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December 30, 2019

From Postblatt to Fieldpost - part 3 of 5
By Alan Petrulis


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Perhaps nowhere did regimental cards become more popular than in Italy. The two are often synonymous in the eyes of modern collectors because of their great artistry and their prolific production. Italy produced postcards of all its regiments. So who were their publishers? It is not so easy to say. Many of the finest cards were produced by Doyen di L. Simondetti of Torino and G. Ricordi & Co. of Milan, but it is doubtful that these expensive chromolithographs were marketed to young recruits. Then again, the longevity of regiments meant that there were former member who might have become men of means. Even if these types of cards were commissioned by the regiment itself on behalf of its members, their quality should be in direct proportion to the regiment’s wealth. Since regiments are segregated by geography, those whose members come from cities often had more money than those raised from rural areas. In the absence of contractual details it is impossible to know if a regiment commissioned a card or if these cards originated with large publishers. It is also difficult to tell if their customers were mostly soldiers or civilian collectors. While many regimental cards remain in mint condition, others have military postmarks.

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Although Italian regimental cards come in a wide variety of designs they tend to be based around a much more limited set of themes. One of these is the regimental flag. Battle flags had been used since ancient times to designate the location of commanders, and they were later adapted to help identify each regiment as armies grew larger. In an age when there were no rapid means of communication between units, this at least gave generals some idea of what was happening on the battlefield. While battle flags that designate which empire a unit fights for tend to be uniform, regimental flags needed to be unique. Their square designs were often based on the coat of arms of their commander or national and even local symbols that resonated with the troops. Awarded to regiments through ritualistic ceremonies, these flags held special meaning. They represented the units history and sometimes had the names of battles fought emblazoned on them. The pennant shape of the flag on this 1905 card indicates that it is a guidon for a cavalry unit.

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Regiments were usually recruited from the same city or province so reservists could mobilize quickly when necessity called. This also helped to create a higher level of cohesiveness by playing up pride in one’s hometown. Many regimental cards emphasize the location where the unit was raised, sometimes in words but also through depicting views of well known landmarks. Even though this regiment from Verona has its number printed on the card, A regimental hand-stamp has been added to show that this card came directly from the regiment and not a store in town. Such stamps were very common.

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Some depictions of locations on regimental cards do not represent where the unit comes from but rather where it achieved it greatest victories on the battlefield. The card above does so by displaying maps of Libya and Eritrea. Many cards make reference to African locations that Italy tried to conquer. In contrast to this imperialist bravado, there is also a scene of Messina being destroyed by an earthquake in 1908. The Italian army was dispatched to Sicily in its aftermath to help with relief efforts.

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Specific battles the regiment took part in are also displayed on regimental cards. While many of these capture scenes from military campaigns in North Africa, the most common are the mid-19th century battles fought against Austria for Italian unification. While many of these battles ended in Italian defeats, what is shown are the heroic efforts performed by the regiment in which they can still take pride.

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Connecting a regiment to a historic past was a very important function of these cards. By doing so, soldiers could develop a sense of pride over events their regiment once took part in even when they never participated in these events themselves. This of course is a formula widely employed in propaganda because people have a natural tendency to attach themselves to anything that might increase self-esteem. We can easily see this today in the way people’s moods are attached to the fortune of sports teams they root for even when they have no real connection to them. While most of these types of regimental cards do so by representing particular battles, more general references were made to broader military traditions. In the case of Italian cards, Roman legionnaires were often incorporated into designs to symbolize the continuity of greatness through military action. This message was sometimes enhanced by juxtaposing ancient warriors with their modern counterparts.

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Some cards take this relationship with the past a bit further. In the case of the regimental card above, a map of the Roman Empire takes center stage. By connecting the modern Kingdom of Italy to the ancient Roman Empire, this card implies that there is a continuum of greatness from the ancient Romans to the present time. It projects the idea that Italy is not only a formidable force to recon with, it would become a powerful empire again. It very much acts as a propaganda card in its rationalization of Italy’s imperialistic quest for empire.

