The Post Office and the First World War
The Post Office in 1914
By 1914 the Post Office employed over 250,000 people with a revenue of £32 million making it the biggest economic enterprise in Britain and the largest single employer of labour in the world.
On the eve of war the Post Office not only handled a yearly total 5.9 billion items of post but was responsible for the nation’s telegraph and telephone systems, as well as providing savings bank and other municipal facilities at thousands of branch post offices.
Many of these services changed as a result of the First World War and the Post Office was crucial to both Britain’s communications and war effort during this great conflict.
Staff leave to fight
When war was declared in 1914 an outbreak of national fervour saw huge numbers of men clamour to enlist with the armed forces, including 11,000 Post Office staff.
Every male employee was sent a letter encouraging him to enlist—a plea that was echoed by union leaders—and by December 28,000 staff had obliged.
In fact, the government used the GPO to distribute recruitment forms throughout the country—later mass distributions organised by the Post Office include the circulation of ration books in 1917. By the end of the war the Post Office had released 75,000 staff for war services.
The Post Office Rifles
The Post Office also had its own battalion comprised entirely of postal staff: the Post Office Rifles (POR). This infantry force fought on the Western Front suffering heavy casualties at Ypres and the Somme.
Receiving hundreds of gallantry awards and one Victoria Cross, approximately 12,000 men joined the colours with the POR. Of these, some 1,800 were killed and 4,500 were wounded.
The Army Postal Service (APS)
Responsible for army mails in all theatres of war, the APS not only handled mails between Britain and the forces abroad but coordinated communications between units at the front.
With the onset of trench warfare, all mails bound for troops on the Western Front were sorted at the London Home Depot by the end of 1914. Covering five acres of Regents Park, this was said to be the largest wooden structure in the world employing over 2,500 mostly female staff by 1918. During the war the Home Depot handled a staggering 2 billion letters and 114 million parcels.
The Western Front
In France, the APS established base depots at Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais and mail was carried with munitions on supply trains to the front. In 1917 over 19,000 mailbags crossed the channel each day with half a million bags conveyed in the run up to Christmas.
Trench warfare meant that British positions at the front remained fairly static and this enabled a comprehensive network of lorries and carts to develop for written communications and parcels between units at the front.
In London, the Post Office Engineering department designed telephone and telegraph equipment that was used in the trenches and enabled military operations to be directed on a scale never attempted in any previous war.
The Home Front
With nearly a quarter of the workforce enlisted with the army, thousands of temporary workers were drafted in by the Post Office including 35,000 women in the first two years of the war.
The War Office also employed thousands of bilingual women to work on postal and telegraphic censorship monitoring correspondence with neutral countries all over the world. Assisted by the Post Office, this censorship was the largest of its kind and helped the government to catch spies, control the dissemination of military information and to compile economic data used to better execute the blockade of vital imports into Germany.
Another wartime initiative involving women was the introduction of Separation Allowances—payments made by the government through the Post Office to the wives of men who left to fight. Over £2 million per week was paid to some 2.7 million persons in this way and bereaved widows and orphans also received assistance from the ‘Post Office Relief Fund’ to which postal employees were encouraged to donate.
Although the Dublin Post Office was seriously damaged during the Easter Rising of 1916, the most dramatic destruction of Post Office property came in July 1917 when the Central Telegraph Office (CTO) in London was bombed during a daylight air raid.
The attack not only brought down a portion of the roof, but for a few hours took down the inland and international telegraph system. Offices in Birmingham stepped in straight away and the CTO was up and running within three days. No one was hurt thanks to a national air raid warning system developed by the Post Office Engineering department.
Owing to the mobilisation of so much of the Post Office workforce it became necessary to reduce public facilities available in peacetime. Rural areas were particularly affected. In 1913 a rural town could expect up to twelve deliveries per day, but this was soon reduced to just one or two.
Deliveries by road were reduced to conserve fuel and Travelling Post Offices (trains that conveyed mail) had their timetables adjusted to accommodate these service reductions. Sea-bound mails were similarly reduced and the Irish Packet Boat Service was restricted to night crossings only after the ‘Leinster’ was torpedoed and sunk in the Irish sea on 10 October 1918.
Victoria Cross recipients
The Victoria Cross (VC) is Britain’s highest award for gallantry. It is awarded only rarely, and issued only for the highest possible bravery. Many of the recipients lost their lives in the act that gained them the medal. The award was first conceived by Prince Albert, Consort to Queen Victoria, in recognition of the bravery of men of all ranks during the Crimean War. During the First World War it was awarded 628 times, four of these awarded were to postal workers.
- Sgt Albert Gill, a GPO employee from Birmingham, who was killed in action in 1916 when he faced down the enemy, despite knowing it meant certain death, to hold up an advance
- Sgt Alfred Knight, a GPO employee from Nottingham who single handedly captured an enemy position during the Battle for Wurst Farm Ridge in 1917.
- Major Henry Kelly, who worked for the GPO at a sorting office in Manchester at the outbreak of war; he was awarded the VC after conspicuous bravery during an attack in Le Sars, France when under heavy fire he led three men into an enemy trench, and then, when forced to retreat when enemy reinforcements arrived, carried his wounded Company Sergeant Major to safety. Major Kelly continued to work for the GPO after the war.
- Sgt John Hogan, a postman from Oldham, was 30 years old, and a sergeant in the 2nd Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, British Army during the First World War. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for great courage under fire on 29 October 1914 near Festubert, France.
The end of the Penny Post
Finally, the First World War hailed the end of the famous Penny Post. The Treasury had been heavily drained by the huge costs of the war and the government needed to raise extra revenue by all possible means.
The standard national postage rate of one penny for letters had stood for 75 years and was reluctantly abandoned in June 1918 when postage was raised by a half penny. Concerning the demise of the Penny Post, one postal historian has lamented that “one of the great triumphs of peace, had succumbed to the demands of war”.
An extensive list of archival documents relating to the First World War is available upon request at our Discovery Room. The following sources are an excellent starting point, covering a number of major aspects of the Post Office during 1914-1918.
POST 33/307B: Historical Record of the Post Office during the Great War
POST 56/4: Supplements to the Post Office Circular relating to wartime services (1915-1918)
POST 56/102: Letters from the Postmaster General to staff requesting volunteers for war service (1915)
POST 56/103: Memoranda, circulars and letters relating to the enlistment of Post Office staff (1916)
POST 56/57: Report on Postal Censorship during the Great War (1914-1918)
POST 56/5: Historical record of Army Postal Services (1914-1919)
POST 56/85: History of the Post Office Rifles (1914-1918)
POST 92/10: Reports of the Postmaster General on the Post Office (1913-1917)