A guest post by WW1 aficionado and London Historians Member, James Norwood.
The 100th anniversary of the Great War, the First World War, the “war to end all wars,” or if you are on Twitter #WW1 has not unexpectedly given rise to a significant increase in publications to mark the event. This is good news for someone who has been studying the global conflict that shaped the twentieth century since he was 6 years of age, and has publically stated that he will attempt to read 100 books on the war during the period 2014-2018.
The new batch of works now appears to go even further than before in terms of questioning long held truisms and reassessing previously lauded histories of the conflict. Even A.J.P. Taylor’s seminal work The First World War (1963) and Alistair Horne’s The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 (1962) have been taken to task in recent times, just as they too in their time helped redress what had until then been pretty much patriotic and propagandist versions of events. What’s more, many of the new works go far beyond general histories to offer fleeting glimpses into, and in many cases, very specific history of areas not covered before. One such work is Men of Letters, the latest book by Londoner Duncan Barrett, subtitled “The Post Office Heroes who fought the Great War”, it’s somewhat of a departure back in time from his previous WW2-centric efforts The Sugar Girls (2012), and GI Brides (2014), both co-authored with Nuala Calvi.
Not a complete stranger to the topic, having previously edited the memoirs of First World War pacifist saboteur, Ronald Skirth in The Reluctant Tommy (2010), and through his own family association with the Western Front: Barrett’s great-great uncle, Eric Layton, was amongst the many thousands killed at High Wood in September 1916. Layton’s former employer, the Metropolitan Gas Company, later honoured their dead with a special memorial service, just as the Post Office did for year after year until living memories of the events dwindled and finally passed.
Of course, although men (and women) from all walks of life and all kinds of employment joined in and did their bit, few were able to serve side-by-side with their own colleagues in their very own battalion as did the Post Office Rifles (POR) or to trade their civilian employment for its wartime alternative within the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS). And herein lies the incredible potential for a story of this kind.
100 years on from the start of hostilities on the Western Front, few young people today in Britain are even familiar with the term “GPO.” The new normal that is the Internet, email, and instant text messaging has simply replaced the need for the most personal part of the postal service – the letter. And now, following recent privatisation, one of the last great civil institutions of the World (not just the UK) has itself ceased to be. So what? Progress was unkind to Kodak, and Uber cares little for the humble taxi, but in 1914 the Post Office was the world’s largest employer with more than a quarter of a million people on its payroll. This in itself presents an opportunity to tell a story of real interest.
However, if that’s what I expected as I set about the book that was not at all what I got. In fact, following a short prologue, by the end of chapter one we are already on our way to France and the trenches with the POR, and it is their story, the story of the POR that the book is principally about. There is minimal coverage of the REPS and a single, somewhat disjointed chapter, only very remotely linked to the main subject of the POR that tackles the matter of the women back home who were eventually required to fill the void. Once you understand what the book is actually going to be about, which takes a while, then you are able to focus on that and allow yourself to be carried along by Barrett’s highly accessible and easygoing style.
The potential of the subject matter could have provided greater scope for a more encompassing tale beyond the exploits of just the POR as they move from campaign to campaign throughout the war in what is essentially a battalion history presented in a more narrative form. For instance, several recent works on the war that have met with considerable acclaim begin with inordinate preambles on the background to the actual subject that is to be treated.
For example, Mark Thompson’s The White War goes into tedious detail about Italian culture and politics in the years leading up to the War, but it’s ultimately necessary. Christopher Clark’s hugely successful The Sleepwalkers, How Europe Went to War in 1914 goes into almost monotonous analysis of pre-war Serbian history, which was enough to almost make one give up, before it actually picks up the action proper; and Ian Senior’s Home Before The Leaves Fall devotes the first third of the book to analysis of the French and German pre-war plans before we even get to 1914. In all cases these are ultimately justified as the reader now carries an in-depth understanding of why things happened and why they unfolded the way they did, as well as a greater attachment to the subject matter at hand. One can’t help thinking that a more in-depth analysis of the world’s largest employer in the decades and years leading to the war would have helped this work too.