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Most regimental cards that try to inspire patriotic zeal simply use traditional national symbols like the national flag or Italia turrita the personification of Italy. On this card her usual turreted crown is replaced by the Star of Italy (Stella d’Italia). All are ancient references, the young woman from the primordial myth of the Great Mediterranean Mother, the crown as a representation of Roman cities, and the evening star having represented Italy since the time of ancient Greece. She also holds an oak and olive branch symbolizing strength and peace. Having been used for centuries, such symbols were very potent and sure to evoke an emotional response. Just like greeting cards that quickly conveyed their message through sentimentality, the use of the correct symbols could easily inspire a patriotic response.

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There is one symbol often found on regimental cards that makes no immediate reference to national identity. She is the angel of victory based on the goddess Nike. In one hand she holds the laurel wreath of victory, and in the other a palm leaf signifying peace. While it may seem totally appropriate to place such an allegorical figure amidst charging troops, its symbolism is not always as obvious as it seems. While it can be assumed that peace will follow victory, a dogmatic posture was established by nearly every nation during World War One in which peace was judged only attainable through military victory, not negotiation. The angel of victory can be found on many types of propaganda cards.

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With so many regiments to represent, it is easy to understand why publishers often fell back on producing generics. While this might do for lower end cards, those customers willing to pay a premium became increasingly demanding. Illustrators had to be very clever to keep turning out unique images. Differentiation between infantry, cavalry and artillery units provided some variation but this obviously had limitations. Units organized around a specialty were an opportunity too good for illustrators to pass up, and are usually represented in unique ways. This card for a regiment of Alpini not only shows them deployed on skis, their specialized equipment is incorporated into the cards decorative design.

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Sometimes it takes a variety of elements to make a card unique. The one above for a coastal defense unit displays a large coastal gun, a regimental flag, and a bit of architecture from the location of the battery. The most unusual thing about it is the absence of soldiers in uniform.

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If the content of regimental cards were only based on a limited number of themes, further variation could always be found through artistic style. These cards were produced during years that saw great change in what the public considered fashionable. Art Nouveau made great inroads on more academic forms of drawing, which eventually succumbed to growing modernist trends. While publishers tended to be conservative in their choices, some were always willing to push the limits of public taste, which led to an interesting variety of postcards on nearly every subject. This Italian duotone card from 1904 is a hybrid as it adds silver ink and Art Nouveau flourishes to a traditionally rendered battle scene.

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A cousin to the regimental cards are those representing specific military schools as the college at Naples above. While many nations produced photo-based view-cards of schools there was a type of artist drawn card from in Italy that is very similar to the typical montaged graphic style of their regimental cards. It is no coincidence that this card issued by Doyen was also a major publisher of regimental cards.

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Not all postcards depicting soldiers of a particular regiment are regimental cards. Many were produced solely with the military collector in mind. This is especially true for cards like the early one above originating in Great Britain & Ireland. British publishers would continually issue postcards that honored their military traditions for use by the general public.

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While French publishers produced a wide variety of artist drawn and photo-based postcards depicting troops on maneuvers, these were rarely issued for the exclusive use by soldiers. Some of the most popular sets, like those published by the French apéritif maker, Byrrh served commercial interests. Any themes that became popular with collectors could easily be appropriated for advertising. Tying a product to patriotic themes was also advantageous to sales even when there was no real relationship between the two. This marketing ploy became more difficult to sustain during wartime for there was always the danger of appearing exploitative of the sacrifice made by soldiers for the sake of sales.

