Cook, Harry C.
World War One Correspondence of postman Harry C. Cook, of Birmingham, England, member of the Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS), written to his wife Blanche Christian, of the Isle of Man, England, with letters of his parents and brother, Lc/Cpl Frederick W. Cook, of the 14th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 29th Infantry, as well as Blanche's brother Edward "Frank" Christian, of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, 1915-1919

Collection of 434 letters, 1241 manuscript pages, (8 retained mailing envelopes), dated 24 January 1915 - 20 July 1919.

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    The bulk of the letters in this collection, 364 out of 434, were written by Harry Charles Cook to his fiancée, and later wife Frances Blanche Christian. And there are 22 letters written by Blanche to her husband Harry.  In early 1916 Harry wrote from "10 Harrington Street, N.W," London, England, where he was enlisted in the Royal Engineers Post Section (REPS) during World War One. By mid-1916 his letters are addressed "A.P.O. 3" sometimes adding "R.E.P.S."  In late 1916 his return address changes to "A.PO.S. I" and sometimes he adds "Boulogne," which means he has moved over into France. This remains his postal box. Several letters mention his address as being "1st Cav Div. Supply Column," which is the 1st Cavalry Division Supply Column." Another couple of letters have his address as being "14 General Hospital, Victoria Hotel, Boulogne," where he was laid up for a bit. Some of the undated letters has his address as being "5 Frederick Street, Kings Cross, W.C.," which is in London, perhaps another residence while with the REPS in London.

This collection also includes 23 incoming letters to Blanche from various people, one of whom, Harry's brother, Frederick W. Cook, was also serving in the military. Frederick writes 7 letters to Blanche. Blanche's brother, Edward "Frank" Christian, who is also serving in the military, wrote Blanche 9 letters.  Harry's parents also wrote to Harry. His father Charles Cook wrote 14 letters to his son, and his mother Elizabeth sent 9 letters to him. Harry's brother Frederick wrote 2 letters to his Harry.

    The years the letters were written, and their quantity, are as follows: 1915 (23 letters); 1916 (63 letters), 1917 (72 letters); 1918 (88 letters), 1919 (37 letters), plus an additional 151 letters that are not dated, but do fit into the 1915-1919 time period, and could be further put into chronological order upon further examination of the contents of said letters, or return addresses. About five of the letters appear to be incomplete.

       Harry Charles Cook (1892-?)

     Harry Charles Cook was born in 1892 in Birmingham, England, the son of Charles G. Cook (1865- ) and his wife Elizabeth (1864- ). Both of his parents were born in Birmingham and had married by about the year 1890.

      During the course of the correspondence offered here (1915-1919), Harry's parents lived at 55 Alton Road, in the Selly Oak area of Birmingham. The 1901 English Census found the Cook family living at 34 Cregoe Street, in the Ladywood area of Birmingham, about three miles from the Alton Street address, and by the Census of 1911 they were already living at the Alton Street address.

     Harry had an older brother Frederick William Cook, born about 1891. Frederick also served in World War One and is represented in this correspondence with two letters written to Harry and seven to his sister-in-law, Blanche Christian Cook, he is often mentioned in other letters written by Harry, his parents, or Blanche. Frederick served in the 14th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 21st Infantry, fighting in France. The 14th Battalion was one of three City of Birmingham battalions that were all deployed to the Western Front in France on 21 November 1915. The 14th (Service) Battalion (1st Birmingham) formed part of 95th Brigade, 32nd Division, though on 28 December 1915 it was transferred to 13th Brigade, 5th Division. The battalion was moved to the Italian Front with the rest of the 5th Division in November 1917, but returned to the Western Front to take part in the defense against the major German offensives of April 1918. On 5 October 1918 it became the Pioneer Battalion of the 5th Division. Through reading correspondence in this collection, Frederick is found to have been in the military hospital at Manchester and was then was stationed at #138 Labor Camp, B.E.F., in France.

    There were also three other children besides Harry and Frederick that were born to Harry's parents, but they were all dead by 1911. In 1901, one of Harry's siblings, Horace, was still alive. In that year (1901) the family had the help of a live-in domestic servant.

In the 1901 English Census, Harry's father is seen working as a tobacconist on his own account, then in 1911, he is found working as a coal agent. Harry and his brother Frederick were children in 1901, however by 1911 Harry is found working as a postman and his brother Frederick as a clerk in an electrical store. In this same 1911 Census we find Harry's grandfather, William George Cook, living with the family. He was born about 1843 at Great Alne, Warwickshire, England and was still working as a pipe mount maker.