As already noted, Men of Letters is an account of the Post Office Rifles battalion on the Western Front in France and Belgium, told via a quick-paced yet always interesting narrative, interspersed with individual stories and letters reproduced from a number of principal characters whose stories feature throughout. This is not an uncommon storytelling style when it comes to the Great War. For all the stories that will never be known, there are so many personal and group stories that are known, and that have been preserved for posterity, through sterling work by the likes of the Imperial War Museum in London. One of the earliest to forge this method of Great War storytelling was Lyn MacDonald, although it was probably perfected by writers such as Peter Hart and Nigel Steel who through books like Passchendaele, The Sacrificial Ground; Jutland 1916; and Aces Falling, The War Above the Trenches, 1918 have introduced so many to the horror and camaraderie of the First World War through the lives and words of those who were there.
For his part, Barrett chooses in the main to relay the story in his own words based on his meticulous research and relies less on first hand accounts than say Hart or Steel and in many ways this is to be lauded. That said, one never seems to truly feel as close to the real life characters in Men of Letters perhaps because one hears less from the characters themselves. It was only at the very end of the work that I actually felt moved by the narrative, and this is not because the contents are not moving, they are, I just simply didn’t know enough about the central figures or connect with them empathetically. Barrett’s practice of reproducing every name in full, every time makes personal connection harder. For example, by page 263 we still see “Letter from Captain Home Peel to his wife Gwendolen,” when “Home Peel to Gwendolen” might have sufficed. Even the constant refrain “the men from the post office rifles,” leaves the reader on the outside, whereas the odd “the rifles,” or “the posties,” might have helped. It’s perhaps a small and fastidious point but this is a story about a specific group, a Band of Brothers if you will, and so anything to help the reader form a closer bond would I feel have improved the overall effect.
One of the more enjoyable aspects of Barrett’s work is the interspersing of interesting war facts, many of which I’m happy to say were new to me as well. His treatment of how British troops first dealt with the horrors of a gas attack is simply fascinating, and the short piece on the development of the “sharpshooter” or as they later became known – snipers – is simply enthralling. There are so many of these precious little stories within the story – and not all are combat related – that combined make this book not just fascinating but a truly educational read, and I would recommend it on that level alone to both new WW1 readers and long term students alike.
It’s also good to see statements like “The Germans had been doing it since the start of the war,” which time and again shows how the “wicked Hun” were actually for the most part the truly innovative ones during the conflict. The Tank aside, anecdotally treated by Barrett as well, the Allies were slow to learn, although ultimately able to adopt, and if not perfect, then to simply outgun the Germans as the war wore on.
Without wanting to give away too much of the central story itself, one of the more intriguing and in many ways poignant themes that come to light is that amongst the officer class (very few of whom were actually Post Office men) we see the normality of jostling for position and vying for promotion, even from those who loathed the war and the army, with an almost peacetime vigor, and this from men whose life expectancy (at least for new Subalterns) was measured in weeks not months.
For my part, I would have liked to see the employment of an even more intimate approach through a deeper connection with the central characters, and a more thorough work around the Post Office itself during the Great War as a whole. That said, Men of Letters works on a number of levels and very effectively captures the lives of a group of people, men who served in the POR and with a nod to the women who took their place back home.
In what is essentially a fairly short work, Barrett’s use of an easy-going and highly accessible narrative style makes the read eminently worthwhile.
James Norwood, according to his Twitter profile is a (somewhat) opinionated business software industry veteran, enthusiastic public speaker, aspiring historian, and (part-time) cycling junkie. Originally from Birmingham, he still calls Chiswick home even though he has resided in California for the past 15 years. An inaugural member of London Historians, he maintains the unenviable record of having only attended three LH events to-date.
Men of Letters (336pp) by Duncan Barrett is published in paperback by AA Publishing and is available for £8.99.