28 October 1882
The very inclusion of the newly formed Army Post Office Corps (APOC) in the ORBAT of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (1882) made British military history for not only were they the first dedicated military postal unit to accompany an expeditionary force overseas, but they were also the first Volunteers to come under fire and be awarded a battle honour: ‘Egypt 1882’. Such achievements filled the APOC’s parent unit – 24 Middlesex Rifle Volunteers (Post Office Rifles) with a tremendous sense of pride, which manifest itself in a dinner held in honour of the APOC veterans on their return from Egypt – the occasion gave rise to the first recorded postal reunion dinner.
The dinner took place at the London Tavern, 53-55 Fenchurch Street, London (sadly damaged during the London Blitz and now a very plush office block in the heart of the City), on Saturday, 28 October 1882, just five days after they had returned from Egypt. The newspapers reported that two hundred officers and men of the Post Office Rifles attended. The assembled diners greeted the arrival of Maj George Sturgeon, Capt Thomas Viall and their fellow veterans with loud applause made louder by the clatter of hands and cutlery on the tables. Sturgeon and Viall took their places on either side of the Secretary to the Post Office, Mr Stevenson Blackwood CB, who presided as chairman, supported by: Lt Col John Lowther Du Plat Taylor, the 53 year old Sandhurst trained Commanding Officer and ex-Post Office official, Maj S Raffles Thompson, the Regimental 2i/c, the Adjutant, Maj Francis William Kane (seconded from The Buffs), Surgeon-Major Powell, Mr Rea, Assistant Secretary to the Post Office, Mr Richard, Assistant Receiver and Accountant-General, Capts James Cardin, Edward Baily, Frederick Michod and Thomas Angell of the Civil Service Rifles. Angell had been the Assistant Army Postmaster during the Crimean War (1854-56).
What fare the diners enjoyed was not recorded but the toasts given were. The first toast of the evening was proposed by Lt Col du Plat Taylor. Once on his feet and the applause had died down he gave a brief account of how the APOC had come into existence and of how after pitching the idea of a postal corps to the Adjutant General, Sir Garnet Wolseley, the Commander of the expedition, authority to form the corps was granted in double quick time. Within 24 hours of the enlistment details being published in Regimental Orders 350 men had applied to serve – this number excluded all the officers who volunteered en masse. He described how after all the married men, men under thirty and those who failed the strict medical test were rejected a hundred men were then chosen to form the APOC and from those men, 48 were selected to proceed overseas under the command of Maj Sturgeon, as the Army Postmaster. He then praised the veterans for the admirable way they had conducted themselves in their duties before reminding the diners that they were also fine representatives of not only the Regiment but of the whole Volunteer Service of the country. This comment was enthusiastically greeted with cheers but not as loud as the cheers given when the CO said that as ‘they had suffered the privations of active service with the rest of the force they were for all intents and purposes, regular soldiers of Her Majesty, ready to do their duty as if they were Her Majesty’s Life Guards’.
The CO must have felt vindicated as well as a great sense of delight and satisfaction in the achievements of Sturgeon and his men when he asked the assembly to be upstanding and raise a glass to The Army Post Office Corps – for he had waited nearly 30 years for this moment. As he explained during his speech – he had struck upon the idea of raising a dedicated military postal unit whilst he was the Private Secretary to Sir Rowland Hill in the 1850s. The idea was prompted by his observations drawn from the contents of the correspondence regarding the army’s postal service to the expeditionary force in the Crimea that passed between the GPO and War Office and which he handled on behalf of Hill. The documents mainly highlighted the deficiencies of such a service.
The names of Sturgeon and Sgt Maj A Scott were coupled with the toast. Scott had been seconded from Scots Guards to accompany the APOC overseas as their quartermaster. The Regimental QM, Captain Dickson was of course unable to join the APOC but did make his own contribution to the unit’s success by inventing a collapsible drop bag fitting frame that doubled as a scaling ladder. He also invented a fluted glass water bottle, which in the field proved useless because when it’s carrier bent forward the water bottle invariably shot out of its leather sheath and smashed on the ground – however, a surviving water bottle and its sheath are currently a PCS exhibit in the RE Museum.
When the applause subsided and after the CO and the rest of the assembly were seated Maj Sturgeon stood to respond. We don’t know if he had prepared a speech or whether his voice cracked with nerves but we can be sure that he was aware that those in the dining hall were keen to hear of his experiences for unlike most of the men present he had seen active service and they were curious to know if their training would have enabled them to perform as successfully in similar circumstances. He began by telling the assembly of how in the seventeen days from inception to departure their feet didn’t hit the ground as the APOC prepared themselves for war. He spoke of the voyage to Egypt onboard the British Prince with their travelling companions; D Battery, 1st Brigade RA and the Ordnance Store Corps and their stopover in Malta. And how as they disembarked at Alexandria they were struck by the evidence of destruction caused by the naval bombardment a month earlier which brought into sharp focus the fact they were indeed entering a war zone.
