The inter-war years were a period of poverty and anxiety for many, and often turbulent social upheaval for all, as traditional values and hierarchies were challenged as never before.
Yet, at the same time, almost in reaction to society’s stresses there was, amongst many, a powerful deference to King and Country and values such a duty, honour, self-respect and self -reliance.
It was essentially a marshall period, uniforms dominated people’s lives. In uncertain times regulation, regimentation and codification were looked for and welcomed.
It was a period where outward appearance – the pride you took in your uniform – spoke volubly of your attitude, status and ambition. It’s captured in the following photos – of my mum’s dad, John William Slater (JWS).
The Post Office took over control of Inland Telegraphs from the railways and private telegraph companies in 1870.
Many of the boys employed to deliver telegrams transferred to the Post Office. In 1897, the radius for free delivery of telegrams was increased from one to three miles. The Post Office Engineer-in-Chief’s Office purchased 100 pedal bicycles for telegram messengers and postmen.
In 1915, morning exercise was added to the drill routine already being carried out by messengers, to keep them fit for their work. Both drill and compulsory exercise were abolished in 1921.
In the 1930s, 65 million telegrams were being delivered per year and the service employed 11,000 staff!
In 1965, messengers only delivered 10 million telegrams, a huge decline from pre-war levels. “The public inland telegram service…is a dying service; it cannot be made to pay.” stated a Parliamentary Select Committee investigating the telegram service in 1967 By 1976, delivery by hand had significantly decreased. Only 84% were still delivered by messenger with the remainder delivered by post, telephone or telex. In 1977, the Post Office decided that the telegram service should be abolished. However, the service lingered on until transferred to British Telecom in 1981. The time of the telegram messenger had passed.
On May 14th, the Minister of War, Anthony Eden, made the following national announcement:
“We want large numbers of men in Great Britain who are British subjects between the ages of 17 and 65 to come forward now and offer their service in order to make assurance doubly sure. The name of the new force which is now to be raised will be the Local Defence Volunteers.”
The authorities were completely unprepared for the number that did respond. Within 6 weeks of the announcement by Eden, ten times more men had volunteered than the War Office had expected in total. To begin there were simply not enough official forms for men to apply – local police simply resorted to making a list of names.
With such a response, the War Office was faced with a number of problems. The primary ones were supplying sufficient uniforms for so many volunteers and the necessary weapons if Britain was to be properly defended. All available weaponry had, understandably, been handed to the regular military and a vast amount was to be lost by the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk.
The Home Guard was ordered to find whatever it could to defend itself and occasionally men in the Home Guard were referred to as the ‘Broomstick Army’, the result of being seen drilling with broomsticks. Even six weeks after Eden’s broadcast, there was only one rifle to every six men in the Home Guard. When rifles did arrive, they were American P17’s and P14’s from World War One.
They trained in the evening in such things as weapons handling, unarmed combat and basic sabotage. However, complaints were made that too much time was spent on drill as opposed to learning about proper soldiering.
Despite Churchill’s demand that the Home Guard be issued with proper weapons, the War Office issued 250,000 pikes – bayonets welded onto metal poles. Local Home Guard commanders initially received little guidance from the War Office as to training and it was left to them to develop their own tactics that were relevant to their own locality. However, with little professional support, a man in the Home Guard was four times as likely to die in an accident during training than a regular soldier.
However, training in the Home Guard was transformed in July 1940 by a veteran of World War One and theSpanish Civil War, Tom Wintringham. During the Spanish Civil War, Wintringham had developed an expertise in guerilla fighting. Using various contacts, Wintringham set up the first guerilla warfare school at Osterley Park to the west of London. Hundreds of Home Guard volunteers turned up. At Osterley Park, these volunteers were taught how to fight an enemy. Most of Wintringham’s teachers were veterans of the Spanish Civil War including Basques who specialised in explosives. Training in guerilla warfare for the Home Guard volunteers started within 20 minutes of arrival and in the first three months Wintringham and his men had trained 5,000 volunteers. They were simply taught what they needed to know.
However, Wintringham never received the full support of the government as he had fought for the Communists in the Spanish Civil War and some in government believed that he was covertly training an army that would one day be used against the government. Though an absurdity, such a belief needs to be taken in the context of paranoid times. After just three months in charge, Osterley Park was taken over by the military and Wintringham and his men were pushed aside. However, the War Office recognised the value of such training camps and set up three more of them across the UK, based on how Osterley Park was run.
In addition to training in covert actions the Home Guard acted as sentries during the day and night and became extra ‘ears and eyes’ for the full-time military. They checked that people were carrying their Identity Cards. Those caught without one could be arrested and handed over to the police.
Local Home Guard units would know who lived locally and any strangers to an area would be subject to a check, especially as there was a genuine fear of Fifth Columnists. The Home Guard was also responsible for taking down road signs and any local clues that might help the enemy should they invade.