Our people were integral to the war effort; from distributing recruitment forms for men to enlist, to serving in battle at the Western Front, and ensuring the safe delivery of millions of letters to soldiers in the trenches.
Our role in the First World War
We released 75,000 of our own staff to fight in the war. The GPO had its own regiment, the Post Office Rifles, which comprised around 12,000 employees.
The Post Offices Riffles were stationed on the Western Front. They fought at The Somme and Passchendaele, suffering tremendous losses.
More than half of their fighting force was lost at the Battle of Wurst Farm Ridge in September 1917.
Of the 12,000 GPO employees in the Post Office rifles, 1,800 were killed and 4,500 wounded.
The Post Office Rifles Cemetery is just outside the village of Festubert, France. Only 26 of the graves are named, over ten times as many are dedicated simply, 'A Soldier of the Great War’.
At least four of our former employees won the Victoria Cross, for valour "in the face of the enemy". They were Sgt Alfred Knight, Sgt Albert Gill, Major Henry Kelly and Sgt John Hogan.
How letters reached the Western Front
The GPO worked tirelessly to ensure men on the front line got their letters from home.
In December 1914, a special sorting office – the Home Depot – was built to deal with mail to the troops. Built in Regent’s Park, London, it covered five acres. It was said to be the largest wooden structure in the world at the time. With 2,500 employees, mostly female, the depot processed letters and parcels for the troops. At its peak 12 million letters and 1 million parcels were passing through the Home Depot each week.
The easiest way to transport mail was by sea. But the dangers posed by enemy ships and mines meant that from 1915 to 1917 mail was transported overland to many zones of the war. In 1917 the introduction of protective convoys for shipping saw post again transported by sea.
Once overseas the mail became the responsibility of the Army Post Office, until it was delivered to the postal orderly of each unit. Despite the volume, the service was highly efficient – on average it took only two days for a letter from Britain to reach the Western Front (unless it was held up by the censor).
Trench warfare also meant that British positions at the front remained fairly static. This enabled a comprehensive network of lorries and carts to develop, running written communications and parcels between units at the front.
It was normal practice in the trenches for each day's post to be handed out with the evening meal, by ration parties. They would also collect the men’s letters and postcards for home.
Letters and parcels in numbers
In 1917 over 19,000 mailbags crossed the channel each day, with half a million bags carried in the run up to Christmas.
Outbound letters to soldiers peaked at more than 12 million a week early in the first quarter of 1918.
Outbound parcels rose to just over a million a week by the spring of 1917.
Supporting the war effort
Postal communications played a vital role in the war effort. The GPO set up telecommunications between Headquarters and the front line. It also ran an internal-army postal system.
Telegraphs and telephones were the main means of communication between the front line and Headquarters during battle. Over 11,000 GPO engineers worked to make this possible throughout the war, using the skills they had acquired as civilians.
Writing and receiving letters and parcels was key to sustaining morale and overcoming boredom, which was a feature of trench life. Many soldiers were dedicated correspondents – infantryman Reg Sims, for example, wrote home: ‘in exactly twelve months I have received 167 letters besides paper and parcels and have written 242 letters.’
Royal Mail and Post Office Limited are entrusted with the care of around 300 war memorials commemorating those who served in the war. Many of the memorials were established after the war, and feature the names of postal staff who fought for their country.
As part of the company’s centenary commemorations, a database of all these memorials has been published online. The database can be seen at www.royalmailmemorials.com. The website provides searchable information about each individual memorial.
All pictures by kind permission of The British Postal Museum and Archive.
Captions: Header: Mail bags delivered to the front line. Top: The Post Office Rifles on parade in London. Mid: Bags of mail at Home Depot London. Lower: Post delivery to soldiers.