Sturgeon continued by outlining the unit’s deployment. Sgt Parish and a detachment of men were left in Alexandria to establish an APO there, Sgt Walsh set up another APO at Port Said and a third was sited in Ismailia under Sgt Sherwin. Sgt Inwood and two others operated a FPO which advanced along the line of communications immediately behind the forward troops. At Kassasin the FPO came under enemy artillery fire. He praised them all for their work and their contributions to the success of the mission. Laughter and cheers broke out when Sturgeon said that postal men knew what Christmas meant at the GPO and it was their experience in Egypt that Christmas came three times a week at any time of the day or night when the mails arrived from Britain. He continued by acknowledging the efficient work of Thomas Vaill and Sgt Maj Scott and concluded with an expression of gratification that he and the men felt after they had heard the eloquent speech the Postmaster General, Henry Fawcett had given to them on Tuesday last shortly after they had disembarked at Victoria Station.
One can only wonder at what thoughts crossed Thomas Angell’s mind while he sat and listened to the exploits of the APOC – they must have seemed very orderly in comparison with his experiences of providing a postal service to the army during the Crimean War. To begin with his secondment with Edward Smith to the Crimea was very much an afterthought. On their arrival they had to collect mail from the French Army Post Office, but the French wouldn’t release the mail until the postage had been paid. To secure its release Smith and Angell were obliged to pay the postage out of their own pockets – they then had difficulty retrieving the postage from the addressees and in some cases never managed to recover the postage at all. Angell set up an APO in Varna, the cholera ridden Bulgarian port, before he moved with the expeditionary force to the Crimea. In the Crimea the building adjacent to the HQ allocated to the APO was commandeered by the Chief Engineer Gen JF Burgoyne before Angell could lay claim to it. H was subsequently forced to set up the APO under canvas until an appropriate building became available, which wasn’t forth coming until the Spring 1855. Furthermore, there was nothing but a thick glutinous mud track to link Balaklava harbour with the HQ which took time and effort to traverse each day to collect and dispatch mails. On the bright side, however, he was very friendly with The Times correspondent, William Russell and they often dined together at the APO. The chef from the Reform Club, Alexis Soyer, during his inspection of the army’s catering facilities in July 1855, was their dining guest which in itself draws a coincidental link with the present as the caterers and postal now share the same cap badge.
After the appreciative clamour to Sturgeon’s speech abated the CO proposed a toast to ‘The Post Office’ and then invited the Secretary to the Post Office to respond. Blackwood began by praising Sturgeon and his men before extolling the virtues of the Postmaster General. He then gave a brief account of the activities of the Post Office paying particular attention to the proposed parcel service that was going to be introduced in the New Year and would operate in conjunction with the letter service. Shortly after the appropriate formalities regards his speech had been observed the Secretary left to catch a train to Cambridge.
The dinner celebrated a historic moment in the Regiment’s history which only highlighted the conspicuous absence of its Honorary Colonel, Francis, the Duke of Teck, who accepted the honorary position in August 1876. On the night of the dinner the Duke, as a minor Royal (his wife was Queen Victoria’s cousin – his daughter May, was later to become Queen Mary the grandmother of our present Queen), was prevented from attending the dinner as he was otherwise engaged on public duty awaiting the return of the ‘conquering hero’, Sir Garnet Wolseley. The Duke had served on Wolseley’s staff during the Egyptian campaign and had return to the UK before Wolseley, who had stayed on in Egypt to settle affairs of state. Wolseley chose to return via the overland train route from Trieste to Calais before crossing over to Dover as it was quickest route home.
We don’t know what time the dinner officially ended but we do know that a month later, on Tuesday, 22 November 1882, Queen Victoria, standing on a carpet that had been in Arabi’s tent on the night of the battle of Tel el Kebir, presented campaign medals to Maj GC Sturgeon, Sgt T Sherwin and Pte A Applegate in the Quadrangle of Windsor Castle. Three days later the APOC took part in the victory parade held in London. Dense fog cloaked London that Friday which may have obscured from sight much of the military spectacle but nevertheless The Graphic reported as the ‘Post Office Volunteers [sic]’ marched passed they ‘were loudly cheered, especially by Regular officers among the spectators, who cordially recognised the pluck of this little band in volunteering for active service’.
Simon Fenwick MSc MBA
The Standard (London, England), Wednesday, October 25, 1882; Issue 18181.
The Times (London, England), Monday, Oct 30, 1882; pg. 8; Issue 30651.
The Standard (London, England), Monday, October 30, 1882; pg. 2; Issue 18185.
Daily News (London, England), Monday, October 30, 1882; Issue 11401.
The Graphic (London, England), Saturday, November 25, 1882; Issue 678.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper (London, England), Sunday, November 26, 1882; Issue 2088.
Vallance Col ET: Postmen at War (Hitchin, Stuart Rossiter Trust, 2015)
Soyer A: Soyer’s Culinary Campaign Being Historical Reminiscences of the Late War (London, Rouledge, 1857)
Lt Col JL du Plat Taylor – CO 24 Middlesex Rifles Volunteer Corps
Maj GC Sturgeon – Army Postmaster, OC Army Post Office Corps
Francis, Duke of Teck – Honourary Colonel, 24 Middlesex Rifles Volunteer Corps