Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Royal Mail's Centenary Stamp Issue

The Royal Mail, formerly referred to as the General Post Office (GPO), played a huge and highly important role in delivering mail to and from the troops in the field. Less known is that the GPO contributed 12,000 of its employees to its own Pals Battalion. Of the 12,000 GPO employees in the Post Office Rifles, 1,800 were killed and 4,500 wounded. The Royal Mail has been delivering a spectacular year-by-year release of new WWI Centenary issues. Here are the latest with the artists and some details on the content.

In May 1915, Canadian military doctor Major John McCrae wrote a short poem titled "In Flanders Fields," which drew upon the image of delicate poppies and spoke with the voice of fallen soldiers, calling on their comrades to continue the struggle. The verses helped to turn the flower into a symbol of remembrance throughout the English-speaking world. Poppies, an abstract work by London-born artist Howard Hodgkin, was inspired by poppies from Normandy and was executed as a carborundum print. Hodgkin won the Turner Prize in 1985 and was knighted in 1992. 

In his four-stanza work "All the Hills and Vales Along," Charles Hamilton Sorley depicts troops singing as they advance toward the front line. As the poem marches on, the pastoral imagery gives way to an ever bleaker expectation of death. On 13 October 1915, 20-year-old Sorley was serving as a captain in the Suffolk Regiment when he was killed by a sniper. This poem was found in his kitbag and published posthumously. Sorley was later commemorated on a stone in Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, dedicated to 16 leading First World War poets. 

Rifleman Kulbir Thapa was serving in 2nd Battalion, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles, when his unit attacked German lines on 25 September 1915, the first day of the Battle of Loos. Though wounded and separated from his battalion, he was able to reach the German front line. Finding an injured British soldier nearby, Kulbir stayed with him all day and night, before carrying him to safety the next morning. Despite his injuries, he then returned to the German trenches and rescued two fellow Gurkhas. For these selfless acts of heroism, Kulbir became the first Nepalese Gurkha to be awarded the Victoria Cross. 

In this image, British photographer Ernest Brooks captures a British soldier at a comrade’s grave at Cape Helles in an evocative sunset silhouette. Brooks was particularly keen on using silhouettes, as by rendering soldiers less recognisable, their outlines came to symbolise unknown soldiers. Cape Helles, on the southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula, had witnessed bloody fighting on 25 April 1915.
On 25 September 1915, the first day of the Battle of Loos, this football was booted out of British trenches by Private Frank Edwards. Kicked across no-man’s-land by Edwards’ comrades in 1st Battalion, London Irish Rifles, it became entangled in German barbed wire as British soldiers overran the enemy position. Though disapproved of by his officers, Edwards’s action may well have offered a welcome distraction to men faced with a dangerous advance through heavy fire. Preserved in the London Irish Rifles’ Regimental Museum since the war, the football underwent special conservation treatment in 2011.

Painter and sculptor Eric Kennington joined the London Regiment in 1914 but was wounded and discharged in 1915. During his recovery he worked on "The Kensingtons at Laventie." Painted in reverse by applying oil paint to a sheet of glass, this extraordinary picture depicts Kennington (left background in a black balaclava) and several identifiable comrades resting in a ruined village after an exhausting spell in the trenches during the winter of 1914–15. A complex composition, the painting honours the fortitude and solidarity of ordinary soldiers.


  1. Wonderful images and background information -- thanks for another great post.

  2. The Post Office Rifles (8th Battalion, The London Reg't.) were a Territorial Force unit formed in 1868. As such, not a Pals battalion, which were all New Army.