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With the outbreak of World War One in 1914, millions of men took up arms and the use of postcards increased dramatically. Publishers of many nations rushed in to produce cards carrying military themes, not just for soldiers but to capture the extraordinary market that was developing within the general population. Postcard sales were already high but now there were new needs. War was important news as well as exciting news, and the primary way of transmitting imagery of it was through postcards. It seemed that there was no aspect of military life so trivial that it could not find buyers if placed on a card. Scenes depicting the writing letters and the delivery of mail found their way onto many postcards. Only public taste and censorship, both of which varied between nations, held back certain subject matter from being marketed. While the vast majority of these would be published as ordinary postcards, the amount of cards produced exclusively for soldiers increased as well.

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At first, postcard publishers saw the Great War as a boon for their business. It would obviously be short, and so all tried to take advantage of the rapidly expanding market for as long as it might last. While the War lasted longer than expected, publishers soon found it growing increasingly difficult to meet demand as material resources were siphoned off for war production. Since most printing ink was manufactured in Germany, shortages grew in the nations allied against them. Skilled workers also began to disappear into the ranks of the armed services. None of this made a difference at first. Most of the finest cards produced during the Great War were published during its first year and in great numbers. The Italian regimental card above is little different from its peacetime forbearers except for the soldier’s uniform and weaponry.

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The most noticeable wartime change in Italian regimental cards is that chromolithographs, which dominated their production were now replaced by tricolor printing that required fewer color inks and less skilled craftsmen to produce. The one pictured above also shows the increased use of propaganda. While the traditional allegory of victory can be found here in the likeness of Hermes, she stands in the hand of Italia turrita who prominently holds a sword in the other. To be sure there is no mistaking this meaning, a Germanic barbarian lies slain at her feet.

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Symbolism on cards is meant to direct meaning while leaving the image somewhat open to broader interpretation. This can add to confusion if there is a lack of familiarity with the symbols. While this regimental card is not so different from the one pictured further above, we are presented with a different female allegory. By her helmet she should be recognized as Nike the goddess of victory. The heraldic shield on her breast and flowing flag is gules a cross argent, the coat of arms for the royal Italian House of Savoy. As a soldier crouches over a battlefield contemplating his next move, he is urged to move forward. His loyalty to the king will lead to victory.

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Symbolism and allegory were important elements on most Italian propaganda cards. Sometimes they direct the understanding of an otherwise benign image, at other times they completely take over a card’s meaning. Even when troops are depicted with some accuracy, they rarely do more than set the tone of war. This card from 1915 depicts modern high caliber guns but they are dwarfed by the symbols of strength and defiance. No matter how ambitious military campaigns were, they were marketed at home as defensive actions. Italy’s imperialist ambitions were often disguised by promoting the idea that its troops were keeping the kingdom safe from enemy aggression.

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While many regimental cards depicted troops deployed in the field. Those published during World War One were more likely to display scenes of combat. If the combat was generic, then the location was most likely not. Since Italy’s territorial disputes with Austria-Hungry largely fell on the arc of their mountainous border, this became the setting for many cards. Recognizable peaks of the Dolomites were often depicted. These rugged high elevations also gave illustrators the chance to add visual drama that might attract customers.

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Specific battles of the Great War were also placed on Italian regimental cards. These were often accompanied by a list of other battles and campaigns the regiment fought in just like their prewar predecessors. Since most battles were defeats or at the vey least questionable victories, it was individual acts of bravery that were emphasized, just as on earlier cards of the wars for Italian unification.

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When the last battle referenced on a regimental card is 1918, the same year the Great War came to an end, its publication date must be questioned. The tradition of regimental cards remained very strong in postwar Italy and it was common for cards to glorify recent battles. This card, with its more modern graphics has the word Obey (Obbedisco) emblazoned across its front. Was this the regimental motto or a reference to the growing power of the fascist state? Discipline was a contentious issue within the Italian military. Soldiers were harshly punished, sometimes with death for failing to accomplish impossible tasks. Such demands destroyed the morale of many units, which in turn led to disaster on the battlefield late in the War. Although ambiguity invites speculation, caution must be taken with how much we read into a card.

