Canada’s Fighting Forces
Part 9: Base Post Office
The story of how the Canadian soldier gets his mail from home
NO TWO ways about it, this object we were looking at was a mess. A jumbled conglomeration of sad things, it lay. lonely and forlorn, seeming in some odd. inanimate fashion to be ashamed of itself, on a broad board table a bit above waist high, in a lofty bare room.
It’s base was a thin sheet of brown paper, torn and broken, shining and gummy with some spilled liquid that proved to be maple syrup. There were two battered apple pies on cardboard plates, wrapped in wax paper, half a dozen khaki handkerchiefs folded in tissue and two pairs of hand-knitted socks. An open letter and a package of paper match folders showed among other less easily identified details. The maple syrup was over and into everything, a devastating saturation of stickiness.
The sorry mess that lay before us on that table in the Base Army Post Office at Ottawa had, only a few hours previously, been put together by the loving, but inexpert hands of a mother, wife, sweetheart or sister of a Canadian soldier and addressed to him at an overseas training camp. Because its ill-assorted contents—some of them fragile— had been improperly packed, insufficiently protected from the normal hazards of long-distance travel, this particular soldier’s parcel had not survived even the trip to Ottawa.
On one account the disaster may have justified itself. Those matches should not have been there. It is illegal to send matches through the mails, and the presence of those paper combustibles would not have been discovered had the package not broken open. Grave disaster might have followed.
We asked our guide the obvious question, “What happens now?” It was, he said sorrowfully, just another salvage job, and added that the Base Army Post Office gets a lot of similar salvage jobs. Too many of them. The maple syrup, spilled from its bottle when the unsealed cork had popped from the neck, was, of course, a
total loss. The unlawful matches would be confiscated. The rest of the shattered contents would be gathered together and safely repacked, the handkerchiefs and socks separated from the pies. Then the whole would be forwarded to the overseas soldier to whom the original package had been addressed, with an explanation of the circumstances.
That is, our guide added cautiously, they would be forwarded if the address label was still intact and legible. Should the label have been destroyed in the collapse, the parcel would be returned to the sender with polite regrets sugar coating an authoritative warning to be more careful in future. That is, it would be returned if the sender’s address was available. Lacking both addresses, the Base Army Post Office could do nothing but hold the package until, in time, indignant enquiries as to its whereabouts
came through. By then the apple pies would be beyond redemption. \ 7
According to the latest available figures, the Base Army Post Office at Ottawa is dispatching between 80,000 and
130.000 letters a week to C.A.S.F. troops overseas, and from 10,000 to 13,000 parcels. On the morning of our visit we watched 2,368 parcels weighed and loaded into trucks
for transport to a train that would take them to the port from which they would be shipped. • Parcels are sent in bulk to England where, after customs examination, they are re-bagged and forwarded to the Canadian Section, Royal Engineers (Postal Section) Home Depot, from which place all mail for the troops is dispatched.
That same morning approximately 68,000 letters, weighing 1,937 pounds, were handled. Mail cleared daily through the Base Army Post Office about equals the amount passing through an average Canadian city of from 80,000 to
100.000 population. Calgary, for instance.
Staff of Experts
TT SEEMS likely that no other unit of the Canadian Active Service Forces is so completely staffed with
experts in the specialized line of duty required of them as is the Canadian Postal Corps, the unit that carries the mails. Every officer, N.C.O. and man in the command is a post office employee in civil life. Total strength of the Ottawa Base Army Post office is maintained at around fifty all ranks. The number is increasing as more troops move to England. Also, the Ottawa office trains men for service in overseas Base Army Post Offices.
Many of the men have given up their civil service posts for duration, to do double duty at less pay than they received in their regular jobs. They are post office workers and soldiers too. Recruits from the Post Office Department to the Canadian Postal Corps have to pass the regulation medical tests. They take the same drills and training as an infantryman, from physical jerks to machine gunnery. In this w’ar there are, strictly speaking, no noncombatant clerical troops.
The Base Army Post Office is a seven-days-a-week job. Time off is arranged for the personnel on a staggered basis, and the usual army leaves are granted when circumstances permit; but Base Army Post Offices carry on without ceasing.
Except that the men at work are in uniform, the interior arrangements of a Base Army Post Office look exactly the same as those of any other post office, .and their activities are very similar. At Ottawa, one room accommodates the officers in charge. Behind it is the space given over to the business of sorting, checking and weighing. Registered mail for the troops is handled separately in another smaller, partitioned area.
In the sorting room a series of open letter boxes, fronted by long fiat-topped tables, flank the high windows. Above each letter box is pasted the printed name of a C.A.S.F. or an R.C.A.F. unit. Beside the letter boxes stand bag racks, constructed of steel pipe, on which canvas mail sacks are hooked, their mouths yawming. Weighing scales are conveniently placed around the room. This is
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all standard post office equipment of the type familiar to the men in their civil employment.
