Topic: AIF - Misc Topics
The AIF Postal Service
1st Light Horse Brigade Field Post Office at Mena, c. 1914-15.
[From: AWM PS0523]
In an effort to assist in the correct delivery of letters, the Army Post Office embarked upon a campaign of public information on an Australian wide basis. During November 1918, this detailed press release was sent to many metropolitan and regional newspapers to aleviate some of the harsh criticisms upon the postal service.
The Army Post Office - How Our Soldiers' Mail is Delivered.
Criticism is a valuable asset in all work when the critic is aware of the nature and conditions governing such work. It is a foolish and dangerous thing when backed by mere prejudice and ignorance. Complaints against the Army Postal Service has been rife, and since most of the statements made have sprung from an unavoidable ignorance of certain main facts, it is advisable to set the Army Postal proceedings clearly before the members of the A.I.F. and their relatives and friends.
The Australian Army Postal Service was instituted as a direct Australian connecting link between members of the Australian Imperial Force and their relatives and friends. The charge of maladministration is sometimes levelled against the Army Postal Service for non-delivery of mail, but more often than not the fault is incorrect addressing.
A civil Post Office delivers mail placed in its charge at the address stated thereon, and when that cannot be done, returns those articles to the senders. Such is the general postal scheme throughout the world in normal times, and the same scheme is adopted in war by all nations engaged in the present struggle, except the Anzac Postal Corps. The Australian Postal Service is more than a post office. It is a combination of post office and Missing Friends Bureau. It not only delivers the mail to the location stated on the address, but if the soldier is not there, sets out to find him. Delivery will ultimately be effected unless the soldier is killed, "missing,” or absent without leave. This is made possible by a novel re-direction organisation instituted at the Australian Army Post Office, London.
Australia has the most difficult postal work of all Army Postal Services. Distance means time - the A.I.F. soldier writes from France, states his unit, many months elapse before the answering letter arrives - and much has happened in France during that time. Probably the soldier has changed his rank, unit, and location several times. Before he rejoins a fighting unit is often a period of many changes. He is wounded and goes to the Field Ambulance, Casualty Clearing Station, Base Hospital, on to the English Hospital, Convalescent Home, furlough, training camp, across to France, and possibly, eventually to a different unit in France. The postal service follows him doggedly and finds him. You have only to ask those who have been there. There are few complaints of postal work from the army - they know!
Often the personnel of a military unit and its location change daily, according to military exigencies. Mail items can only show the soldier's number, rank, name, initials, company and unit. No mention of brigade or location must be made for military reasons. The army postal service has to make good these deficiencies and deliver the goods.
The approximate volume of mail for the A.I.F. is some two million mail items per month. This is first delivered to the Base Post Office in bulk, where it is sorted, grouped, addresses are corrected, and the mail directed to its correct location and despatched for delivery. This entails employment to a large staff of girls, the supervising work being done by soldiers unfit for active service. Card index records are kept, where on every change to the soldier's designation of location is entered. These changes average over 62,000 monthly. A new system enables all mail arriving for the one solder to be "grouped" and delivered in one bundle. All addresses are checked with the card records, and the mail then despatched to the location shown on the man's card.
This checking of the soldier's designation and location prior to despatch is necessary owing to the great distance of Australia and the constant movement and change of personnel. At least 50 per cent of the mail arrives in London incorrectly addressed. There are still cases in which the mail does not reach the addressee at the first "try,” owing to his having been wounded or transferred from his unit during the period in which mail is en route to him from the base post office, London. This mail is returned to London, and even more elaborate efforts made to "find" the addressee. The Australian army post office has only 4 per cent of undeliverable mail left on its hand - part of which is due to wrong addresses given intentionally.
Postal system for parcels is different to that of all other mail. Those from Australia arrive by an "all sea" route, and thus take longer to reach the B.P.O. than letter mail coming via America. Often letters advising the despatch of parcels will arrive one month before the parcel.
When parcels are bagged in Australia, duplicate lists are made out, one of which is forwarded to London by letter mail, and the other enclosed in the mail bag. Thus the list arriving in London can be verified by postal records before the parcels actually arrive. Owing to this system, only 1.12 per cent of all parcels are now found to be undeliverable, and this fine record is achieved without loss of time in delivering the parcels. A great number of articles, whose non-delivery has aroused criticism, never had a chance of either delivery or return. If people will insist on sending such perishable goods as eggs, boiled chicken, cake, fruit, and other food stuffs in canvas bags or cardboard boxes by post, the non-delivery of such parcels cannot be wondered at. The contents become broken and decompose completely, the boxes fall to pieces and obliterate addresses on many other parcels.
