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Postcards of the First World War are historically valuable war documents - They are reflections of the national personality and attitudes of the principal belligerents  by Menno Wielinga

Anyone looking at the huge number of books written about the Great War could easily get the impression that no aspect of the war has been missed. There is, however, an important aspect that has always been underestimated - war picture postcards. These often neglected postcards are so important because they were the idiom through which soldiers at the front and their family and friends at home communicated.

01 Important aspect has always been underestimated
02 Postcards illustrated the whole range of the intense feelings
03 The Press Bureau for censorship after 15 September 1915
04 Postcards were enormously popular and cheap
05 Postcards are historically valuable war documents
06 No picture postcards in the Second world War

 Important aspect has always been underestimated
Postcard publishers were very quick to see the opportunities presented by the war and therefore postcards were on sale within three days of the declaration of war (4 August 1914) and were widely available before the first troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossed the Channel to France and Belgium.

Many of the early commercially produced cards were light-hearted conversation pieces which followed the tradition of the, at that time, very popular holiday postcards.
Belgian family on a patriotic postcard

The early British cards lampooned the Germans in general and Kaiser Wilhelm in particular. The Germans were always fat and mean, sausage eating cowards who would soon run before the stout-hearted British Tommy.

But as the war became more ferocious and casualties mounted, the tone changed. Especially after the bloody battles in 1914 en 1915 which brought home the real nature of the war.

The postcard producers all over the world took the changes into account and employed some of the best artists and card illustrators to reflect the new topics. And with soldiers suffering the effects of poison gas, and sometimes being blinded by it, there was plenty of possibility for pathos.

However, very few postcards showed dead, wounded or mutilated soldiers. Their business instincts told the card publishers that soldiers would not want to buy such cards and that civilians would be reluctant to remind soldiers of their likely fate. Authorities also discouraged publication of 'unfortunate subjects', such as dead soldiers.

Very rare homemade German postcard from the front in 1915

It was nevertheless safe for British publishers to distribute cards showing dead Germans. And of course, German publishers liked to show dead or wounded British and French soldiers on their cards.

French cards often featured, in posed photographs, their own soldiers dying on the field of honour. The French postcard-buying public seems to have been eager on this theme.

Postcards illustrated the whole range of the intense feelings
By all belligerent nations postcards illustrated the whole range of the intense feelings which the First World War evoked. Also, because the drawing or photograph on each card focused on a single theme the effect was, and still is, a powerful one.

Postcard showing the horror of war for all the people

The main themes are tragedy, patriotism, humour, recruits' bewilderment with army life, the trials and tribulations of active service, suffering and sacrifice, nationalism, dislike and ridicule of the army, glory, romance, love of children, trust in God, hardship and heroism.

So postcards were a reflection of the national personality and attitudes of the principal belligerents. French-designed postcards are vividly different from those made for British use, while German, Russian (hard to find), Belgian and American cards also showed their particular distinctions.

At other times the producer of a card had propaganda in mind, such as rousing the passions of the public against the enemy. Many French postcards stress the unity and purpose of the Entente Cordiale - the treaty between France and Britain - and then of the Triple Entente, Britain and France plus Russia.

Patriotic French postcard

The primary objective of the postcard publishers' was to sell them at a profit, so they supplied the market with what they believed people wanted. They frankly exploited sentiment and sentimentality; among the best selling cards were those which showed blinded soldiers.

Generally the producers were convinced that the soldiers themselves wanted to present the war to the people at home in terms of its being a rather rough and uncomfortable game, something which aroused an ironic laugh in the recipient. These cards never show a British soldier wounded, dead or really suffering. Here, at worst, life at the front was portrayed as muddy, noisy and tiring.

The Press Bureau for censorship after 15 September 1915
From 15 September 1916 all new pictorial representations, including picture postcards and cigarette stiffeners, and other illustrated subjects of a military nature had to be submitted to the Press Bureau for censorship before publication.

On that day the first action by British tanks began; it was the start of the final stages of the Somme offensive. The Army feared that enthusiastic postcard producers might give away secrets about the tanks, the great innovative weapon of the war.

