One Sunday morning, early in March 1915, Cooper Antliff of 41 St. Mark St., Montreal, took up pen and paper and wrote a three-page letter to his brother, Private William Antliff, a commerce student at McGill University who had interrupted his studies to enlist and was on his way to England with the 9th Canadian Field Ambulance. Cooper Antliff had lots of news from the home front. He had been to the “moving pictures” at the Imperial Theatre the previous Friday evening. He had participated in a Saturday morning hike with the YMCA and in the afternoon had attended a ski jumping contest in the suburb of Côte-des-Neiges. “We are all thinking about you out on the ocean,” Cooper said before signing off. “We would like to know how you spent your Sunday at sea.”
So began a lively and prolific correspondence between members of the Antliff family. Over the next 3 1/2 years, Pte. Antliff would write some 265 letters and he would receive an equal number from home—all now carefully preserved at the Canadian War Museum’s Military History Research Centre. The exchange continued right to the war’s end when, on Nov. 11, 1918, Pte. Antliff’s mother wrote: “This is a most wonderful day—the long looked for day of peace and our hearts are full of joy and thanksgiving.”
The Antliffs and tens of thousands of other Canadian families were able to maintain contact with their loved ones overseas due largely to the work of the Canadian Postal Corps (CPC), a service created in May 1911 specifically to handle military mail. Initially, the CPC was a skeletal organization that rarely had much to do except for the months of June, July and August when militias across the country marched off to summer camps. That changed with the outbreak of war in August 1914.
Staggering amounts of mail had to be collected, sorted and moved back and forth across the Atlantic. In 1915, Canadians sent some 8.3 million letters and nearly 271,000 parcels while soldiers posted close to four million letters and 29,600 parcels. By 1918, the volume of outbound letters had exceeded 43 million and inbound approached 23.5 million and all this was handled by slightly over 200 officers and personnel. Small wonder, then, that Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie felt compelled to tip his hat to them at the end of the war. “Before the Canadian Corps breaks up,” he wrote to Col. G.W. Ross, director of the CPC, “I would like to place on record my appreciation of the most efficient work done by the Canadian Postal Services during all the weary months of the war.”
There was more to it than mere efficiency, of course. Mail from home gave the soldiers a tremendous emotional lift and that is evident from the letters they sent to family and friends back in Canada. “Just received parcel containing underwear, socks, handkerchiefs, gloves and knife for which I thank you very much,” E.D. Hubbell wrote to his brother J.D. in Thamesville, Ont., on Dec. 27, 1914, while stationed in England.
The flow of mail was not restricted to family members. Some communities formed charitable organizations to collect food, clothing and other goods for soldiers serving overseas. The Thamesville Tobacco Fund, for instance, had coupons printed, which donors filled in and recipients sent back to acknowledge that they had received their package. Judging by the correspondence on file at the war museum’s research centre, Orville Hubbell was a very active member of the local Tobacco Fund.
In late June 1917, he sent a package to one David Sherman and in early September another—Parcel 183—to an acquaintance identified only as W. McKenzie. The latter contained: “6 plugs of Tobacco, 4 packages of Tobacco, 5 packages of Gum, 2 Handkerchiefs, Sweet chocolate, 1 Sox.”
And McKenzie wrote back: “Hello Orville: Everything arrived OK this morning and very welcome as usual. Will be glad when I hit the old Burg again. A nice quiet place and nothing ever comes down but rain. Remember me to the folks and Thanks very much for the goodies.”
The CPC—like the rest of the military—receded to its pre-war stature with the end of the European conflict, but it was there in September 1939 to serve the troops and their families when the second great European war of the 20th century erupted.
At the outset, the corps had a mere 50 personnel of reserve army status. By the end, the CPC boasted 100 officers and they were running an organization comprising 3,000 personnel of other ranks including about 300 members of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. They operated 170 field post offices at bases across Canada, in exotic locales such as Cairo, Bombay and Karachi, and they could deliver a letter or a parcel to the most distant or remote theatre of war.
Many letters written by those serving overseas were penned in reading rooms set up by the Canadian Legion War Services Inc. (CLWS), a non-profit unit of the Directorate of Auxiliary Services under the Department of National Defence. Run by senior Legion officers, the CLWS set up reading rooms in England and elsewhere as the troops moved throughout the war. By war’s end the Legion had distributed more than 10 million sheets of stationary to posted troops.
The Base Post Office (BPO) was the heart of the CPC’s vast, far-flung operation. It was located in a five-storey, brick building on Nicholas Street in downtown Ottawa and was either purchased or leased from the Dominion Warehousing Company. Every piece of mail addressed to a soldier serving overseas in either the army or the air force, or stationed at a base in Canada, went through the BPO. (Navy mail went to a depot in Halifax and all incoming mail simply went through the civilian post office.)
Parcels for army and air force personnel were sorted on the first and second floors of the BPO and letters on the third. The administration was located on the fourth while all mail for German prisoners of war, as well as Japanese-Canadians and others detained in internment camps, went to the fifth. The volumes grew exponentially, like the war effort itself. In 1939, the BPO was moving 15 bags of mail a day. The following year the daily average had grown to 255 bags and in 1941, it hit 450. Two years later, the staff was processing 3,000 per day and working some incredible hours.
“You didn’t go by the clock,” Joan Lemon told Patricia Dufour, a Canadian Postal Museum researcher who compiled an oral history of the corps in 1999. “You had a job to do and that’s what you were there to do.”
Corps personnel also worked long hours at military bases across the country. “Very often, we’d go down in the morning for three hours and maybe not go back till three in the afternoon, then work till 10 at night or so, whenever the trains went,” recalled Gordon Shold, who worked at several Royal Canadian Air Force bases in western Canada, including Saskatoon. “We might dispatch mail…three times a day by truck or car and pick it up of course.”
