Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Postal Service in the First World War

Love this picture of the sorting office used on Lancaster Museum's poster for their current exhibition, with items from the British Postal Museum and the Kings Own Royal Regiment.  It is a fascinating collection of items, we were in the room so long the woman on the desk looked round the corner to check on us. I don't know if she thought we had keeled over in the heat, or perhaps were loading suitcases and looking for a quick getaway.  There were unique items under glass, photographs,  letters and artifacts but also files of cards and letters sent from the front.
One of the items in this folder struck me as particularly poignant with the it short message - "To my Little Girl, Many Happy Returns, Your Dada. France June 23 1915"  So many died I wonder if he returned from the front to see his little girl. One of the things I learnt from this exhibition is that if someone was killed or went missing the letters were returned with that message on them to the sender.

The exhibition also had a full size hut as used by the sorting officer to distribute letter and parcels to the boys on the front line, everything that could be sent was, even neatly wrapped footballs.

Keeping in touch with family, friends and loved ones was as  important then as is is now and the Post Office was a significant part of that link.  When the First World War started in 1914 and it was not "all over by Christmas"  it soon became apparent that not only would there be increased costs , which eventually led to the universal postage rate of a penny being abolished, (and it has been going up regularly ever since!) but there was also a shortage of manpower. Posters went up to recruit men of over 45 and then for the first time they recruited women in numbers, where previously they had only been employed as postmistresses or in rural areas where no male employee could be found.

At first the letters were sorted by the army units in France, but it soon became apparent that it would be better to do it in the UK so they built the Home Depot sorting office in Regent's Park, London.  When completed it was the largest wooden building in the world.  The average time for a letter to be delivered to the western front was 2 days, if it did not have to be censored.  Letters were censored at the port of Le Harve and then later in Boulogne so the enemy could not learn any information from the letter, but they also had a great deal of sucess in catching spies this way.
Hatched cancels like this were used so the letter would not give away positions of ships or troops.

At its peak the Post Office was dealing with 13 million items and by the end of the war owned 22,000 carrier pigeons. What a mind-boggling number of pigeons.

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