All mail addressed to Canadian soldiers overseas, from every Canadian postal centre, comes to this big room. The items go first to the primary section of the sorting tables where the initial separation is made
mail addressed to infantry units in one section, engineers in another, artillery in a third. and so on. Next the separated mail is carried to the sorting tables in front of the letter racks. The sorters—six or eight at a table—pick up each letter and deposit it in the box bearing the name of the unit to which the addressee is attached. There are about 140 of these separations. Only experienced sorters could put this job over with the speed and accuracy required.
The sorted letters are arranged address side up, then taken from the boxes and tied securely into bundles. On top of each package, inside the binding twine, a label is tied—a "facing slip” in post office terminology. The facing slip is printed in bold type capitals with the name of the unit to which the bundle of letters is addressed. Thus: LETTERS—FOR THE PRINCESS PATRICIA’S CANADIAN LIGHT INFANTRY C.A.S.F.
From the final sorting cases where this process is carried through, the bundled letters go to the bag racks. There is a bag for each unit, and attached to the neck of the bag is a stout cardboard tag carrying the same address as appears on the facing slip. Different types of mail are handled separately, and the bags containing them can be identified at once by the color of the tag attached: white for letters, blue for periodicals, buff for parcels. Registered mail goes into a bag tagged with a red
label. Average weight for the packed bags runs sixty pounds for letters, seventy pounds for parcels—as much as one man may handle conveniently.
The bags are weighed and their weight recorded, then loaded on trucks and taken to Ottawa’s Union Station to begin their trip overseas.
Procedure for newspapers and magazines is the same as for letters. Parcels require somewhat different handling. The British Post Office receives certain credits for the handling of parcel post mails, the rate varying according to the weight of each parcel, so that every package passing through the Base Army Post Office must be weighed separately and its weight recorded. Canada has to credit Great Britain with twelve cents for every parcel weighing up to three pounds. Between three and seven pounds the credit is twenty-four cents a parcel; from eight to eleven pounds it is thirty-six cents. Since the Canadian postal rate to Britain is twelve cents a pound, a one-pound parcel nets the Canadian Post Office exactly nothing.
This business of separate weighing is the only point where parcels receive attention other than that given letters and periodicals at a Base Army Post Office. After they are weighed and their weight recorded, the soldier's parcels are checked, sorted and dispatched in tagged mailbags just as are other items.
/'"’VNCE safely landed in England, C.A.S.F. mail travels to the camps by train. The bags are delivered to the camp post office, and distributed from
that point to the regimental or corps postal orderly. The Post Office does not deliver mail directly either to officers or men. Instead each unit assigns a trustworthy soldier to duty as a postal orderly, responsible to the Officer Commanding. It is his job to make regular calls at the post office, army or civil, to which that unit’s mail is being sent, collect the mail and supervise its transportation to the unit. Postal orderlies have to sign receipts for all registered mail and must in turn obtain receipts for registered mail when it is delivered. Ordinary mail is taken to the unit orderly rooms and collected from that point by the final recipients.
All Base Army Post Offices maintain two departments concerned entirely with mail faultily addressed, and with complaints. If a letter cannot be forwarded because the address is illegible or incomplete, it goes to the Directory Service. Directory Service personnel, trained in the Post Office for this job, trace the soldier to whom the letter was meant to be addressed in the first place, and send it on to him in a cover stamped this way: “This letter (or parcel) was delayed owing to insufficient address. Please have your mail properly addressed to your unit.”
The Complaint Department is just what its title indicates. The routine, simple enough, has been proved almost one hundred per cent fool and error proof in the ordinary conduct of the Post Office Department’s business for years. To the expert handlers in the Base Army Post Office it comes as easily as despising Hitler. They take it in their stride, and think nothing of it. Nevertheless letters are delayed in the C.A.S.F. mails; parcels do go astray. Magazines and newspapers do arrive in England so battered that they cannot be read with any satisfaction.
These things happen ; and their repercussions are felt, sooner or later, in the Base Army Post Office, usually in the form of bitter, sometimes abusive, outcries from relatives or friends on this side of the Atlantic, who demand heads on platters because their soldier boys overseas have not received letters, or newspapers, or parcels, positively mailed to them; or have received them in damaged condition; or have received them only after weeks and weeks of delay.
Every grumble reaching the Base Army Post Office is investigated individually. Records are checked here and in England. The soldier concerned is asked to state his side of the case, and, when the cause of the trouble has been located and the difficulty straightened out, a full report is rendered to the complaining party. In better than ninety-nine out of every hundred cases the original cause of the trouble has been traced either to the soldier concerned, or his relatives and friends here. Sometimes the man in training forgets to inform his Canadian correspondents of his correct address. In other cases carelessness on the part of the sender has been responsible.
