Newham bookshop launches book about Post Office Rifles in Great War

Sergeant Alfred Knight (with pipe) with his comrades

Sergeant Alfred Knight (with pipe) with his comrades - Credit: Anne Walsh

Exactly 100 years after Britain declared war on Germany and Europe’s deadliest conflict began, a book documenting how postmen fought in their own regiment will be launched.

Men of Letter front cover

Men of Letter front cover - Credit: AA Publishing

When the Great War broke out on August 4, 1914, the Post Office was the world’s largest employer and thousands of men who had made their living sorting and delivering mail bravely volunteered to fight for king and country against Germany.

Duncan Barrett’s Men of Letters tells the personal stories of the Post Office Rifles, a 12,000 strong unit of the British Army.

“I was interested in the idea of people who knew each other before the war fighting together,” Duncan said.

“Through the Post Office we get to focus on the nostalgia factor, you can imagine your local post worker going out to war. I felt like with this topic, I’d found something readers could latch onto.”

Duncan Barrett

Duncan Barrett - Credit: Duncan Barrett


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The book launches on the historically significant date, August 4, at Newham Bookshop and offers a glimpse into the ordinary lives of the men who joined the rifles.

One story Duncan tells is of a former postal sorter, Corporal Chilmaid, from Canning Town, Newham.

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He belonged to the Post Office Rifles and decided to play a prank on his Sergeant, George Ward - a man despised by many for being tyrannical.

Duncan said: “Because they all hated Ward so much they saw an opportunity for revenge, Chilmaid decided to take advantage of Ward’s drinking habit and one night when Ward was worse for wear, he instructed a group to pelt him with sodden clumps of earth picked from a grassy bank next to a cesspool.”

Sergeant Alfred Knight who won the Post Office Rifle's only Victoria Cross

Sergeant Alfred Knight who won the Post Office Rifle's only Victoria Cross - Credit: Anne Walsh

He explains the prank evidently had a lasting effect on Ward as from then on he treated his men with more respect.

Duncan’s interest in the Post Office Rifles developed after learning his great great uncle fought in the same battle as them but for another London regiment.

“I found out that The Post Office Rifles fought at Highwood on the same day as my uncle. And it was that battle that day where my uncle was killed,” he said.

“The first big battle [The Post Office Rifles] fought was in May 1915 in Festubert. Not long after they fought in the Battle of Loos in 1915 and then Highwood, which was a later stage of the battle of Somme.”

Field service postcard sent by Duncan Barrett's great-great-uncle

Field service postcard sent by Duncan Barrett's great-great-uncle - Credit: Duncan Barrett

The history enthusiast gathered most of the information for the book from memoirs made by men, letters and diary entries obtained from the Imperial War Museum and the British Postal Museum and Archives.

He launched his first book, The Sugar Girls, at Newham Bookshop and has since developed a large Newham fan-base.

The Sugar Girl’s went on to be the independent bookstore on Barking Road’s biggest ever seller.

Duncan said: “I wanted to launch Men of Letters there too because after The Sugar Girls the local area have been so supportive and the store really helped.”

Men of Letters will be launched on Monday August 4, 2014 from 6:00pm. Free Event. RSVP: info@newhambooks.co.uk

It is published by AA and costs £8.99.

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