of the objectives being captured.’
"Front line communications"
The Post Office set up telecommunications between Headquarters and the front line.
During battle telegraphs and telephones were the main means of communication between the front line and Headquarters. Some 13,000 Post Office engineers engaged in the constant work to maintain and keep these vital lines of communication open.
"Communication between units at the front"
Many soldiers had friends and relatives fighting in other units.
In December 1914 an internal army Post Office system was set up to deliver mail to and from different parts of the front line, and the Headquarters.
The army also ran a fast and reliable pigeon post service. The British Army used around 100,000 pigeons during the war. By 1918 there were 22,000 pigeons carrying post at the front.
"Delivering mail to a world at war"
The most important element in ensuring mail was successfully delivered to the army units or ship was accuracy in sorting the mail. Due to the increase in the volume of mail being sent a temporary sorting office, known as the Home Depot, was erected in Regent’s Park, London to cope with the demand.
From December 1914 the Home Depot managed all outbound mail to the troops. At its peak the Home Depot could handle twelve million letters and one million parcels a week. Much of the mail was turned around in 24 hours, often allowing it to be delivered to front line trenches the next day. For much of the war women were the main workforce in the Home Depot.
A huge variety of mail was sent to the troops, by ship and later by air. Alongside letters and cards, foodstuffs and newspapers were popular items to receive.
"'…so rapid is the service between channel ports under existing conditions that the London morning newspapers are delivered in many instances on the day of publication and reach the trenches on the following day.”
- Postmaster General Herbert Smith"
Items sent back through the post from the troops included battlefield wills, which all soldiers were advised to write.
Private Leonard Eldridge of the Post Office Rifles wrote his will out on a long strip of paper, and posted it back home to his mother. In it he left her everything but his plant which he left to his girlfriend. He also emphasised to his mother that if anything were to happen to him, his girlfriend ‘must be treated in my absence as my lover with every respect’. Eldridge died on the Somme in 1916.
William Cox was a Post Office employee during peacetime. With a letter to his family, he posted back a small brass jacket button, taken from the uniform of a fallen comrade and a small piece of shrapnel, collected from a shell that exploded above him. Both the button and the shrapnel were posted back in an OXO tin.
"Women and the Post Office"
Before the war, women working as permanent staff in the Post Office were required to leave when they got married. During the war this rule was reversed, allowing women to continue in their roles after marriage. This was done as women and girls were needed to take on many of the jobs traditionally reserved for male employees. By November 1916 over 35,000 women were employed in temporary positions within the Post Office, an increase of 33,000 since March 1915.
Ellen Grace Macmichael, from Bridgnorth, Shropshire, was one of thousands of women who kept the postal service going at home. Ellen Macmichael was awarded the Imperial Service Medal at the end of 1916 for her ongoing work.
"Mails to theatres of war around the world"
Throughout the war the Post Office remained committed to delivering to the empire and worldwide, even if routes were redirected or ran the threat of crossing enemy lines. Initially the principal means of transporting mail across the world was by sea. Sea going mail, however, was more susceptible to attacks. After the sinking of a mail carrying ship in 1915, all mail was transported to the East overland until 1917 when once more sea borne mail was introduced, this time with better, more efficient protection convoys. In total, over 19 million items of wartime mail were lost due to the sinking of ships.
The work of the Army Post Office extended as far afield as Alexandria, East Africa, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and India, where a significant number of the troops fighting for the British Empire were from.
The location of each area of conflict was coded by letter to maintain secrecy: A for ‘in France’, and B for ‘East Africa’, for example.
"Mails to Prisoners of War"
The Post Office were also responsible for getting mail through to Prisoners of War. All countries involved in the war set-up reciprocal agreements that ensured mail was delivered to the prisoners, free of charge.
Rifleman Harry Brown was a soldier in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. He went missing, presumed killed in action, after a battle at Nieuport les Beins on 10 July 1917.
Captured as a Prisoner of War, the communication between Harry Brown and his mother continued throughout the war, and is documented in Field Service postcards, letters (some returned unopened), and official correspondence.
Harry was moved to a camp at Bayreuth where he died of inflammation of the lungs on 27 November 1918, 16 days after the end of the war.
Exhibition Content—Dominique Gardner