I know comparatively little about the Great War. This period of history is one that I often overlook, finding myself drawn repeatedly back into the Dark Ages or the prehistoric; so when I started reading, I was just as much an open book as the nicely designed paperback itself.
4th August 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. We can all name some of the battles – Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele; we know that it lasted for four years, from 1914 until 1918. The war claimed the lives of more than 9 million people, a figure so great that you just don’t know where to start to imagine the horror. Filtering personal stories out of such a massive conflict must surely be impossible.
But that is just what Barrett has done in this moving and well-written account. Through their letters to families and loved ones at home, he traces the fortunes of men who joined the Post Office Rifles, leaving their jobs as post workers in the London suburbs and travelling to makeshift training camps where the atmosphere was one of rigorous discipline and boisterous camaraderie. For these soldiers, many of whom were just boys who had lied about their age, ‘going to the front’ probably sounded like a promotion. Little did they know what awaited them.
We come to know many of them by name: Frank Seddon, an eager young recruit from Bethnal Green; Bill Howell, a 19-year-old messenger who worked in Willesden sorting office; and Second Lieutenant Home Peel, a junior officer with a keen sense of responsibility for the men under his command. All were eager for action, good and honest with decent hearts, seeing humour in most things, and deeply proud to be serving their country.
But once they were shipped across the Channel they were marching blindly into the jaws of a monster that none of them could have imagined, despite their bravado.
After a few weeks of trench duty, Sergeant Archie Dunn wrote to his wife:
“Out here, what a sheer waste of men’s lives… As time goes by, I expect to become callous to death around me, but right now, I am much disturbed in mind, being a beginner as it were.”
I don’t know where to begin. Just the awfulness of someone expecting to become accustomed to death – it’s the quiet dignity that’s so heartbreaking.
But there was a ray of light in the darkness: thanks to the efficiency of the Royal Engineers’ Postal Section, the delivery of mail to and from the front line was amazingly regular and quick. In view of the awful conditions suffered by the troops along the trenches, this aspect of the war is nothing short of miraculous.
In our modern world of mobile phones and internet technology, it’s increasingly hard to grasp the value that these soldiers placed on letters from home. For them, it was their only link with the life they’d left behind; their only reminder of normality, their only hope that someday, the nightmare would end. It was also their only source of comfort: parcels of food, cigarettes and even knitted socks were all gratefully received.
The soldiers’ replies, many of them highly personal, were all subject to censorship by their superior officers. To save them from embarrassment, green envelopes were distributed to soldiers at the rate of one per month. A letter sealed in a green envelope was passed unopened – or, at least, it was only read by someone unknown to them, further down the line; and in exchange, they were under oath not to share confidential information about their whereabouts or activities.
Not that many men could bring themselves to share what they’d seen. Almost a year into the conflict, Home Peel wrote to his wife, Gwendoline:
“It’s beastly wet and I am up to the neck in mud, and very dirty as water is much too precious to be used for washing… Am becoming acclimatised to the horrors, which do not bear thinking about. No need whatever for you to worry at all.”
And meanwhile, as the machine of war gathered momentum, the same postal service was breaking the hearts of countless people back home, as official telegrams informed them that a loved one had died in action.
Tragic, heroic, some unbelievably lucky… the stories of these men are shared by Barrett with sensitivity but not sentimentality, which allows their voices to speak to us directly and unaltered. As you read about their fate, you are almost overcome with the sense of the futility of war, which can claim lives not just in ‘glorious’ battle but in miserable conditions and through needless accidents.
Not that the author is distant from the action – quite the contrary, in fact, because his own great-great uncle, Eric Layton, served in the war and fell at High Wood. The research for ‘Men of Letters’ must have been a very personal undertaking.
From their first days in the training camps to the searing nightmares of the Somme, ‘Men of Letters’ is a frank but fitting tribute to ordinary men caught up in the extraordinary, all-consuming darkness of the trenches. I had steeled myself against the worst horrors, but what struck me to the core was the gentle humanity. That is the most precious gift that anyone can give, and it is what makes this book so much more than a chronicle of war.
Captain Eric Gore Brown expressed his feelings to his wife, Imogen:
“No painting or poem or writing will ever give you a picture of the battlefield… and death in many shapes and forms, some beautiful, some ugly, makes one feel less fearful about it all, and that there must be a hereafter where all these brave good fellows are going to meet again and have their reward.”
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In the Q&A section at the back of the book, author Duncan Barrett reveals a little bit more about the background to writing ‘Men of Letters’.
Speaking about the focus of the book, he says: “The Post Office is a great national institution… almost everyone knows their own local postman or postwoman. I was fascinated by the idea of your friendly local postie being turned into a warrior. [It] also allowed me to consider the role of mail delivery in the war, and to pepper the book with lots of contemporary letters.”
In addition to his extensive research among written documents, he visited war graves in France and Belgium and the battlefields where the Post Office Rifles were engaged in action, an experience which he found very moving.
He says: “There were many times I wished I could phone one of the Post Office men… to find out exactly how they felt at a particular moment, or to ask them to explain something in more detail.
“The stories in this book essentially belong to the Post Office men themselves… and many of them were gifted storytellers.”
‘Men of Letters – The Post Office Heroes Who Fought the Great War’
With a foreword by Alan Johnson MP, ‘Men of Letters – The Post Office Heroes Who Fought the Great War’ is written by Duncan Barrett and published by AA Publishing.