Book Review: Men of Letters, by Duncan Barrett

Men of LettersMen of Letters: The Post Office Heroes who Fought the Great War, Duncan Barrett - £8.99 AA Media, 2014.
⭐⭐ - An interesting subject, but inaccurate  and woolly history

Men of Letters is a history of the Post Office Rifles throughout the First World War, using the diaries and letters of a range of officers and men who served with them. Published by AA in perfect time for the centenary in August 2014, it is a popular history, accessible in its style and very explanatory of the major events of the war.

The prose is narrative and highly descriptive and it came as no surprise when I discovered that its author, Duncan Barrett, is an English and not a history graduate. He refers throughout the book to the same set of sources, establishing the writers as a cast of 'characters' who he tracks through the major battles of the war. It is clear from these that he has thoroughly investigated the Post Office and Imperial War Museum's Archives and he explores the backgrounds and actions of his 'characters' in a great deal of depth.

Many of the scenes have been dramatised, with speech invented by Barrett. I didn't like this approach, at least not in a book which purported to be a factual history, as it blurred the lines between what was the truth and what had been invented. This, coupled with a complete lack of referencing, made me reluctant to give this much trust at all. It is not at all clear from the text how much of the descriptions of action have come from the official war diaries, or the subjective presentations of the soldiers, or even how many gaps have been filled in by Barrett's imagination.

I did, however, like that it was a chronological narration of one unit throughout the war. The subject of the Post Office Rifles is a very specific focus, but an interesting one as the men who served in it were not tied to one specific place, but rather to one occupation. Barrett explores the personality of the unit, their friendly rivalry with the Civil Service, and the development of creating a second and third battalion as the war progressed.

Unfortunately, Barrett did not stick wholly to the development of this story, instead interjecting with a couple of chapters about the Post Office back in London and the women who were temporarily employed to replace those in the army. Although full of interesting information, these passages felt misplaced and didn't fit with the rest of the book's focus on the Rifles.

Although I didn't particularly enjoy this book, it was quick and easy to read and I was able to finish it in just a few days. Barrett's talents as a writer shine through - he did earn a double first at Cambridge - but I think he would be much better off sticking to fiction than this attempt at a unit history.


I am in no way affiliated with Duncan Barrett or AA Books. I purchased Men of Letters myself and this is my honest review.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kathryn,
    Duncan Barrett was commissioned by the new Post Office Museum to rewrite Messenger’s book - Terriers in the Trenches, which was written on the 1980’s . He pretty much rewrote it but inserted some characters into it possibly hoping to get a film script out of it. At the same time I was writing my book, Londoners on the Western Front, a divisional history of the 58th Div which included the 2nd battalion Post Office Rifles. My reviews were mixed, but it is a different type of book, actually written with references for starters!
    Interesting reading your reviews,