We're getting closer to publication day for The Care and Management of Lies—the book will be available in bookstores and online on July 1st. I'm very excited about it—as you know from previous communications, this was a novel I had wanted to write for quite a number of years.
In my last newsletter I wrote about one of the key themes in The Care and Management of Lies, that of food in a time of war, and particularly how important food was to the soldiers sent to fight overseas. In those days all the army cared about was "calories in and calories out"—how to keep energy reserves replenished. Nowadays military planning encompasses food in a different way—yes, calories matter because fighting is a high-energy job, but there is more of an understanding of how important it is to provide foods that give a sense of home, and the contribution of those foods to morale.
In WWI soldiers yearned for the taste of food they recognized, so loved ones at home would send special packages with foods such as home made cakes, packets of biscuits, jars of Bovril and any jam other than plum (the army provided plum jam, which as you can imagine, was not a favorite), as well as chocolates, boiled sweets, and breads. And the fact that much of this bounty arrived in fairly good order was down to an extraordinarily efficient postal service which conveyed mail to and from the front lines and camps overseas.
Letters between Tom Brissenden and his wife Kezia are at the heart of The Care and Management of Lies, and not only does Kezia write to her husband regularly, but she sends him cakes wrapped in paper then placed in a tin which she seals with candle wax before wrapping again and taking to the post office. The cake is still fresh when Tom opens the tin—surrounded by his trench-mates, all hoping for a slice.
Over the years I have spent many hours using the archive at the Imperial War Museum, foraging through the massive collection of letters sent to and from soldiers during the years 1914-18. I have garnered a sense of what people wrote about—ordinary things, for the most part. And I know that soldiers would read out their letters from home—probably not the personal details—because in the sharing of stories, home became a bit closer, and the warmth of affection in a letter could be contagious. And of course it was entertainment—trench life could be a boring round of monotony interspersed by the horror of the charge across no man's land and the terrors of witnessing death of a most terrible kind.
But what of the men and women who worked around the clock to make sure those letters and packages reached their destination?
All mail directed overseas to men in the trenches was sent first to a huge wooden building erected in London's Regent's Park almost immediately after war was declared. When mail left London, it was sent to a forward Post Office in Le Havre that had been set up as a matter of urgency within days of war being declared in August 1914. Apparently, by the end of 1914, the sheer volume of mail—letters, packages of food and clothing—had overwhelmed resources. The General Post Office (GPO) then built a depot covering five acres, thought to be the largest wooden structure in the world. At its peak in 1918, some twelve million items of mail were being processed weekly.
And who do you think was processing all this mail? Yes, you've guessed it—approximately 100,000 women were brought in to work for the Royal Mail. Before the war, the Royal Mail was the world's largest employer, with some 250,000 on staff—but over 75,000 men left to join the war effort. Many enlisted in the Post Office Rifles, a 12,000 man regiment. At the Home Depot in France, 2,500 workers on the site were women, and from that depot during the war an estimated two billion letters and 114 million packages were dispatched out to men. Most reached the western front within two days, processed in post rooms closer to the front lines.
In addition, the GPO delivered mail to ships at sea, and to British POW's incarcerated in Germany.
And here's something to consider in these times when we think we are all so very connected—in 1913 the average rural town in Britain could expect some 12 deliveries of mail per day, thanks to the Penny Post, which had heralded in an age of mass communication. At the outset of war, the deliveries were cut to two per day, and in 1918 the Penny Post—that cheaper means of sending a letter—was ended.
Few records remain of the GPO during the Great War, as the large depots were dismantled within months of the end of hostilities.
So, when you read the letters between Kezia and her beloved Tom, give a thought to the mounds of mail sent via Britain to the trenches, to the battleships and to the hospitals and POW camps—letters from around the world in a time of war. Whatever they wrote about—between the lines, if not in words—I would imagine both soldiers and those at home could not help but wonder what might come to pass by the time the letter reached its destination.
I'll be writing more about the background to The Care and Management of Lies next month.
With all good wishes,
The Care and Management of Lies will be published in the USA and Canada by Harper Collins, and by Allison and Busby in the UK and Commonwealth.
Publication date: July 1, 2014