18 July 2019
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Remembering our contribution to the First World War

2014-2018 marks the centenary of the First World War, an important anniversary for Britain and the world.
Poppy

The Post Office Rifles on parade in London.

At the time of the First World War, Royal Mail was part of the General Post Office (GPO), along with what subsequently became British Telecommunications and Post Office Limited. Our people were integral to the war effort; from serving in battle at the Western Front to 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. Like many other regiments, the Post Offices Riffles were stationed at the Western Front and were involved in many battles. They fought at Yvres, the Somme and Passchendaele, and suffered tremendous losses. More than half of their fighting force was lost at the Battle of Wurst Farm Ridge in September 1917.

By the end of the war, 1,800 men from the Post Office Rifles would be dead and 4,500 more would be wounded.

At least four postal workers were awarded the Victoria Cross, which is issued rarely and only for the highest possible bravery. 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 safely received mail on the front line. At the outbreak of war, a sorting office was created in London’s Regent’s Park called the Home Depot. It employed 2,500 staff, mainly women, to sort post. It was said to be the largest wooden structure in the world at the time.

The depot processed letters and parcels bound 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 of enemy ships and mines meant that from 1915 to 1917 mail was transported to many of the war zones overland. In 1917 convoys were introduced to protect the ships and post was once again transported by sea.

Once post sent from the Home Depot arrived overseas it 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).

Letters and parcels in numbers

In 1917 over 19,000 mailbags crossed the channel each day with half a million bags conveyed 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 and outbound parcels soared 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.

Writing and receiving letters and parcels were a vital part of sustaining morale and overcoming the boredom, which was a feature of trench life.  Many 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.’

Our memorials

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.

More information

For more information about Royal Mail’s significant role in the First World War as part of the General Post Office, please click here.

Picture by kind permission of The British Postal Museum and Archive.