Royal Mail played a significant role in the First World War, as part of the General Post Office. From delivering millions of letters to soldiers in the trenches to fighting in battles on the Western Front, our people were vital to the war effort.

 


 

The Post Office Rifles

Royal Mail released 75,000 staff to fight in the war. As well as serving throughout the Armed Forces, the GPO also had its own regiment, The Post Office Rifles. A second battalion was formed in September 1914 to accommodate the growing number of volunteers.

The Post Office Rifles had existed in various forms from 1867. It was originally created to protect Royal Mail buildings from attack during war and was made up almost entirely of Royal Mail staff.

Sign up was so quick that a month after the First World War broke out a second battalion was created and a third was formed before the war was over.

Made up of around 12,000 employees, the Post Office Rifles’ first duty was to protect GPO premises from German spies or saboteurs.

The regiment was also stationed on the Western Front, fighting at the Battles of The Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. The regiment suffered terrible losses in combat – of the 12,000 soldiers, 1,800 were killed and 4,500 wounded. More than half of the regiment’s fighting force was lost at the Battle of Wurst Farm Ridge in September 1917.

During the war the Post Office Rifles won 145 awards for gallantry. Four former postal workers were awarded 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.

The Post Office Rifles Cemetery is near the village of Festubert, France. It contains the graves of 26 identified men from the regiment, alongside ten times as many gravestones simply dedicated to ‘A Soldier of the Great War’.

 

 


 

 

Going to the front

Of the 75,000 men that left Royal Mail to fight in the First World War, 11,000 of them enrolled in the Reserve and Territorial forces when the war broke out. By December 1914, 28,000 men had already left Royal Mail to go off to fight. By March 1915 this had risen to 35,000. Following the introduction of military conscription for all fit, unmarried men in January 1916, the figure stood at 54,000. By November 1916, 68,000 men had left for the trenches. In all over 8,500 postal workers were killed.

To commemorate the Centenary of the First World War, Royal Mail developed a searchable database of all known memorials in the company’s care. The site pays tribute to those who served in the First World War and aims to safeguard the memorials established in order to preserve their memory. > Royal Mail Memorials

 


 

Delivering mail to a world at war

During the First World War, consistent communications between the fighting lines and the Home Front were essential. The General Post Office (GPO) operated postal, telegraphic, telephone, and banking services - providing people with communication lines across the globe. This allowed generals to keep up to speed with the changing situation on the front line, while also allowing the soldiers themselves to send and receive letters from loved ones at home to boost morale.

In all, some 13,000 GPO engineers were engaged in the constant work to maintain and keep open these critical lines of communication, on which many thousands of lives depended. It was the GPO's role to continue the service and to manage the increase in its use, while also introducing new services to support the war effort.

 

GPO Workers handle the huge volumes of mail being processed each week

During the First World War alone, the Army Postal Service handled a staggering two billion letters and 114 million parcels. Up to 12 million letters a week were delivered to soldiers, many on the front line. At the peak of the war, it took just two days for a letter to reach the front line, with 19,000 mailbags crossing the English Channel every day.

In December 1914 a special sorting office – the Home Depot – was built in Regent’s Park in London to deal with mail to the troops. It covered five acres and was said to be the largest wooden structure in the world at the time. Once post arrived overseas it became the responsibility of the Army Post Office until it was delivered to the postal orderly of each unit. The day’s post was normally handed out in the trenches with the evening meal. At the same time, letters and postcards home would be collected.

The home depot, Regent's Park

The Home Depot, Regent's Park on Armistice Day - 11th November 1918

 


 

The role of women in the First World War

Women had been employed by the GPO since 1870, but with the war came a surge in demand for women to fill the jobs traditionally held by men. Although the decision to increase women in the workforce was met with some disapproval, tens of thousands of women joined the GPO workforce temporarily during the First World War. By November 1916, more than 35,000 women were employed.

