At the outbreak of World War One, Britain had the most advanced undersea telegraph cable system. It wrapped around the world, due to the reach of the British Empire. This dominant position offered an opportunity and strategists were determined to make the most of it. But first, German cables had to be dealt with. When war was declared on 4th August 1914, the plan to cut Germany’s submarine telegraph cable in the English Channel was implemented. Hours after war was declared, cable ship Alert left Dover to search for and cut all German cables in the Channel. All five cables were found and cut. Spotted by French destroyers, CS Alert was stopped and the captain interrogated. On discovering her mission, the French sailors cheered!

The Post Office Rifles had been in existence as part of the Volunteer Force since its formation during the 1860s. Then its name was the 49th Middlesex Rifle Volunteer Corps (Post Office Rifles). In 1907 during the creation of the Territorial Force, it became the 8th (City of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Post Office Rifles). After the outbreak of war, the Post Office Rifles, like all units of the Territorial force, formed a duplicate or second line unit. 1/8th Battalion served in France as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division from 1915. 2/8th Battalion served in France as part of the 58th (London) Division from 1917. In September 1917, during the 3rd battle of Ypres, Sgt Alfred J Knight of the 2/8th Battalion was awarded the VC for his actions during the battle. A third battalion, 3/8th, was formed in 1915 and remained in the UK, serving as a Reserve of the other two.

The Royal Engineers (Postal Section), which had been formed in 1913, took over the mail services for the British Army abroad. Staffed by the General Post Office, the number of men and women employed for this increased from under 300 in 1914 to over 7,000 in 1918. From 1917, members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps were employed at the Base Army Post Offices. Mail, both letters and parcels, were sent to the Home Postal depot in London (Mount Pleasant in Clerkenwell, Central London) where they were sorted prior to transportation. There was also a team of ‘repairers’ who repacked and addressed parcels which had opened unintentionally. There were few examples of parcels which went astray.

When the size of the mail requiring sorting reached over a million a week, a new Home Depot was built in Regents Park. It was the largest wooden structure in Europe, covering an area of 5 acres. By 1918 2,500 women were employed in this depot. Mail was sorted, packed into mail sacks and then wicker baskets which left London, initially in horse drawn wagons then in lorries bound for the coast. Mail ships were waiting in Folkestone and in Southampton, depending on which French port the mail was bound. Folkstone mail went to Calais, Southampton mail went to Le Havre. Royal Mail trains then took the letters and parcels to the front. 19,000 mail bags crossed the channel every day and the mail was usually delivered to the recipient at the Front within 2 days. Mail for troops fighting in the Mediterranean went to Mudros. By 1918 mail was sent to troops based in Russia to Archangel. When the recipient was either killed or missing, the mail was opened and sent back to the sender (if possible). Families at home inferred the fate of their men via the returned mail earlier than a communication from the War Office.

The Post Office was also responsible for the ‘Field Services Postcard’ with its multiple-choice suggestions (crossed out responses which did not apply such as well/unwell) conveying limited information to the families back home to preserve security.

The Post Office also sold ‘War Bonds’, a type of loan to the Government. Over £1.4 billion worth of bonds had been sold by December 1918.

The Home Depot despatched around two billion letters and 114 million parcels during the War, including the hampers ordered from Fortnum and Mason. Letters were censored, either in the writer’s unit or at the channel port.  This was deemed necessary for controlling morale both in the UK and at the Front. A warrant for the Postmaster General to act as postal censor had been issued as early as August 1914.Troops were given one green (or honour) envelope each month for an uncensored letter which contained only family matters. The soldier would sign for the envelope to verify that the contents did not contain any military information, simply private or family matters. A random sample of these letters were opened and if the writer had betrayed their trust, he would be court-martialled and punished.

Report by Peter Palmer