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  • Letters Home was commissioned by English Heritage  in 2014, as part of their commemorations of the  

  • 100th anniversary of the start of The Great  War. It tells a story ofordinary people in  

  • extraordinary times”, the work of the Post Office  in ensuring that people separated by the war  

  • were still able to communicate and  share their experiences by letter.  

  • We were inspired by the way that something so  simple could be of such enormous importance,  

  • how it touched every family, and providedlasting testimony to those who lived, and died.

  • (FX: typewriter, morse code, radio static...)

  • Imagine a world where the letter is king There's no Facebook,  

  • no Twitter, no WhatsApp, no Bing... No laptops, no tablets, no mobile phones,  

  • no telephone boxes, no dialling tones

  • No answering machines, no faxes, no  pagers. A home phone is for those 

  • born to wealth or high wages... Now you may think this  

  • world sounds like utter bliss! Go back one hundred years and that's how it is

  • If you want to share news with a friend  out of sight then you walk, meet and talk

  • Or you stop, sit and write! If you want to share news with a distant relation,  

  • a letter's the best means of communication

  • That means you need paper, a pen and some inkYou need to make time to record what you think

  • And once you have written what you want to say –  Buy a stamp, find a post box, and it's on its way

  • And if you think this sounds  like a terrible chore

  • Now imagine you're doing this and  fighting a war! In a trench, in the dirt  

  • and the smoke and the stink. You want to write home to say  

  • you're in the pink. With shells whistling  round, you might write to your folks

  • To send you some comforts; a cake or some smokes. Some hand knitted mittens or socks would be nice

  • Or that powder you put in  your clothes to kill lice

  • Because when you're in danger  and far from your home,  

  • a letter reminds you, you're not on your own

  • On land or at sea, in khaki or blue, a  letter says someone is thinking of you

  • And it's more than just words  scratched on paper with pen.  

  • You can read it for comfort again and again. When your rations are gone and you're  

  • shivering with cold. For the man in  the front line, a letter's like gold

  • Because knowing that  everything at home is alright,  

  • is good for morale and keeps men in this fight. A letter from home when conditions are chronic,  

  • lifts the spirits of men in sore need of a tonic. So, imagine this world of carnage and mud

  • Where a few yards of land  gained is paid for in blood

  • And you haven't the first idea when it will end. And the next whizz-bang might land on you  

  • or your friend. Where a simple thingsomehow, can make you feel better. Like  

  • receiving a parcel, or opening a letter

  • Letters from home were recognised as a vital part  of keeping up the morale of the men at the front.  

  • Along with rations and ammunitionletters and parcels had to get through

  • The Army had its own postal service - the Royal  Engineers Postal Section, or REPS for short

  • Here's how it works! From Tommy in the  

  • trench..... To sweetheart at home! So Tommy writes his letter or postcard.  

  • He's going to use a pencileasier to use in a trench than pen and ink. He writes...

  • "On Active Serviceon it and it doesn't need a stamp. The letters are collected at Field Post Offices,  

  • in barns, tents or dugouts. FPOs offer the  same services as a normal Post Office

  • You can find a Field Post Office easily  enough, they have a white and red flag

  • The letters are postmarked, put into sacks, and  taken by lorry to the large Army Post Offices,  

  • usually at each Divisional railheadwhere they are loaded onto trains

  • Trains then transport them  to Boulogne, Calais or Le Havre, where  

  • they are loaded onto steamships. Then it's  the short journey across the channel!

  • And into the care of the Post Office. The letters are then taken by rail or road

  • to London. Where they are sorted again and  sent on to the families waiting for news.  

  • Sometimes the letters offer  a real insight into the war

  • From an officer of the Argyll  and Sutherland Highlanders

  • It's a war with no glamour or glory such as  one expects in a world wide show like this.  

  • Modern weapons are too deadly  and the whole art of war,  

  • and all tactics as laid down in  our books have been quite altered.  

  • No advancing across the open by short rushes. Now  it's all digging new lines of trenches by night.” 