Women took assignments in a range of operational roles, including as van drivers and telephone engineers. Women telegraphists and telephonists were also asked to volunteer and work in France with the Women's Auxilliary Army Corps. The War's circumstance allowed women to perform duties they had never previously been permitted to. For the first time, women could:

  • work on delivery duties in urban areas
  • work on mail sorting duties
  • work as tracers in the Post Office Engineering Department
  • open packets in the Returned Letter Office (this had been forbidden in case they opened anything indecent)

The First World War was also the first time that a full uniform specifically for women was introduced. They received a cap, skirt, coat and a pair of boots.

 

A postwoman on her round during the First World War

Florence Marie Cass

 

Florence Marie Cass MBE

Florence Marie Cass, from Ladywell in Lewisham, worked as a telephonist for the GPO during the First World War.

When an explosion at a nearby munitions factory knocked out the telephone exchange that she managed, Florence reactivated the crucial communications hub by navigating her way to the engine room in complete darkness and starting the emergency generators.

Following the incident, she was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for 'great courage and devotion to duty'.

 


 

 

Censorship, restricted addresses and the green envelopes

Letters from the front were censored during the war. Regimental officers went through them looking for vital military information that might fall into enemy hands. They also looked for graphic details of the horrors of the Western Front, fearing it would impact morale at home.

At the height of the war, 375,000 letters were censored every day, with banned topics and words scribbled out or whole pages torn from letters. This created unease, as soldiers worried that officers from their own unit could read private family details.

As a result, special green envelopes were introduced in March 1915. These allowed soldiers to write private letters that wouldn’t be read by their unit’s censor. Also known as ‘honour envelopes’, soldiers had to sign a declaration stating the letter only contained private or family-related information.

The War Office was also afraid that addressing letters to certain regiments at particular places would reveal deployment and position of allied troops. People sending letters, therefore, were advised to address them to the name, military number and unit, care of the GPO, to be sorted and sent to the Army Post Office.

 

The envelope of a censored letter, sent in August 1916

 

Despite these restrictions, letters were used to tell people at home about some of the most famous events of the war.

Few events were more extraordinary than Christmas Day 1914, when soldiers who had been at war for months climbed out of the trenches and met the enemy in No Man’s Land to exchange cigarettes and souvenirs. The event was recorded in letters sent home by soldiers who had enjoyed the truce, but knew they would soon be back to shooting at each other.

Captain A D Chater of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders wrote of the unlikely respite in a letter to his mother:

I think I have seen one of the most extraordinary sights today that anyone has ever seen. About 10 o’clock this morning I was peeping over the parapet when I saw a German, waving his arms, and presently two of them got out of their trenches and came towards ours.

We were just going to fire on them when we saw they had no rifles. So one of our men went out to meet them and in about two minutes the ground between the two lines of trenches was swarming with men and officers of both sides, shaking hands and wishing each other a happy Christmas.

We had another parley with the Germans in the middle. We exchanged cigarettes and autographs, and some more people took photos. I don’t know how long it will go on for – I believe it was supposed to stop yesterday, but we can hear no firing going on along the front today except a little distant shelling. We are, at any rate, having another truce on New Year’s Day, as the Germans want to see how the photos come out!

 

- Captain A D Chater, 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders

 

 


 

On the 11th November 1918, the Allied forces and the German army signed an armistice that brought about an end to the First World War.

However, it was several months before many servicemen were able to return to their homes and years before normal services were able to resume across the country.

Royal Mail continues to remember the sacrifices made by postal workers during the war and celebrates the tenacity and determination of our men and women - both throughout the conflict and after it.

 


 

 

500 years of Royal Mail

Learn more about key moments in history and Royal Mail's contribution on our dedicated 500th-anniversary website.

Royal Mail Memorials

We honour those who served in the First World War and safeguard the memorials established to preserve their memory.

Letters of our lives

Explore over 1000 letters that chart 315 years of the UK's social history, submitted to Royal Mail by the British public.