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Another difficult regimental card is the one above. It is postmarked in 1929 but it honors the regiment’s commitment and sacrifice on the battlefield in 1916. Even the tradition figure of victory is present. When the message on a card remains relevant and its style is not too antiquated, it might still find use years later. All that can be said for sure is that this card was published within a thirteen year period.

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Above is a postwar regimental card postmarked 1929 that depicts a generic battle scene. On its back is a reference to the Italo-Austria War fought 1914-18. Many cards like this were published after the World War One though not all make a definitive written connection. Understanding was considered implicit as the conflict was still fresh in peoples minds. While cards of many odd sizes were issued during the War, larger Continental sized cards like this one became the standard in postwar years.

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Even when cards were produced late in the war, many still retained a prewar look. In some cases these were indeed old cards being mailed at a later date. What helps to determine a card’s age is familiarity with weapons and uniforms. Wars exert great pressure on innovation, and the public was very interested in seeing depictions of these deadly instruments. On this regimental card, an Italian soldier charging through barbed wire is about to hurl a hand grenade; two widely used innovations of the Great War.

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Although most transport during the First World War was carried out by horse, mechanized vehicles began playing an important role. Just as with weapons, this innovation also intrigued the public and was accommodated within postcard design. While this regimental card was issued for both an artillery and a mechanized unit, it is the less familiar Automoblisti that is depicted on the card. The mountainous setting has two complimentary meanings outside of setting the stage. While it implies that there is no obstacle that can’t be overcome, it shows that even when equipped with modern motorcars, the tasks these troops face are still arduous and respect is due those who carry them out.

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This regimental card was issued for a new type of artillery, one designed to shoot down aircraft. Few in numbers early in the Great War, these unarmed craft were primarily used for reconnoissance. By War’s end, thousand were bombing troops and cities alike, enough to require brand new types of regiments armed with specialized weapons to combat this menace. Even though these new anti-aircraft units could not boast of the long histories held by other regiments, efforts were made on cards to tie them into broader military traditions. Regimental cards were not made to be a mere history lesson, they were to promote a sense of unity between soldiers and give them a sense of place within their kingdom. They were to help keep up morale while encouraging loyalty.

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The illustrations found on German regimental cards up to World War one seemed to have been stuck in the 19th century. Then, after the outbreak of war, they took on an enormous variety of design. Not all were exciting and new. Publishers like Stengel & Co. produced an enormous quantity of monochrome generics where both colors and regimental numbers could be swapped. Nearly all of these depict troops in the field and are accompanied by a patriotic verse.

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When uncertain how to design a card, it is always safe to fall back on tradition even if it is not necessarily your own. This German card made for the 69th Infantry regiment is very reminiscent of simple Italian regimental cards that rely on a handful of decorative symbols to convey their message. On this card the military hardware is up to date for the Great War. On display is a camouflage helmet, a vest for carrying hand grenades and a gas mask. The only words refer to a happy homecoming, which is probably meant as a wish rather than for a reality.

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While other publishers adopted more modern graphics in the postcard’s design, many were still wary of testing the public’s taste and fell back on conventional content. On this card from 1916, contemporary German troops are compared to their predecessors as they both advance. History says that if they were victorious before they will be victorious again. This of course is just wishful thinking as the soldiers, weaponry and circumstances are all different. Such realities however were always overlooked. Only the storyline mattered and it told a tale where the regiments character and elan were the most important factors in battle. This was not just a line of propaganda fed to those back home, it was widely believed by generals sending men into battle. This concept was perhaps the largest contributing factor to high casualty rates.

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A regiment’s history was often a key element on their regimental cards. This helped to unify men in a unit by reminding them what they held in common and of their common cause. Such presentations became more difficult sustain in the Great War when large amounts of men were needed to fill the ranks and new units without a history were created. The Bavarian regimental card above was issued in October 1914 and depicts a new recruit, a soldier who is practically a boy. The flowers in his gun barrel indicate a celebratory send off to war. With no regimental history to fall back on, we a presented with a patriotic verse in its place that praises those who have historically defended the fatherland.