“All the work was manual,” A.J. Michaud, another member of the corps, told Dufour. “People stood before sorting boxes for six to eight hours per day or more if required, performing with speed and accuracy.”
Lemon explained how mail was sorted once it arrived at BPO. “They’d dump it in this great bin out front and then they’d sort it. That was called the primary…like air force and army…then artillery or medical or whatever. So then you picked out what you wanted. If I had artillery, I’d take that. Well, I’d have all these different regiments, all the different companies, different platoons. You sort it into pigeon holes. Then you had a facing slip, it was called, and you’d write on the front of it, such and such company, such and such platoon, whatever the regiment was… Then, you’d put the facing slip on, then you’d tie it out and…then it went into the overseas bag. It was never taken out till it got to that platoon.”
The government encouraged Canadians to write to the men and women serving overseas and published illustrated posters with blunt messages. One said:
THE PEN IS A MIGHTY WEAPON!
Write Cheerfully and Often
TO THE BOYS OVERSEAS!
The message on another was:
GIVE THE GUY A LIFT
OH Boy. Everything At Home Is Swell
Write ’EM Often
With a Cheerful Letter!
The members of the Cdn. Postal Corps took the messages to heart and began to refer to the organization as the “Morale Department.”
Charles Oldham, who served overseas with the corps, provided Dufour with a particularly telling account of distributing letters and parcels in the field. “The disappointment when there was no mail was really…like you felt sorry for some fellows. They never got any mail, no matter what. And they’d come every day. Either their families didn’t care or you know… The mail meant so much to [them], I always figure it was an important part of the service. Even though I wasn’t in danger, it was still important.”
Parcels were just as important and the volumes rose steadily—from 954,275 in 1940 to 1,428,520 in 1941 and 2,876,622 the following year. “It was largely socks and scarves and sweaters and soap, stuff you couldn’t get (overseas),” recalled Gordon Taylor. “Cigarettes, cigars. There was always the odd things. Women’s clothing…stuff that you’d never see that anybody could make any use of… People were stupid in what they shipped in the way of food. They’d put in fresh fruit and things like that.”
Liquor was another favourite and those who were clever about it might hollow out an unsliced loaf of bread and slip in a bottle. Postal corps personnel were always looking for contraband and some became adept at detecting it. “You could tell if a parcel had a bottle of booze in it,” Taylor said. “All you had to do was pick up a parcel and tip it slightly and you’d feel the liquid move. We used to have some pretty good parties. It couldn’t go forward with liquor in it.”
In the early years of the war, all the mail crossed the Atlantic by ship and, as volumes grew, the government decided something had to be done to reduce the weight and save space. Thus, in November 1941, the post office introduced the airgraph, a one-page form that could be picked up, free of charge, at any postal depot or station in the country. The user wrote a letter on one side, folded it as prescribed on the opposite side, addressed it in a panel provided for that purpose and put ten cents postage in a designated space.
Canadians turned in airgraphs at their local postal stations where they were collected, placed in large envelopes and sent to a special section of the Toronto Post Office. Then they were turned over to the Canadian Kodak Company, photographed and placed on microfilm. Each reel could hold some 1,600 airgraphs and weighed about four ounces, package included. Sent as ordinary letters, these messages would weigh 25 pounds and fill half a mailbag.
The Toronto Post Office collected the reels, packaged them and sent them to the CPC’s central facility in Ottawa and from there they were sent to overseas postal corps offices, first in England and later in Algiers, Cairo, Naples, Bombay and elsewhere. The messages were transferred from film to paper and then distributed to the troops.
Both Canadians at home and the men and women overseas had one complaint about wartime mail delivery in the early years. It was too slow, a problem evident from the following letter, dated March 17, 1943, and written by Captain Ed Broomhall, a Toronto resident stationed in England with the 3rd Canadian Division, Royal Canadian Corps of Signals.
“Hello again, my darling,” he wrote to his wife. “Just last night I wrote you a letter and I’m afraid that I ended on a somewhat low note moaning about the lack of parcels and letters from home and the fact I was, and have been completely out of cigarettes, writing paper, eatables, etc., for some time.
“Well, Sweetheart, my letter had hardly been collected out of the mailbox when the mess steward came in with an armful of parcels…and to my great surprise I received 300 cigarettes from [name unclear], a grand parcel of food which also contained a pair of hand knit socks from Margie and Al and a terrific package for your own dear self…”
Canadians let the authorities know how they felt about tardy mail—an inevitable result of the long ocean crossings, compounded by the threat of German submarine attack while the Battle of the Atlantic raged—and the authorities responded. In late 1943, they created 168 Squadron RCAF, commonly known as the “mailcan squadron,” to move letters and parcels by air. The first such flight occurred Dec. 17, 1943, and over the next 2 1/2 years, air force pilots made 636 transatlantic flights in Liberators and B-17 Fortresses loaded with mail.
The impact of this innovation is likewise evident in another missive, dated Jan. 13, 1944, from the prolific Capt. Broomhall. “Hello Darling,” he wrote. “I received your grand airmail written on Christmas Eve and I have read and re-read it a dozen times. I can just feel your loneliness and I promise that never will there be another Christmas Eve when we won’t be together if I can help it!”
Capt. Broomhall was then serving in Italy and, as it happened, didn’t make it home for Christmas, 1944. He wound up in Paris not long after it was liberated. By the spring of 1945, he was attached to the Canadian Army that liberated Holland and he was still writing home. “My Darling,” he wrote on May 2 that year. “So Hitler is dead! Well that means two less vermin to be exterminated, for Musso [Italian dictator Benito Mussolini] has already left this world, shot down by his own people, which is as it should be!”
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