  • Sometimes they are slightly brieferFrom a private of the Royal Fusiliers

  • “I hope this letter finds you as it leaves  me. I've got a bit of shrapnel in my bottom” 

  • Some are even more to the pointFrom a gunner of the Royal Artillery

  • You can send me another tin of Boracic  ointment. It's very useful!” Some  

  • are just downright strange! From Dick to Molly

  • “A Happy Christmas. I am sending this to my aunt  to forward to you as I do not know the address.  

  • Please tell me your name as I have forgotten it.” But they ALL get through

  • From an Officer, somewhere in France. “30th December 1914. I got 3 letters,  

  • posted in Ireland on the 26th, and in England  on the 28th this afternoon. So letters are  

  • reaching us as quickly as if there were  no war! It's really rather wonderful!” 

  • It's amazing to imagine that a system that  relied on handwritten instructions, typed orders,

  • and manpower could be so incredibly efficient

  • And as the war went on the post office came to  rely less on manpower and more on woman power

  • Men to the trenches! Women to the benches! Jobs that had previously been thought of as  

  • a male only preserve had to be  done by whoever was available  

  • and that meant Woman porters, sorters, drivers.  

  • Women were even delivering the post! Christmas, 1914, Princess Mary began a  

  • fund to provide a brass tin of sweets, tobaccopencils, writing paper, and pictures of the royal  

  • family to every member of the armed services. That's soldiers AND sailors

  • The idea caught on, the public raised money,

  • the tins were manufactured and sent out! It was a triumph for morale boosting!

  • But it was a nightmare for logistics!

  • The post office and REPS were just about able to  cope, although not everyone got their gift on

  • Christmas day. Happy New Year! Letters home that Christmas of 1914 talked about strange events at the front

  • From a private of the Queen's Westminster RiflesFriday 25th. Christmas Day. Freezing and a bit  

  • misty. We started walking about behind the  trench and after a bit we got out the front  

  • and then we saw Germans doing the same, we  waived and they did until at last we got so close  

  • that five of us went over to meet five of them and  started exchanging keepsakes, buttons and the like.

  • It seemed the weirdest thing in the world  that we were talking to the men

  • that we were trying to shoot the day before."

  • Families were getting news of the war that  wasn't in the newspaper. The Christmas Truce of 1914  

  • was a moment of respite that would not  be repeated. The High Command didn't approve

  • Luckily the army had a way of piching the flow of information. Censorship

  • Every letter from a private soldier had  to be read by their officer, who could put  

  • a “blue penciland scratch out anything  he thought was unsuitable

  • It made many officers feel uncomfortableFrom an officer of the Royal Field Artillery

  • It is always with mixed feelings thatpersonally view the arrival of fresh paper,  

  • because the soldiers write such  awful things in their letters,  

  • mostly rot, or else a repetition of a few remarks  which they could quite easily put on a postcard,  

  • and I have to read them all throughBut it certainly makes them happy  

  • and that is the great thingFor young officers, public school educated,  

  • with little experience of the working class man, their men's letters gave a window into Tommy's world

  • They have big hearts, these soldiers, and  it is a very pathetic task to have to read  

  • all their letters home. Some of the older menwith wife's and families, who write every day,  

  • have in their style a wonderful simplicity  which is almost great literature. There  

  • is much to be learned from a soldier's letter.” “I have just censored the letters of my men.  

  • By Jove! If you could read some of  these letters, they would do you good.  

  • The tenderness of these great, rough  fellows is wonderful. I love them all.” 

  • Wherever the British Army sent its soldiersthe men of the Royal Engineers Postal Section were never far behind

  • To Gallipoli. Salonika and Mesopotamia. West Africa and Italy

  • The Balkans and Russia. The officers wanted  

  • to keep their men occupied. A busy soldierso the thinking went, didn't have time  

  • to ponder the situation he was in. And letter writing provided a partial  

  • solution. Give the men something to occupy themselves. Remind them of what they are fighting  

  • for. Behind the lines in France and back in Blighty  

  • a whole industry sprang up producing postcards  of all types to be sent to and from the frontlines

  • There was the patriotic! God save the KingThe anti Kaiser! Down with Little Willy

  • Flags of the Allies! Ships of the Navy

  • You could go to a photographer's studio and have  your picture taken. Have it copied as a postcard,  

  • and send that home.