But the artists had never seen a tank and had only their imagination to draw upon; they made them look even more fearsome than they really were!

The French Press Bureau giving permission by the chief of police to publish the postcard
with the portrait of captain Rageot de la Touche, captain of Le Bouvet - one of the French
ships of war sunk during the sea battle in the Dardanelles (The Straits) 

It is maybe a fair generalisation to say that British war cards understated whatever they depicted, and that French ones would overstate it, often to the point of absurdity. German postcard designs were stoical and nationalist in mood. American cards - the United States entered the war in April 1917 - were, in effect, statements of 'Stand aside, buddy, the Americans are here now'.

A good many cards had both French and English text, not only to appeal to a potentially bigger market but to make the card seem more exotic and therefore more desirable. A few cards had text printed in English, French and Flemish, the latter included to flatter the many Flemish-speaking Belgians. Other English language cards also used Russian.

Postcards were enormously popular and cheap
Postcards were enormously popular at the time. Many British soldiers hated having to write letters and found to their satisfaction that a card required a minimum of effort while indicating the maximum of thoughtfulness.

Sometimes they wrote no more than five or six words on a card. French soldiers, on the other hand, were different. Writing in small, fine script, they could cram a remarkable amount of information onto a card.

Friends and family at home often used cards rather than letters as they were generally brightly coloured and because they believed, often quite wrongly, that men at the front did not want to be 'bothered' by the everyday details of domestic life.

For both the soldier and his family a postcard was safer than a letter because no real depth of feeling or sentiment was necessary. Of course, people did possess very real depths but they were reluctant, even afraid, to express what lay in those depths.

Neither group, soldiers nor civilians, wanted to 'upset' the other. What mattered was to receive a card with a well known or dearly beloved name on it. It was up to the recipient to decode the brief written message and read what lay behind it.

By now many postcards of 1914-1918 may seem naive, grossly over-sentimental, sometimes distasteful and extravagant in the message of their design. Some can be criticised on a purely military basis, since uniforms and equipment are often inaccurately depicted.

Captions are often even more inaccurate. But few people of the time would have been critical of these errors. For them, the cards depicted fundamental realities. They were more interested in impressions than in facts.

Throughout the war postcards were cheap, at a halfpenny or penny each, together with halfpenny postage within Britain and one penny overseas. Soldiers paid only a halfpenny postage wherever they were. Their mail was collected by the battalions and despatched across the Channel for posting in Britain.

Postcards, when sent by the soldiers from the battle areas to their homes, were subject to the same rules of censorship as were letters. When they were posted within the unit they were read by company officers, but it is extremely rare to find anything blacked out on a wartime card.

Postcards are historically valuable war documents
Postcards are historically valuable war documents because they cover a wider field than photographs. No photographs were ever taken of much of that which was illustrated by artists.

Original Thank you postcard from the front for sending a nice postcard to a soldier.
Translation: Thank you dear miss for your nice postcard
A thousand dear kisses

In postcards is frozen all the sentimentality and the seriousness of a four-year war period. And not at least, war postcards are greatly entertaining and informative. They have brought some humanity and colour to a dark, inhuman activity and have left us a unique link with people of that time.

No picture postcards in the Second world War
During the Second World War the perception of war was of a completely different nature than during the First World War. Without a doubt this new perception was based on the terrible experiences in the First World War which only became entirely clear in the years after the First World War and in the dark times of the economic depression in the Interbellum.

Also the war situation was of a completely other nature: for almost five years there were no fronts in Europe where hundred thousands of men would have to maintain contact with the home front.

There was simply no longer need for the type of picture war postcards which were so characteristic for the First World War.

German postcard showing troops passing a burning village.

When the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 the event was celebrated with a flurry of colourful, extravagant cards. The Armistice signified not only the end of hostilities of the First world War, but also brought to a close the era of the war picture postcards.

All photos are taken from my private collection books and picture postcards. 
Any use of copyrighted images is accidental, and any such material will be promptly
removed from this site upon notification from the copyright holder.

Menno Wielinga - 2009

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