Richmond WW1 Diary 31 March 1917

Postcard with cartoon of woman wearing a pair of trousers. Caption "Scores of women are filling mens places with great success."

Women At War

The General Post Office on the Home Front had employed thousands of women to replace men as they enlisted and left to fight – 35,000 by the end of 1916. In March 1917, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed to take on tasks that did not need heavy labour. The first WAACs reached France on 31 March 1917. By May members of the WAAC were employed in Army Post Offices located on the Western Front, the women recruited from among GPO staff.

The British Forces Post Office

The Forces post started to take shape in the early 18th century, with British troops sending specially marked letters home from European battlefields. By the end of the century, postage concessions were introduced for forces serving overseas, in recognition of the fact that mail often incurred additional charges as it was redirected when postings moved.

During the Napoleonic and Crimean wars in the 19th century, systems developed to avoid delays to army mail passing through the postal systems of other countries. By the 1870s, commissions were investigating the viability of a dedicated army postal service, providing field post offices, transport, and running a sorting office in London.

In 1882, the Army Post Office Corp (APOC) was established, with volunteer recruits taken from GPO staff. The Corp saw service during the Boer War in South Africa. In the early years of the 20th century, as telegraph communications developed, the APOC and army telegraph services were brought together as the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS) in 1913.

At the start of the First World War, there were nearly 300 personnel in the REPS. By the end of the war, there were 7,000, operating from Base Army Post Offices established in all theatres including across France, Salonika in Greece, Alexandra in Egypt, Murmansk in Russia, and Constantinople in Turkey. They also delivered to Royal Navy ships anywhere in the world. Coloured lantern slides showing them at work can be seen on the British Postal Museum pages.

At its peak the operation delivered over 12 million letters a week and a million parcels. Unopened letters from those killed in action were passed back from the front lines. At times, there were 30,000 unopened letters every day.

In Richmond, letters from the Front were a vital source of news and family letters were often sent to the newspapers and printed in full. The post office worked to ensure unopened letters did not reach local families before the official War Office telegrams notifying them of the death of their loved one.

In later years, as air delivery became more common, troops on overseas service were provided with aerograms – letters that folded to create their own envelopes, reducing the weight. They were known as bluey due to the blue paper.

In 2000, the British Forces Post Office introduced the e-bluey. Letters can be sent via the internet, then downloaded and printed by the receiving base post office, reaching the recipient much more quickly. Letters sent by serving Armed Forces personnel via the e-bluey are delivered to UK addresses via Royal Mail.

As a cost cutting measure, there are proposals to stop this service on 31 March 2017, exactly 100 years after WAACs volunteered to help ensure the army mail got through.

[A petition opposing this, for anyone interested in signing, can be found here.]

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