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Nearly all regiments became engaged in combat soon after the Great War began. As the list of battles and campaigns accumulated behind them these histories were able to be presented on regimental cards as a badge of honor. The partial dates on many of the postcards made during World War One represent a naive optimism for victory. Here it may be nothing more than a practicality, a way of honoring a regiment on cards that were needed before the War ended. This card was made for a Jager Guard Battalion. The designation of being a hunter (jager) was one of distinction for it implied great skill. The stag’s skull in the corner not only represents prowess, it is the symbol of St. Hubertus, patron saint of hunters and Knights.

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The card above, without any title or insignia was seemingly issued as a military generic. The presence of a stag’s head and cross, symbol of St. Hubertus, denotes these soldiers as anything but ordinary; these are Jagers, elite riflemen. While the connection is more obscure today, the postcard’s meaning would have been obvious when first published. Even though the knightly order of Saint Hubertus has long ties with Bavarian royalty, the symbolism of the stag’s head would have been known throughout Germany and Austria. Connections were often implied rather than spelled out so a card could appeal to a wider audience before becoming too generic. Although its postmark dates from 1915, its design is closer to cards produced before World War one.

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Portraits of individual soldiers were often used to illustrate German regimental cards, as well as depictions of single soldiers in the field. For the most part the design of these cards were about the graphics not the setting; it was only important to depict the soldier in a realistic manner. The card postmarked in 1916 is part of a large set published by P.D. Himmer. Within a border of oak leaves toped with a royal insignia, a soldier gets ready to throw a hand grenade over a barbed wire obstruction. While this image represents a night trench raid across no-mans-land, the bloody hand to hand combat is left out in favor of a symbolic scene of modern warfare, which in this case is rather benign.

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One feature that is rather unique to German regimental cards is their use of portraiture. While images of single soldiers are often represented, they tend to be generic standing in for all soldiers. Portraiture on the other hand focuses in the individual. We are shown a living human being like us, not just someone else's idea of what a soldier should be. By evoking empathy they also stimulate support for the soldier&esquo;s cause.

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The regimental cards drawn by Carl Kuhrt for Fritz Grabs often emphasizes modern weaponry by depicting various types of units. The card above postmarked 1918 shows a field artillery regiment rushing int action. These do not play up modernist tendencies in art or pretty designs. Compositions are worked out to heighten a sense of urgency and draw the customer into the drama. Just as on greeting cards, this medium worked best when conveying simple messages that could be quickly understood.

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Attacking troops is a standard trope used on regimental cards, especially those made in wartime. Here we are presented with a specific battle from June 1916, but there are no details to give further understanding. It could be anywhere. What is important for us to know is that the soldiers of this regiment fight heroically. A fallen soldier indicates that they are willing to make sacrifices; that they will not even be deterred by the prospect of death. These are the type of soldiers you can be proud of, that you want on your side.

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This 1916 card is not typical of regimental cards but it is certainly German. The composition is interesting but does not carry a bold design. There is no added allegory suggesting victory or a just cause, it just presents the brutality of war. As two soldiers are about to advance they look over the wreckage of bodies of those who went before them. Such dark representations would have not passed the sensors in most other nations who were desperately trying to control the War’s narrative.

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On the German card above from 1916 we find troops defending a portion of trench line. The scene is halfway between reality and fantasy; either drawn by someone without first hand experience or just spruced up to be more attractive. Around its border is a list of all the battles the regiment was engaged in. Such lists are usually meant to tie a regiment to a long historic past. This long list only covers two years of fighting. It implies that these heroic soldiers have already done more than their far share for Germany and are true heroes.


This article consist of four parts; click on the links below to continue reading.

Postblatt to Fieldpost part 1
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 2
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 4
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 5



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