The Post Office Rifles
Today, the Post Office Rifles are best remembered for their involvement as infantry on the Western Front in the First World War. Their bravery, tenacity and character during the severe circumstances of the trenches are well documented and their endeavours on the Somme, Passchendaele, and elsewhere have earned the regiment high praise and a prestigious place in British military history.
They have many military medals and accolades in evidence of this. Comprised mostly of Post Office employees, approximately 12,000 men fought with the regiment, suffering losses of 1,800 and 4,500 wounded.
Roots of the Post Office Rifles
Interest in the Post Office Rifles has understandably focussed on the years 1914-1918. However, collaboration between the Post Office and the Army predates the Great War.
Post Office volunteers went to Paris in 1816 to assist British Forces with communications following the defeat of Napoleon, and sorters also served in the Crimean War (1853-1856).
The association between Army and Post Office was well established by 1867. A series of bombings in London and Manchester were carried out in the name of Irish Independence. They resulted in the first formation of a group of Post Office volunteers to help defend installations under attack. 1,600 Special Constables enrolled to safeguard these installations which included post offices.
Once the immediate Fenian threat had passed, it was agreed with the War Office on 13 February 1868 that a regiment of 1,000 men be formed from Post Office employees. On 2 March that year, Du Plat Taylor was gazetted Lieutenant-Colonel, commanding the 49th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers (Post Office Rifles).
The men of the 49th – later re-numbered as the 24th Middlesex (1880) – formed the backbone of the Army Post Office Corps in the Egyptian and Sudanese campaigns of 1882 and 1885.
In 1882, hostilities in Egypt threatened British control of the Suez Canal. The War Office drew upon the 24th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers to form the 100-strong Army Post Office Corps. This quickly saw military action at the Battle of Kassassin (9 September) under the command of Captain Sturgeon.
In 1885 The Post Office Rifles were again deployed under Captain Sturgeon. This time it was as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) dispatched to support General Gordon in Khartoum.
During the 1899-1902 South African (Boer) War, the 24th Middlesex contributed 16 officers and over 1,000 men of other ranks to oversee a comprehensive effort of wartime communications. They suffered 46 fatalities from wounds and disease. The regiment was decorated for their efforts.
Though the regiment was relieved of its postal duties after the Haldane Reforms of 1908, it kept its association with the Post Office and continued to recruit postal workers into the Territorial Force under its new title '8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)'.
The First World War
To accommodate the swell of recruits in the First World War, a second Post Office Rifles Battalion was formed in September 1914. They were titled the 2nd/8th Battalions, London Regiment.
The 2nd Battalion initially served as a reserve regiment, supplying reinforcements for the 1st Battalion but in January 1917 the battalion also moved to the front line in France. They first saw action in the Second Battle of Bullecourt in May 1917.
The Post Office Rifles fought at Ypres and at Passchendaele and suffered tremendous losses. More than half of their fighting force was lost at the Battle of Wurst Farm Ridge in September 1917. Alfred Knight was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery during this battle. They lost 1,800 and 4,500 men were wounded by the end of the War.
Although unique in its composition, the experiences of the PORs were entirely representative of life on the Western Front. The 1st Battalion embarked from Southampton on 17 March 1915 and after a period of training and acclimatisation, entered the trenches to fight in the battle for Festubert on 11 May that year.
The Post Office Rifles fought resiliently to secure and reinforce the British position there but the experience was traumatic.
Loos and the Somme
The regiment saw further action at Loos in the same year and in 1916, POR battalions were involved in some of the worst carnage of the war at the Battle of the Somme. For their part, the PORs entered the hostilities late in the battle (October) but still sustained forty dead, 160 wounded and some 200 missing.
However, the Post Office Rifles were in the thick of the fighting through 1917, at Ypres from the start of the campaign. Many POR descriptions of fighting on the front vividly tell of the grim realities of trench warfare.
Those that survived were commended for the Battalion's achievements. "I thought" said the Divisional General, on parade after an aforementioned attack, "you were a lot of stamp lickers, but the way you fought…, you went over like a lot of bloody savages".
The Post Office Rifles received 145 awards for gallantry including one Victoria Cross for Sgt. A.J. Knight.
After the First World War
In 1921 the 8th Battalion was amalgamated with the 'non-Post-Office' 7th Battalion. This represented a change in the role of the Post Office Rifles. The move was seen by some as a dilution of the Battalion's Post Office identity. It was subsequently merged with a London Anti-Aircraft battalion in 1935. It finds its successor today in the Royal Logistics Corps.
A detailed and readable history can be found in the book by the historian Charles Messenger, Terriers in the Trenches: The History of the Post Office Rifles 1914-1918 (1982). A copy can be found in the Search Room at the BPMA. Also in the search room is a portfolio of various newspaper cuttings, reports, articles and images all related to the Post Office Rifles, that have been collected over the years by staff working for the BPMA and its predecessor organisations.
The BPMA also holds a number of historical records on this subject in its archives (shown here with links to the online catalogue entry):
POST 30/2691A: Post Office Rifles: history of origin of Corps (1913)
POST 30/3381A: Post Office Rifles: general papers (1915)
POST 56/84: Various records for 1860-1919, including: a report by the Secretary of State for War (1882); Corps Field Manual (1888); extracts from the GPO magazine 'St Martins Le Grand' (1915-1919)
POST 56/85: History of the Post Office Rifles 8th Battalion City of London Regiment (1914-1918)
POST 56/86: Post Office Rifles Association Executive Committee. Minutes of meetings (1919-1957)
POST 56/88: Post Office Rifles Association. Minutes of the annual general meetings (1920-1935)
POST 56/194: Photographs and sketches of the Post Office Rifles in France and calendar (1916)
POST 56/195: Post Office Rifles Association. Letters relating to its funding (1919-1958)
POST 56/196: Photographs showing old comrades of the Post Office Rifles parading before the Postmaster General, Tony Benn, to mark the 50th anniversary of their first landings in France (1965)