Friday, 15 December 2017

Christmas post

First World War embroidered postcard c.1915 (D/DLI 13/2/209)
D/DLI 13/2/209 First World War embroidered postcard c.1915
It’s that time of year when we rush to write our Christmas cards before the final posting date, and wonder what has happened to the parcel we were expecting to be delivered last week. In December 2016, Royal Mail handled 138 million parcels (Annual Report and Financial Statement 2016-17). On 27 December 1915, The Newcastle Daily Journal published a Press Association report on Christmas deliveries to the trenches, a massive feat of organisation at any time, but at Christmas, even more so. The following are extracts from the article:

It is scarcely necessary to dwell upon the greatly enhanced difficulty of dealing with an abnormal volume of mails amid the incessant dislocation of conditions in the field, as compared with the organised resources of permanent offices at home. Imagine that the whole of the inhabitants of Manchester suddenly spread themselves over the entire surrounding country without a word of warning, and then proceeded to carry on a sort of daily kaleidoscopic shuffling of groups, and you will have an idea of the problem which never permits the field post offices to become really dull places.

This Christmas the staff [of the Royal Engineers postal section] stands at 43 officers and 1500 men, temporarily supplemented by about 750 men.

During Christmas week the heaviest daily mail consisted of 18,500 bags of letters and parcels. By a conservative estimate the army postal authorities reckon this to have represented about three million letters and half a million parcels. There has been a good deal of grumbling at home concerning the non-delivery of letters and parcels… [but] all the mails for the troops are sorted and sealed in England, and the bags are delivered to the units to which they are addressed without the seals being touched. Therefore, it seems but reasonable to say that if a parcel or a letter goes amissing it is not during the time the postal service is responsible for it.

One of the most serious problems with which the army post office organisation has been confronted is the treatment of undeliverable correspondence that is similarly returned because an addressee has been killed or is missing or known to have been taken prisoner.

A considerable amount of correspondence is left in the hands of the field post office through insufficient and incorrect address. The assistant director confesses to regarding this as an inevitable condition, considering the character of many of the soldiers’ correspondents, and the difficulties which the civilian finds in comprehending the distinction between platoon, squads, sections, echelons and the like.
Christmas card from 21st Division (14th and 15th DLI), 1917 (D/DLI 2/15/14)
D/DLI 2/15/14 Christmas card from 21st Division (14th and 15th DLI), 1917
By dint of a steady perfection of organisation, the average time of transit between posting in London and delivering in the trenches has now been reduced to 36 hours. This of course, is under normal conditions, but many causes, over which the postal authorities have no control whatever, may occasion delay.

The army postal service views with secret consternation such delays, because they involve the dealing with a double delivery of mails without any possible expansion of the means of distribution. When it is stated that no boat in the cross-Channel service will carry more than 5000 bags of mails, and the biggest army motor lorries will only stack 90 bags, the difficulties of the task which the postal authorities have been confronted with during the past few days may be more readily realised.

Although the method of distribution by which the mails are passed on with such admirable promptitude have been already described yet in view of the latest improvements in organisation, a few words on this point may not be without interest. There are two base post offices for letters and one for parcels. The system is divided into divisional posts, and the mails are first dispatched to the field post offices by supply trains. They then go on to various railheads, at all of which permanent offices are now established. Thence the supply column of motor transport carries the bags to the different corps’ headquarters field post offices. The next stage is the refilling point or dump of the different divisional trains to which the units send for their bags. These then reach the divisional headquarters post office, where they are picked up by horse transport train and carried to the brigade headquarters. Regimental postmen then collect them and carry them to their units to be sorted.

The next stage is the delivery in the trenches. It may be added that the offices and men of the Army Postal Service are frequently under shell fire during the course of their work, and the toll of a considerable casualty list has already been exacted.

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