     Harry married Frances Blanche Christian in the spring of 1916. Her first name actually appears to have been Frances, but she went by her middle name of Blanche. Blanche was born 17 January 1892, at Douglas, Isle of Man, England. She was the daughter of Thomas Christian and Elizabeth Clucas. Blanche's father Thomas was born about 1852 at Lezayre on the Isle of Man and spoke both Manx and English. He was a builder. Blanche's mother Elizabeth was also born on the Isle of Man, at Bradden, about the year 1862. Blanche had several siblings, one of whom, a brother, Edward Frank Christian, was born 4 June 1898. He went by the name of "Frank," and is represented in this correspondence with nine letters written to his sister Blanche while he was serving in the military in WWI. Frank was attached to the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force serving in Egypt and elsewhere.

      Royal Engineers Postal Section (REPS)

    When the correspondence begins Harry is in military service with the Royal Engineers Postal Section, or "REPS," as it was universally known. In peacetime, REPS was a part-time reserve unit made up of England's Government Post Office (GPO) men who had had a smattering of military training. This unit of postal workers was immediately subsumed into the Army when WW1 broke out, but the Army was only in nominal command. This operation was controlled by the GPO. Even questions in Parliament about forces mail were answered by the Postmaster General rather than the War Minister. The 1911 Census showed that Harry was a postman, thus when the war broke out, he presumably was ushered into military service with the REPS.

     The GPO was already a huge operation before war broke out in 1914. It employed over 250,000 people and had revenue of £32m, making it the biggest economic enterprise in Britain and the largest single employer of labor in the world (according to the British Postal Museum & Archive). But, at its peak during the war it was dealing with an extra 12 million letters and a million parcels being sent to soldiers each week. For fighting soldiers it was essential to morale and the British Army knew that. It considered delivering letters to the front as important as delivering rations and ammunition.

     At the outbreak of war the unit almost immediately created a sorting office in London's Regent's Park - a gigantic wooden hut covering several acres. Called the "Home Depot," it employed 2,500 staff, mainly women, to sort post. When this collection of correspondence begins, Harry C. Cook is working in London and appears to be living at "10 Harrington Street, N.W." other letters show him at "5 Frederick Street, Kings Cross, W.C." References in Harry's letters to Blanche include information on his work in London.

    Outward mail was sorted by military unit. Each morning, bosses would be informed by Whitehall of the latest movements of ships and battalions so each item of mail could be dispatched to the right place. On its outward journey to the Western Front, a fleet of three ton army lorries would take the mail to Folkestone or Southampton where ships would shuttle it across to Army Postal Service (APS) depots in Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais. Some of Harry’s letters show a couple of different APS addresses for him, with one in Boulogne.

     Trains ran back and forth across Picardy (now part of Hauts-de-France, France) under cover of darkness dropping some mail off along the route and unloading the rest at railheads where special REPS lorries took them to the "refilling points" for divisional supplies. Regimental post orderlies would sort the mail at the roadside and carts would be wheeled to the front line to deliver it to individual soldiers. The objective was to hand out letters from home with the evening meal. It's said that no matter how tired and hungry the soldiers were, they always read the letter before eating the food.

     Letters back were collected from the men from field post offices. These were equipped as comprehensively as a village sub-office, according to "Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail" by Duncan Campbell Smith. Men could even buy War Savings Certificates there exactly as the population did back home. The mail was date-stamped with the field postmark and sent to the base post office for its journey home.

     At the beginning of the war every letter home was opened and read by a junior officer. It was then opened and read again at the Home Depot to ensure that it contained no classified information about troop movements or casualties. Eventually men could opt for an "Honour Envelope" which meant the letter would only be read in London, saving the embarrassment of having their deeply personal endearments read by a censor who they knew.

    Wherever armed forces were engaged, REPS would follow, delivering to ships of the Royal Navy anywhere in the world and to soldiers away from the fixed positions of the Western Front. Those postal workers who went to war were probably glad to be handling letters and parcels rather than rifles and bayonets, but their truly magnificent work was as important to the war effort as the weapons. Indeed mail exchanged between soldiers and loved ones was a weapon. Those who wielded it made a huge contribution to the outcome of the war.

       Examples of Letters

"10 Harrington St., N.W.