Undeliverable parcels for men killed or missing are opened at the Base post office and the contents handed to the Australian Comforts Fund, except any contents of sentimental value, which are returned to the sender, the authority for this being War Precautions Regulation 64c.
Then there are submarines, and mail matter is sometimes lost in the field - the wonder is that the occasions are not more frequent. Enemy artillery drop shells into places least expected and some of these happen to have been field post offices. A "Fritz" shell is no respecter of material or persons. A direct hit usually means the total destruction of quarters, staff and mail.
The Army Postal Service gets blamed for many errors of which it is entirely innocent. A soldier get lazy and lax in his correspondence and "lets himself down" by blaming the post office. It does not matter to him if this brings indignant official letter of complaint from Australia. In all armies there are periods in some soldiers' lives when they cannot give their location - detention barracks, prisoners, etc and certain hospitals are necessary adjuncts to every army. Being unable to state his correct location a wrong one is given and thus another "train" or misdirected mail is started.
Every mail item that is not delivered at the first "try" is returned and referred to the Investigation section at the base post office, London, who “report” direct to the Director. This is one of the most important of the new procedures in army postal work. It is the detective of the army posts - collecting evidence of wrong addressing, circulation, records, etc, and driving home the blame either to the sender, postal staff, or postal organisation. Its effect is a dual one - first to effect delivery of the mail items; secondly, to censure the postal staff at fault, or to alter a weakness disclosed in postal systems. By this means the army postal service has been rejuvenated, and the staff now work at a high pitch of efficiency under an organisation well adapted to the difficult work it undertakes.
There are many ways in which you can help the army postal work. Here are some suggestions for people sending mail to members of the A.I.F. abroad:-
Be reasonable in the amount of mail you despatch.
Ask your friends overseas to state in every letter their exact address.
Then address all mail direct to the soldier - at that address - not care of some friend or institution.
State clearly the full address, similar to this sample -
Trooper Nonesuch, A.B.,
4th Light Horse Regiment,
Australian Imperial Force.
The above is the correct form of addressing. The writing should be clear and distinct.
The first letter of the surname should be in block style, in order to facilitate alphabetical sorting.
The wording should be kept well down on the envelope, in order that the top portion may be well clear of the surcharge stamp which runs across the top of the envelope.
By writing small and clearly, sufficient space will be left for the re-direction which may have to be added by the Australian Base Post Office, London.
By observing the above instructions you will insure the correct delivery of the mail and facilitate army postal work.
Don't fail to appreciate that correct addresses are essential and that if you will guarantee the correct address the army postal service will do the rest.
Don't use the abbreviation B.E.F. or A.I.F. The former (B.E.F.) is likely to carry the mail item to a British unit of similar designation and the latter (A.I.F.) may be confused with the American title "A.E.F.” The word "Australian" written in full must form part of every address.
Don't advise by letter that parcels have gone from Australia to France until such are well on their way.
Don't say you have posted a parcel when it has been handed to the Battalion or Comforts Fund for delivery.
Don’t send perishable foods in insecurely packed parcels going overseas.
Don't lower the morale of our soldiers by writing "Complaining" letters - the boys deserve to be kept cheerful.
Don’t think because it’s Australian its no good. Compare the postal services of the Allies, and you will find that the Australian postal service is the most difficult, but goes further in its systems and delivers a higher percentage of mail than any other. Replace criticism and blame by commendation, it is a fairer return for all the care, energy and forethought displayed by the A.I.F. postal service in their endeavours to serve you and the A.I.F. under the most difficult conditions.
Remember there is a war on, and the army mails are not delivered in the peaceful surroundings enjoyed by our critics. Let the public survey army postal work through the large end of a telescope and the work of fighting through the small end, and they will get a true perspective of the relative importance of the two.
Even though the Great War ended in the very month this press release was distributed. For the Light Horse, it would be almost another year before the majority would return home.
Light Horse Postal Statistics
The Australian Military Post Office servicing the Light Horse was comprised of one officer and 57 men. On a weekly basis, the Australian forces in the Light Horse received 632 Letter bags and 1,339 Parcel bags making a total of 1,971 bags of mail. Similarly, the Light Horsemen and their supports sent about 42,000 letters to Australia every week. Over the whole period of the Middle East campaign through the Sinai, Palestine and Syria, Australian Light Horsemen and their support staffsent some three million letters to Australia.
[From: Rachwalsky, E & Harrison, DF, "The postal history and postmarks of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (E.E.F.) with special reference to Palestine", BAPIP Bulletin, No. 30, 1958, p. 7.]
Citation: The Army Post Office delivering the mail