A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

The Post Office’s Home Depot was crucial to the British war effort. Jamie Merrill explains how

By December 1914, the battered remnants of the British Expeditionary Force – bolstered by members of the Territorial Army and soldiers hastily recalled from Empire – were dug into their trenches, where, it soon became clear, the reading and writing of letters could be crucial to morale. The evening mail call, with its promise of news from home and sweethearts, became a highlight of each day. Letters were delivered with the evening meal and devoured as eagerly as bully beef and biscuits.

What the average Tommy might not have known was that his post reached him via a spectacular wooden structure, thrown up over a few weeks in December 1914 in the centre of London’s Regent’s Park.

A forward Post Office base had been established by the military at Le Havre within days of war’s outbreak, but by December the volume of post had become unmanageable. So the General Post Office (GPO) erected what it called the Home Depot. Covering five acres, this was thought to be the largest wooden structure in the world. It was soon handling millions of items every week – 12 million at its peak in 1918.

It also changed the Royal Mail – and even, to a lesser extent, society. Prior to the war, the GPO had been the world’s single largest employer, with 250,000 staff. But 75,000 were released to join the war effort (it formed its own 12,000-man regiment, the Post Office Rifles, which suffered 6,300 casualties at the Somme and Passchendaele). They were replaced with women in unprecedented numbers (which by some estimates reached 100,000). By 1918, most of the 2,500 workers on the site were women. Altogether, the Home Depot dispatched around two billion letters and 114 million parcels during the war. Most reached the Western Front within two days, via forward post rooms close to the front line. The operation was so efficient that post occasionally arrived at locations before the Army did. Officers also used the service to order luxury hampers from Fortnum & Mason.

 

Ex-postman and former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, a self-taught expert on the subject, describes it as a “system of immense ingenuity and courage”.

He points out, however, that the GPO was well-prepared for war. “By the outbreak of the First World War the General Post Office already had a very sophisticated structure in place. The Royal Engineers Postal Section was a military unit, but in reality it was operated by the managers of the Post Office. And the idea of keeping up the morale of the troops goes as far back as the Boer War and the introduction of Penny Post rate,” says Johnson.

The GPO was even able to dispatch mail to sailors at sea, and (under a reciprocal agreement) to British prisoners of war languishing in Germany.

But there was a price to be paid. In 1913, a medium-sized rural town could expect anything up to 12 deliveries per day. The outbreak of war cut this to just one or two. And in June 1918 the Penny Post, which had heralded the age of mass communication, was ended – causing one observer to lament that “one of the great triumphs of peace, had succumbed to the demands of war”.

Five months later, the war ended. The Home Depot was dismantled. Few records – or even images – of it remain.

Its echoes can be heard in the language of today’s Royal Mail: postmen and women still go “on duty” (not “to work”) and take “leave” (not “holiday”). Otherwise, says Johnson: “Nothing of it survived. Its contribution to the war effort was totally forgotten.”

Tomorrow: The war reaches the Falklands

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at independent.co.uk/greatwar

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