My darling Sweetheart,

     ...You know dearest how crowded the train was when you saw it, well sweetheart we had to change at Rugby and wait for the Holyhead to London. train down. When it arrived it was full up with troops going back to the trenches. We had to scramble in as best we could and it was a picture to see us. Some lying on the floor underneath the others feet others standing as best as they could. One of the fellows who had been drinking a lot wanted to -- well you know. He tried to do it through the carriage window but could not manage it. So what do you think he did? Pulled off his boot done it into that and then emptied it through the window. What do you think of it dear eh? A bit alright what! Well the train arrived at Euston at 4:20. I hurried to my billet and was in bed at 5 am, but sweetheart I was so tired in fact I am now. Well we worked from 8 am to 5 pm. I went to the old billet to get my washing, but they could only find my shirt socks and did not know where my pants were so I have to go again. It's a bit thick don't you think so...

...I have not heard anything about inoculation yet but as soon as I do I will wire for you and then we will have a glorious time here take you everywhere in the dark streets and everywhere you like....Yours ever loving & affectionate sweetheart, Hal"

"10 Harrington St, N.W., 28. 2. 16

My darling Girl,

    ...Love nearly all the papers in London are publishing articles about this army and you should read what they call us. It is nothing else but jealousy but it will cause such a lot of discontent amongst the other troops don't you think so. This is one of the poems:

What did you do in the great war Daddy

Tell me where did you go?

I joined the R. E.'s - it was only a wheeze-

and worked at the G.P.O.

Pry what did you get fro that Daddy

Was it only a shilling a day

But Daddy smiled, and winked at his child And said that's not Solomon's way.

We fought for the gold, not the glory

For never a German we saw

On behalf of our betters we sorted up letters Right through that terrible war.

Say love, what do you think of it eh a bit rotten isn't it...

Your ever loving sweetheart, Hal"

"10 Harrington St., 1st April '16

My darling Girl,

    How are you this morning? I hope you are better. The weather is beautiful down here these last two days. Last night we had another scare love, at about 9 pm the Zephs were reported on the way to London. They said there was about 6 of them.

    So of course the usual thing happened, lights out. The whole town was in semi-darkness, but anyhow they never paid us the visit.

It did us one good turn love, we finished at 11 pm instead of 11:30 pm, so you see love "it is an ill wind etc. etc. & so on." Darling we have another rotten order and that is everyman is to be indoor by 10 pm.

Those who wish to stay out later must give a special reason and obtain a pass until the time required. Love it is nearly as bad as you used to be isn't it only we are likely to be locked up all day & night for be naughty. What do you think of it dear?

...Your ever loving sweetheart, Hal"

"10 Harrington St, N.W., 13 May '16

My darling Girl,

    I trust you are still well and in the pink, as I am at present. I have been wishing you was coming to see me again tomorrow. It would be jolly fine wouldn't it if you could. Hone I am so sorry I did not write you everyday last week. But you see dear I only missed once, and that was through not having enough stamps. Next week they have changed our duties round about. one two of the days we are to work from 9am to 6 pm and the reminder from 2pm to midnight. A bit rough isn't dear...

    ...Sweetheart don't forget to let me have some money soon so as I can buy the necessary will you love, as we don't want to wait until the last day like before, but I will not bring my knicks until later as I might be tempted to put them on. I am also trying to get some new putties if I can. They are inspecting every man now to see if he shaves every morning, and if he does not, they are going to give him pack drill. Goodness only knows where he will get the pack from, unless they make him waltz about with some parcel bags. What a life eh dear. Talk about Karno's army nothing in it...With sincere and lasting love, your loving sweetheart, Hal"

"No.133814, A.P.O. 3, Boulogne REPS

My darling Wife,

      Just arrived at the above, after travelling about France. We left London on Thursday at 11:30 am travelled to the coast arriving there about 3 pm. We embarked at 4:30 pm and did not land until 7:30 am Friday. The sea was awfully rough and the sickness was terrible but fortunately I was not sick at all. We had to go up to a rest camp after arriving until 9 pm. It was a dud time there love, nothing to eat but Bully beef and biscuits and the tea we had was rotten. At 9 pm we set off again to another town which we arrived at 7:30 am Saturday. The scenery was lovely. I wish you could have seen it dear, I know no one would appreciate it more than you. After staying there until 4:30 pm we started off again for this place. We had quite a jolly time coming here especially with the French soldiers in route. But the trains well they are worse than the Isle of Man trains. They only travel at 5 mile an hour and then stop when the drive thinks he wants his dinner, or something to eat. Oh it is quite amusing. All the time we have been travelling we have had nobes at all or anything other to eat only Bully beef, biscuits and cheese. Well dear how are you going on are you well I do sincerely hope so Don't forget to write me often as you can....Your loving hubby, Hal"

"No.133814, R.E.P.S., A.P.O.3, 7th June '16

My dearest,

     How are you?  I trust you are in the best of health, but don't forget to let me know how you are when you write. I have not heard from you yet, but perhaps it is a bit early yet. It does seem strange to be by the sea once again...

