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

Saturday, October 8, 2016

The Railway Mail Service Goes to War: Bringing the Mail to Doughboys in World War I, Part II

by David Thompson

The American Bordeaux Terminal RPO played a critical role as a mail transportation hub in serving our WWI AEF troops in France:

The terminal distributed up to 44,555,000 letters a month (582 tons of mail), dispatched in sealed pouches. When ships were due to sail, no hours were too long and no conditions too forbidding to prevent a speedy all-out dispatch (p. 211).

Actual Postmark & Annotations, Late War
The Railway Mail Service also set up postal detachments around the world to serve our troops during World War I. Long and Dennis write:

United States postal detachments manned by RMS personnel were set up in other parts of the world- at Vera Cruiz, Mexico, and even as far away as Siberia. A leading member of that far-flung unit was the late Joseph P. Cleland, of the Omaha & Denver RPO (on the CB& Q RR), who was renowned as a three times-round-the-world traveler (p. 212).

On the home front, at the other end of this mail pipeline to and from the AEF in France in WW I stood the Chelsea RMS Terminal in New York City, running the length of Pier 86 at West Forty-Sixth Street. The Chelsea RMS Terminal’s task was to gather all the mail from across the U.S. going to the servicemen of the AEF in France and get it placed on ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Bordeaux RMS Terminal for distribution to soldiers at the front. In turn, the Chelsea RMS Terminal received all mail from the Bordeaux RMS Terminal off ships that transited the Atlantic Ocean and distributed it to post offices and RPO’s in the United States to speed the mail home to families concerned about their doughboy serving with the AEF in France.

All Army overseas mail was ordered diverted there (Chelsea RMS Terminal), and half frozen clerks struggled with it in overcoats until ‘the world’s largest one-room heating plant’ was installed. Hap-hazard overseas addresses used by the public (as, 110 Engineers, France) gradually were standardized in the general form: Name of soldier and unit, AEF, APO 123 (or whatever it was), France. Hundreds of patriotic ‘dollar-a year’ volunteers worked alongside the paid men and women clerks in the terminal with steady efficiency, including such notables as Henry Ward Beecher, Jr. (p. 212).

The System Working at Its Most Efficient

When the war ended in November 1918, a large redistribution center was set up at one end of the Chelsea RPO Terminal, to assure mail initially routed to men in units in France to catch up with them upon their return to the United States. This redistribution center was "manned by Army clerks who redirected parcels addressed to men leaving France to the proper United States separation center (p. 212)."

The Postal History of the AEF, 1917-1923 reports: “By December 1918, 131,900 sacks pf mail had been received from and 25, 532 sent to the United States; by January 1919  twenty-eight million letters had been dispatched to the United States, and more than fifty million had been received from the United States. At one point, the Military Postal Express Service handled more mail than the entire French civilian postal system” (Van Dam, p. 13).

The British later also set up RPO's on the European continent for occupation duty British soldiers following the war, "particularly the BEF Main Line TPO from Boulogne (France) to Cologne (Germany), operated January 1919 to the end of the occupation."

The Troops Knew Their Letters Would Get Home

After the war, according to Long and Dennis, "many 'Railway Mail Posts' of the American Legion sprang up at New York and elsewhere," attesting to the number of RMS employees who served during WW I. My dad was one of those WW I soldiers who got mail from the RMS in 1918 and who returned the favor, sorting and distributing mail to our troops in World War II from 1940-1945 as a railway mail service clerk working at the Chicago Terminal RPO. Like so many WW I veteran RMS clerks, he knew what an encouragement it was for troops to get mail from home during the war… and he worked hard to keep the mail going to get to GI’s in World War II. 

As we near the World War I Centennial Commemoration of this long forgotten war of the early 20th Century (1917-18), we need to remember to salute the men and women of the Railway Mail Service, who in an outstanding support role, kept the mail coming to lonely doughboys at the front and concerned families back home, maintaining morale for a nation at war. They truly lived up to the Railway Mail Service motto in helping our troops in World War I: “The mail must always go through.”

David A. Thompson, Rosemount, Minnesota, is the son of WW I Veteran, PFC Arne M. Thompson, 34th CAC, U.S. Army.  From 1940-1962, Arne was a RMS RPO Clerk and Foreman/Clerk in Charge on RPO’s in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and North Dakota.

Part I of the article was presented yesterday 8 October 2016.


  1. Fabulous series of posts -- letters were so important to those on the Western Front and on the home front.

  2. I concur with Connie R. Very interesting material.