Or again, lack of understanding by Canadian correspondents may be blameworthy. Thousands of soldiers of the overseas C.A.S.F. are now receiving dozens of letters monthly, while before they joined up their mail was limited to a dozen letters a year. Their relatives, who may never before have sent a parcel through the mails, are putting together packages that must absorb the hammering of a threethousand-mile journey across the Atlantic. Remembering this, it is not so greatly surprising that letters are incompletely addressed, or that parcels fall apart even before they reach an Atlantic port.
Soldiers’ parcels, such as the unlucky package we saw broken open in the Base Army Post Office at Ottawa, are an especially painful problem for the officers and men who have to deal with them. They mean so much. For the man to whom they are sent they mean a pleasantly exciting break in the monotony of camp life. They sustain his morale. It supports his courage
to have at hand visible proof that the folks at home have not forgotten him.
And for the wives and mothers, sweethearts and relations of the soldier these parcels often are symbols of self-sacrifice. Base Army Post Office spokesmen will tell you that the number of soldiers’ parcels addressed to C.A.S.F. men in England invariably mounts after the first and fifteenth of every month. This probably means that in a good many cases wives and mothers receiving separation and other allowances are at once spending part of their government cheques on comforts and luxuries for their men in the war zone. Officers and men of the Base Army Post Office are fully aware of the implications involved in the destruction or delay of any parcel addressed to soldiers overseas. Their regret when something untoward happens to such a package is real.
Hazards in Transit
TDERHAPS what is needed here in -L Canada is a fuller appreciation of the transportation ordeal every overseas parcel must survive. Following its first train journey of greater or less distance to Ottawa, there to be checked, weighed, recorded and placed with dozens of other packages in a mailbag, it is forwarded to an Atlantic port. There it is loaded into the hold of a ship due to leave for a British destination. What sort of a ship it goes aboard, or the date of its sailing, are matters beyond the control of the Army Base Post Office. Admiralty officials consign the amount of space, name the ship on which space for C.A.S.F. mail is available, and say when she must sail.
Now we have our parcel in a mailbag on board ship. The hold is stacked to the underside of the deck with other mailbags cpntaining packages, letters and periodicals. The bags are closely stowed, but there is always a certain amount of movement going on among them. The ship tosses, and the bags sway forward and backward, rubbing one against the other. Or she rolls, and they sway from side to side. Neither the Admiralty nor the Post Office can control the turbulent waters of the high seas.
So, for day after day our parcel is being forced into violent contact with other packages in the same bag, and that bag is rubbing against other bags. Some of the containers are made of metal, others of wood. Some have sharp edges. Here is severe punishment for any parcel, however well protected. Only the fit survive.
Hatches are battened down; it is hot in the hold, for little air circulates. This is where the business of sending matches or other inflammable material through the mails comes in. Constant friction in a tightly enclosed space may turn an otherwise entirely harmless parcel into a deadly menace. A dozen packs of paper matches can set a ship on fire. That is why you may not send matches, fuel for lighters, or any other highly volatile substance or liquid to the overseas troops.
Measured by the standard of peacetime mail services, there are delays, even though parcels are strongly protected against damage and letters are completely addressed. Before the war the Post Office Department forwarded the British mails on fast boats from a number of ports. A lot of Canadian mail for Great Britain went through New York. Regular schedules were maintained.
Things are different now. There are few New York sailings, and no regular Canadian schedules. The Base Army Post Office clears mail every day to one unnamed Atlantic port or another, but the ship that is to carry that mail and the time of her sailing are items of information known only to the Admiralty. All ships cross under convoy, and the speed of a convoy is the speed of the slowest freighter in that convoy. So long as we control the seas we may be certain that our parcel, stoutly wrapped and properly addressed, Continued on inside back cover
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ultimately will reach its correct destination. If we are lucky, it may take only a couple of weeks. Or it may take a month. When we send a package overseas today, we are not putting up a box lunch for a Sunday picnic. There’s a war on.
Proper Handling Methods
IT MAY be a good idea to summarize the things we must do, and those we must not do, to make sure that the boys of the C.A.S.F. overseas get their mail with reasonable regularity and as quickly as possible.
