The Great War was to change the lives of millions of people in a number of ways and the Post Office played a vital and varied role in the efforts. Over 8,500 Post Office workers were killed during World War One and the need for soldiers to fight on the frontline was in high demand. Employers such as the General Post Office actively encouraged their employees to fight in the war and they even had their own regiment called ‘The Post Office Rifles’. Fighting wasn’t the only war effort that the Post Office took part in during war time. Its employees maintained the Postal Service both at home as well as delivering mail to the soldiers on the frontline.
Over 75,000 Post Office workers left their jobs to fight in the war and around 12,000 of these joined the Post Offices own Battalion known as the Post Office Rifles, which was the 8th Battalion of the London Regiment. The Rifles had existed since 1868 and were almost entirely made up of Post Office employees. A month after war broke out a second battalion of the Post Office Rifles had to be created as there were so many men keen to join up from the Post Office. The Western Front became a bloody theatre of war and the Post Office Rifles were involved in many of the major battles in Europe such as Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. Typified by the lack of ground made on both sides during these battles, the troops on the frontline were cut off from their regular lives and letters to and from loved ones were treasured items. Many of the soldiers had friends and family fighting at different positions of the frontline and in December 1914 an internal military Post Office system was set up so they could stay in contact.
One method of delivering post to the frontline was to use carrier pigeons; a form of delivering messages that had been in use for thousands of years. During the war a carrier pigeon’s job was a dangerous one, with soldiers on both sides often trying to shoot the pigeon down in order to intercept what could possibly be highly classified enemy information. The British Army used 100,000 pigeons during the war and by 1918 there were 22,000 pigeons carrying post to the trenches. Reciprocal agreements between all of the countries involved in the war were made to ensure that post could be delivered to and from prisoners of war. The Post Office was responsible for delivering the post to the prisoner of war camps and this particular type of mail was free of charge. An example of how communication between a prisoner of war and the outside world kept going is of Rifleman Harry Brown, who continued to send letters to his mother whilst being kept prisoner. Unfortunately for Harry he never made it home and died at a camp in Bayreuth on the 27th of November 1918, 16 days after the war ended.
Possibly one of the biggest changes to society during and after the war was the changing attitude to women in the workplace. The roles of women in the workplace changed drastically during the war, with many of the women back home filling full time positions that men had previously occupied. Before the war women who working in the Post Office had to leave their positions when they got married, but by November 1916 some 35,000 women were employed in temporary positions in the Post Office, as the need for staff was increased due to more and more male workers being sent to war. It is fair to say that the Post Office played a significant and vital role during World War 1 and remained committed to delivering mail throughout the British Empire and further afield as far as East Africa and India. These contributions helped boost morale by keeping loved ones in contact with each other as well as keep the line of communication between our military operations going.
This post was written by Brook Chalmers who writes for the Post Office Shop blog.