In Men of Letters, the author has with considerable skill, given the men of the Post Office Rifles their own very special voice and in a series of personal stories, poignant letters and diary entries, their life at the front becomes a heart rending chronicle of war. Their social observations forcibly remind us of just what life was like at the front, the interminable boredom of long periods of time closeted in the murk and mud of the French countryside, balanced against the shock of the sniper's bullet and the agonising terror of waiting for the call to go over the top. It is especially heart breaking to realise that over 1500 of them didn't make it to the end of the war.
In this evocative retelling of the history of the men of the Post Office Rifles, I was forcibly reminded of just how the Great War impacted on the lives of men and women, and of how the ordinary man in the street rose to the challenge of the call to arms. With over 10,000 registered letters per month reaching the Western front, I had never visualised the effort that it took to get the morale boosting mail packets to the men, and yet, whilst the Post Office Rifles were made of up from the ranks of postal workers, they were very much part of the fighting force and acted honourably and with great courage under enemy bombardment.
The book is easy to read and well divided into understandable chapters, which cover the involvement of the Post Office Rifles, from the Battle of Festubert during the spring offensive in May 1915, through to their involvement in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The sensitive use of personal documentation highlights the very human face of war and as names begin to crop up in the narrative, I found that I formed an emotional attachment to many of them, and seeing their photographs and reading their memories emphasised to me in a very poignant way, that these are real stories and not just dusty records from the annals of history.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to, not just the men of the Post Office Rifles, but also to the many thousands of young men and women, who gave their lives unquestionably and who with pride and patriotism served their country in a war they really didn't fully understand.
In this centenary year of the start of WW1, there will be many books published extolling both the virtues, and also the indecision of this war to end all wars. I highly recommend That Men of Letters is a very good place to start if you want to know more about the very human face of WW1.
on 10 August 2014
I have a keen interest in the Great War, and am always on the lookout for a fresh perspective. My shelves groan under the weight of books I have bought and read that deal with all aspects of the War, from munitions workers to the factory that built the first tanks. From Haig on down to the honest Tommy.
But I prefer those writers that can bring me the story of the section and the platoon: the fighting man’s war; in other words, the story from the ground up rather than the top down view. In ‘Men of Letters’, Duncan Barrett does just that; this is the story of a battalion, from the day war was declared until after the Armistice.
When I realised Duncan Barrett’s book was the story of the Post Office Rifles, the 1/8th Battalion of the London Regiment (47th Division), I was delighted; this is something I know a lot about, having written three novels that focus on the exploits of the 1/18th Battalion, the London Irish Rifles. Although part of a different brigade, the men of the Post Office Rifles fought alongside the men of the London Irish, and it’s obvious to me that Duncan has done his homework.
I cannot claim to know much about the Post Office Rifles, but I can attest to the historical accuracy of the actions Duncan describes: Loos, High Wood, Bourlon Wood, the 100 days. All are described from the individual’s point of view. And because we follow the same men throughout the narrative, I began to care about their outcomes: I wondered whether Duncan was introducing a man because he had a happy ending, or that he was offering up another red shirt (to use a Star Trek euphemism for someone who has moments to live).
All too often, these historical books based on personal narratives tend to become rather boring; like reading someone else’s diary entries (and sometimes, that’s literally true). But Duncan has an engaging writing style, and I was able to read his work in two sittings (much to my wife’s irritation who had other plans for us this weekend).
Perhaps the reason the work is so readable is that Duncan’s family has a personal connection with the London Regiment. His Great-great uncle Eric Layton was killed in High Wood on 15th September 1916 in the 1/21st Battalion (First Surrey Rifles) of the London Regiment. (The First Surrey Rifles, within the 47th Division, had the dubious honour of suffering particularly horrendous losses, with only 62 men answering roll call on the morning of the 16th September). It is clear to me that Duncan has begun to care about the men he writes about.
If you’re looking for a strategic overview of the Great War, this isn’t it. If you are looking for a powerful story of ordinary men forced to do extraordinary things, look no further.
A J Warren
on 4 August 2014
This is a moving account of the post office workers who joined up in the First World War - with heart warming, as well as heart rending nuggets: the letter to an English widow from a German soldier who found his body; the decision (at a time of great social inequality) not to allow wealthier families to bring home the bodies of their loved ones since this was not something open to the poor. I am writing this on the anniversary of the start of the Great War. The site of Mount Pleasant Post Office is set to become a luxury housing development, the former sorting office in King Edwards Building is now part of the American Bank Merrill Lynch. But Postman's Park at the back of Barts Hospital remains another touching place where the heroic acts of ordinary citizens are remembered.
Buy this for your postman ! But two for your postwoman.
on 24 January 2015
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.
'Men of Letters' is a fascinating and absorbing read, and an interesting record of a little-known aspect of the Great War.