Parcels. Do not pack assorted articles in a frail cardboard box and trust to luck. Wrap them strongly, pack them tightly. Separate perishable foodstuffs from wearing apparel. In the case of liquids or semiliquids like maple syrup or preserves, put them in a metal—not a glass—container, and seal the container. If possible, solder it. As to wrapping, several layers of heavy brown paper bound with strong twine seem to prove the most efficient protection for an ocean voyage. Corrugated cardboard makes a serviceable outside protection, and the edges should overlap by a wide margin to avoid spreading. For binding, adhesive tape isn’t so good. Use plenty of strong string. Do not, if you can avoid it, mail boxes with sharp corners, but rather cover them with something that can be rounded off. Ordinary cardboard will do, if it is strong enough and properly bound. Do not mail fragile goods in a package that has vacant space at the ends or sides. If the contents rattle or move around when you shake the parcel vigorously, repack it, filling every crevice until the contents are jammed so tightly as to be next door to solid. And again—use plenty of strong string. If a parcel’s worth sending, it’s worth saving.
Periodicals. Newspapers and magazines should be wrapped in a tough cover, bearing the complete address of the soldier and his unit. Some eminent newspaper publishers would be surprised to know that the Army Base Post Office regards them with considerable scorn. Common practice in Canada is to send newspapers through the mails just as they come from the presses, with a label carrying the subscriber’s address pasted on' the top of Page One. For delivery overseas that custom is an invitation to disaster . Packed into a mailbag in such form, and banged about among hundreds of other periodicals during the ocean voyage, the unprotected newspaper arrives at its > estination—if it does arrive— literally beaten to a pulp. It is not possible to get the home town news from a paper that has been beaten to a pulp. Do not send unwrapped newspapers or magazines —and the more stoutly they are wrapped the better their chances of coming through alive.
Letters. Write your letter on anything that comes handy, but enclose it in a good quality envelope. You are starting this private and personal message on a long and difficult journey, so make sure that it has adequate protection from the assaults and batteries of a train trip of several hundred miles in Canada, plus intermediate handling, plus a stormy ocean voyage, plus more handling and another train trip on the other side.
Addresses. By far the larger proportion of delays in the delivery of soldiers’ mail are due to faulty addressing. There are so many chances for a bit of casual carelessness to bob up in this direction that it is a wonder more letters and parcels do not go astray. Rules for addressing military mail are plain enough and they have been printed thousands of times; but they are a bit exacting, and they have nothing whatever in common with the somewhat sloppy
habit of extreme abbreviation many of us have acquired in our efforts to save time, or space, or something. Letters to soldiers must be fully and correctly directed with regimental number, rank and name, branch of the service, and the name of the regiment, corps, or other unit spelled out in full. No initials, please.
This is correct:
Pte. Jack Canuck
First Corps, Petrol Park.
Royal Canadian Army Service Corps C.A.S.F.
This is incorrect:
No. C123456 Pte. Jack Canuck R.C.A.S.C.
The Base Army Post Office’s insistence upon having names of units fully spelled may seem to the uninitiated like nothing more than military red tape; but there are good solid reasons for it. Bear in mind that the Canadian Army is closely patterned after the British, and names of units aie very similar in both. There is an R.A.S.C. and an R.C.A.S.C. ; an R.E. and an R.C.E., an R.A.M.C. and an R.C.A.M.C., along with many others.
In the case of the Royal Canadian Air Force, still further confusing possibilities occur, since, besides the R.C.A.F., and the R.A.F., there is the R.A.A.F. from Australia, and the R.N.Z.A.F. from New Zealand. Spell out all unit names, or Directory Service will get the parcel you fondly imagine is well on its way.
Write legibly. If your writing isn’t good, typewrite or print addresses. Give full first names. Put a plainly written return address on the outside of the envelope and on parcels. In addition, with parcels, enclose duplicate sending and return addresses on a separate slip of paper, inside the package. Then, if some mailbag Blitzkrieg destroys the outer label, the salvage squad will know at once what to do, without having to hold up the package.
Address mail in care of the Base Post Office only when the soldier is en route overseas or already in a British camp. Letters and parcels for soldiers training in Canada must be sent direct to the postal address of the camp.
Customs declarations are required for all overseas soldiers’ parcels. The British Customs does not charge duty on Canadian parcels sent to a military address, but the declaration is necessary just the same. A military address for this purpose, is a camp, hospital or other definable military establishment. Parcels sent to soldiers at private addresses do not enjoy immunity from payment of duty.
And, in the event of delay, hold your horses. Patience in this case is extra virtuous. It may take anywhere from fourteen days to three weeks or a month to get your letter or parcel into the hands of your soldier lad. The time required depends upon so many extraneous circumstances.
The Base Army Post Offices come under the supervision of the Quartermaster General, who is responsible directly to the Commander-in-Chief. Major G. W. Ross, a senior Post Office official and a veteran of the 1914-1918 war, is in command of the Base Army Post Office at Ottawa, the same Major Ross who had charge of the Post Office on board the Royal train during Their Majesties’ tour of Canada last year. Under him are experienced men, schooled in the art of expedient mail handling.
Your overseas mail delivery is in competent hands.