In 1913, just in time for World War One, the army reformed its postal system, incorporating it into the Royal Engineers, and forming the Royal Engineers Postal Service (REPS). The Boer War had shown a great demand for communication with the troops. In World War One the flow was colossal. By the end of the war REPS employed 4,000 men, and as many as 550,000 sacks of mail went to France at Christmas 1917.

There was an extensive flow of mail in and out of Shetland. Some soldiers wrote regularly. Robert Jamieson, a signaller in the Seaforths, didn’t let gaps develop in his correspondence with home. Nevertheless, his family sent telegrams when they hadn’t heard from him for a time. Basil Neven-Spence, a medical officer, enjoyed an elegant correspondence with his mother. Generally, it seems to have been easier for soldiers to correspond than sailors.

In the early part of the war the local papers published letters from servicemen. Not all letters were suitable, and one can imagine intense discussions in Shetland households about whether it was "right" to publish anything. Measured, matter of fact, material was favoured. Private James Brown’s letter of August 1914 is a good example. The chatty, familiar, sound of Robert Jamieson’s letters didn’t feature in print.

If there were debates in households about whether to publish, there were probably a few more afterwards. It’s difficult to imagine that some Shetland people didn’t feel that publishing letters brought bad luck. For a number of our letter writers, their letters are their only surviving testimony. Their lives were consumed by the war.


YMCA letterhead
YMCA Letterhead. Shetland Archives.