...It does seem strange to be amongst the French people. Talk about 'parlavous & compre." Nothing in it. Of course we cannot understand them very well. We have to make signs, it is like being deaf & dumb to mix with them. we are billeted in a sort of a shed, where the rats are, and sleeping on boards, with one blanket for bedding. What a change eh dear? We have to get up at 6 am parade for inspection & breakfast at 8 am, but the food is very good considering...I have been told not to shave the upper lip, so when you see your hubby again, there will be quite a football team on his face. We all have to be in at 9 pm, or else the lock up. Oh it is a life I can tell you . Well dearest how are thing going on at home....Your ever loving hubby, Hal"

"A.P.O.3, July 12 [1916]

My dearest,

      Just a line trusting you are still well and happy...Really speaking this town is quite a change from any in England, there is only the sea front to go to. There is some picture houses but nothing compared with those in Birm. So you see love there is not much to enjoy yourself with her....Do you know love these last few days there have been hundreds of wounded men coming down the line to be sent on to England ,some with their legs off, others with their heads badly hurt, and it is terrible to see them, and do you know love it makes me think of Fred....Last Sunday night love, when I was going round the quay, I saw a boat bring a body of a British sailor in. His face was [nocked] about terribly and his feet were decaying, but the clothes were in a good condition, but the smell was terrible. On the sights here? Everyday thousands of troops come in here for the line, but they are all cheerful. Love when you have read this be careful not to repeat it to only those you can trust won't you?...Your loving hubby, Hal"

"Lc/Cpl. F.W. Cook, #1578, 14th Batt R.W. Rgt, 29th Infantry base Depot, Rouen B.E.F., France, 31/7/16

Dear Blanche,

     I suppose you must think that I have entirely forgotten to write you, but the fact of the matter is I couldn't find your address...I expect I should be going up the line very shortly now. It's a bit rotten Hal & I can't see one another, but maybe I shall come across him somewhere or other. He is evidently having a rough & ready time of it "somewhere in France" but according to his letters, seems to be enjoying the life. The weather down here is awfully hot, what's it like in Birm, taking things all round it is much better at the Base than I expected although I consider the parades are very heavy I have been very fortunate to have my old chums along with me from Chiseldon, but they have all gone up the line now. How's things going down in general with you Blanche, now that the one & only is away on the 'Continog." Let's hope we are all back home safe & soon once again, eh, that's the talk...Well Blanche the boys seem to be getting a move on now, in the West, so lets hope it will soon come to an end. I don't think there is really any more news for the present, but will write again at first opportunity & don't forget to lets hear from you, will you...Au-revoir Blanche, Yours etc Fred"

"A.P.O.S.1, Nov 16th, [1916]


     Just another letter trusting you are still well and happy. I am so pleased to hear you are feeling A 1 and I sincerely trust you will always remain so. Your previous letter love, saying you went over New St. Station and you seemed to be the only looker on, made me think you was downhearted. Cheer up love it may not be long before we are together once again and you know I am just s anxious to be with you as you are with me. Let us both look to the bright days in store for us, and to think love we are far better off than some, especially the poor boys in the trenches, up to their necks in mud, for it is nothing else here. So cheer up darling and when I return I will do my very best to make you happy...Hal"

"Lc/Cpl F.W. Cook, #1578, E Ward Red Cross Hospital, "Lawnhurst" Didsbury, Manchester 27 Nov '16

Dear Blanche,

     Just a letter to let you know of my new abode. The doctor at Leicester Rd has marked nearly all of the patients out to other hospitals & convalescent homes to make room for a big convoy that is expected there. Well, along with two other chums I have landed at his place, & believe me Blanche, its "some" house. It's simply fine. The lady who is still resident here has given over the house for convalescent soldiers, it's a fine old English style of house, splendidly  fitted out, with billiard room, conservatory, & everything you could wish for, looking out across lawns & gardens. We get excellent food, & served in style too, for a way of a change. Could you manage to come & have a look round this way at all. If you could I should be very glad...

     This place comes very welcome for a change from Leicester Rd as I was getting about fed up of that Hospital. I shall still continue to have massage treatment here. My leg is getting much stronger, & I can bend it more, but I am afraid it will always be slightly stiff. I am still on crutches, & unable to bear much weight on the leg.

Well Blanche, I am fairly stuck up for a razor, & have to borrow to shave, so if you can manage to send a "safety" razor I should be very glad. How's things going at Warley Blanche. I should very much like to come & see you. Well there is really no more news for the present. So I shall have to conclude trusting you are in the pink.

I remain, yours etc., Fred"