  • Vesta Tilley, the Music Hall star,

  • sold postcards of herself dressed as an  officer, to raise money for soldier's funds

  • But more often than not it was humorous postcards,  

  • poking fun atTommy in the  Trenchand gently mocking the changing  

  • world on the home front that made their way  backwards and forwards across the channel

  • Well if you knows of a better 'ole, go to it!” In 1916, 16,000 sacks of mail were being  

  • transported daily. 16,000 sacks to be sorted, sent  and delivered! And nearly all of it came through London

  • The existing sorting offices at Mount Pleasant  just wasn't big enough to cope.

  • So the Post Office builtHome  Depot”, in Regents Park. A 

  • huge wooden shed. More sheds were added  to keep pace with the growing number of military fronts  

  • and the growing number of men being sent out. It was massive! A vast complex of sorting rooms,  

  • storerooms and offices covering five acresThat's the same as three football pitches

  • Hundreds of women cross  referencing, checking lists and card indexes,  

  • working in shifts to keep the post moving. By the end of the war, Home Depot was the largest

  • man-made wooden construction in the world. And the letters home kept coming in...

  • My Darling Mother and Father, I am writing on the eve of my first action.  

  • Tomorrow we go to the attack in the greatest  battle the British Army has ever fought. I  

  • cannot quite express my feelings on this night  and cannot tell if it's God's will that I shall  

  • come through - but if I fall in battle then I have  no regrets save for my loved ones I leave behind.  

  • If I do fall do not let things be black for you.  

  • Be cheerful and you will be  living life always to my memory.” 

  • We are just off to the front and  may be in action in a few hours time.  

  • In case of my misfortune to go under... to my boy,  I wish him to be a good, brave and real English  

  • laddie. Do not worry or fret as that is no usebut be as cheerful as possible to help others.” 

  • "My Dear Boy Fred, this is  a letter you will never see  

  • unless your Daddy falls in the field. It is his  farewell words to you in case anything happens."

  • "Dearest Win, I am writing just a line in case of accidents.  

  • Just to let you know I have always loved you dearYou are the best little girl on God's earth have I  

  • told you before. But I am writing this because  I have a feeling I shall not come back again.  

  • My last wish is that you marry a good man and be  happy and to think of your Humble now and then

  • “A parcel came in our trenches with our rationsaddressed to a bomber, a personal friend of mine  

  • who had been killed the previous day. It is the  practise for such parcels to be split up among the  

  • addressee's friends. This parcel contained many  little things which we find useful in the trenches  

  • and among them a pair of gloves. These were given  to a fellow who lost his, but half an hour later  

  • he called us together again and said “I say, you  chaps, listen to this. I can't use these gloves.  

  • He then read out not in a steady voice, a short  message written on a slip of paper which he had  

  • found tucked inside one of the gloves. It was just  to say that they were sent to dear Harry with his  

  • mother's love and nobody save her had ever touched  them. Just before packing them up she had put them  

  • on, so Harry could imagine when he wore them  that he was holding his mother's hand...” 

  • By the time theWar to end all  Warsfinally came to its end, the  

  • Post Office had handled more than two billion letters. To and from soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses,  

  • prisoners of war, and families back home. They had dealt with 114 million parcels 

  • But whenthe boys  came homeit was all forgotten. The  

  • letters home got put away. Slowly pushed to  the back of drawers. “Home Depotclosed,  

  • fell into disuse and is now but a memory. People wanted to move on. They wanted to look to the future.  

  • The past is the past after all. So imagine again, this world we have lost

  • When victory was won at a terrible cost. As the words of these people reach down  

  • through the years. To tell us their  feelings, their hopes and their fears

  • When we look at their  letters and postcards because

  • They were ordinary people, They were people like us.

  • (FX: Typewriter, morse code, radio static)

Letters Home was commissioned by English Heritage  in 2014, as part of their commemorations of the  

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History on Stage | Letters Home: The Post Office in the First World War

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    Summer posted on 2020/11/10
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