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GPO Memorial in Garden of Remembrance

July 9, 2024

‘The Post Office Fellowship of Remembrance (POFR) was set up by GPO workers between the wars to provide places for their colleagues who’d fought in the Great War to go on holiday. (Prior to the 1960s the General Post Office was the name of the company that employed hundreds of thousands of postal workers, telephone engineers and telephonists.)
I contributed a weekly subscription to the POFR throughout my years as a postman, which is why I was so honoured to be asked to perform the official opening of the GPO memorial in a garden of remembrance for the 12,830 employees who died fighting in two World Wars. Organised and paid for by the POFR the garden sits in the peaceful surroundings of the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. Set out below is the text of the speech I gave at the opening on June 10th 2024 together with some photographs of what was a truly memorable occasion.

‘Lord Lieutenant, High Sherrif, Mayor Frank James, ladies and gentlemen, it is an enormous honour to be asked to perform this opening ceremony today. I pay tribute to the POFR and all the various groups and individuals responsible for creating this wonderful garden of remembrance.

I became a postman in what was still the General Post Office in 1968, almost exactly fifty years after the end of the Great War and twenty-four years after the D-Day landings that were commemorated so movingly last week.

The way that mail was collected, sorted, dispatched, received and delivered when I joined had changed very little since Rowland Hill’s great reforms of 1840. There was no mechanisation beyond a stamp cancelling machine; sorting was done by hand; bundles of mail were tied with string (no elastic bands were allowed back then) and transported in sacks, the dust from which lodged in our throats and formed ‘tide marks’ around the shirt collars we all had to wear under our blue serge uniforms with red piping.
It was a world of dark mahogany 48-box-fittings that we sorted into and big metal drop-bag frames for packets and parcels. The men I worked with had almost all served in the armed forces. The GPO was full of former soldiers. Those who fought in the Great War had not long retired. The men who fought in the Second World War were just coming into their 40s. Every third recruit was an ex-serviceman moving from one uniformed occupation to another. The terminology was militaristic; we didn’t come to work, we came on duty: we didn’t go on holiday, we went on leave: we weren’t in a job, we provided a service.

Of thirty postmen (there were no women) at Barnes, London, SW13, most had fought in the war and had experienced things that whilst rarely mentioned, gave them a quiet wisdom. The steady routine of our delivery office may have bordered on the mundane but there was nothing mundane about the men I worked beside.
Frank Danton had served as a Guardsman – tall and straight-backed, he always wore his uniform issued waistcoat no matter how hot the weather.

Les Griffiths had served in the Fleet Air Arm; Billy Fairs had fought on the beaches at Anzio, returning from the war with an Italian bride.

As for ‘Nobby’ Clarke (it was an unwritten rule that all men named Clarke had to carry the suffix ‘Nobby’) he would attract much good-humoured barracking when he sang Al Bowley songs at the top of his voice whilst prepping his delivery. It wasn’t until shortly before I left Barnes to transfer to another office that I learned that ‘Nobby’ had been a Japanese prisoner of war for four years. No amount of barracking could affect ‘Nobby’ given what he’d already been through.

And Frank and Les, Billy and Nobby had their equivalents in every sorting office, telephone exchange and Crown Post Office across the country.

It was unremarkable to this generation of men that they’d been exposed to the horrors of war, so their experiences went unremarked, except sometimes amongst themselves – with fellow soldiers.

If they’d had fathers or uncles or older brothers who’d fought in the Great War they would have considered themselves fortunate to have avoided the carnage of the trenches.
It was many years later, as an MP that I was asked to write a forward to a book called ‘Walter’s War’, that I fully realised the full extent of the nightmare experienced by an earlier generation of postal workers. The book recounted the experiences of Walter Young, a sorter at the old King Edward Buildings who’d fought as part of the Post Office Rifles in the Great War.

Walter’s experiences were truly horrific but he survived the entire war at the front, injured but not killed, coming back to resume his work at KEB when the war was over, sitting in Postman’s Park every lunchtime eating the sandwiches his wife had prepared for him, pleased to be living an uneventful life, his memories recorded but only published posthumously because, his family said, Walter didn’t think he had anything interesting to say. What Walter revealed was not only interesting, it was heroic. And there were telegraphists, postal clerks, telephone engineers, managers and menials, men and women whose stories were as equally heroic as Walter’s.

The GPO not only provided men to serve in dedicated regiments such as the Post Office Rifles and in specialist units of the Royal Engineers, they maintained a postal service to front-line troops throughout the Great War, delivering twelve-and-a-half million letters and packets every week to soldiers at the front within three days of posting.

Using a specially constructed hub in Regent’s Park, the biggest wooden structure anywhere in the world, dubbed the Home Depot and staffed mainly by women, this vast operation provided the greatest morale boost that any soldier in the trenches could receive – letters from home. Distributed with the evening meal, according to eye witnesses, no matter how tired and hungry the men were the letters were always opened and read before a morsel was eaten. But many of those letters were never opened. At one stage around 30,000 a week had to be returned because the addressee had been killed.

And it’s those soldiers in both World Wars that this beautiful garden commemorates. Like you, I heard the eloquent testament of the D-Day veteran in Normandy last week who denied that he was a hero. The real heroes, he said, were the ones who never came back.

It is their spirits that surround us today in this lovely location where we stand, grateful for their courage and eternally thankful for their sacrifice.’

 

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