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December 30, 2019

From Postblatt to Fieldpost - part 3 of 4
By Alan Petrulis


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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 soldierŐs 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 cardŐs 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 regimentŐs 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 canŐt 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 WarŐs 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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While other publishers adopted more modern graphics in the postcardŐs 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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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.

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Austria also produced regimental cards similar to those of Germany. This card from 1915, illustrated by Hans Denk is typical of his work. While there is a grand scene depicting a long column of troops march off to begin their spring offensive, it is presented in a rather low key manner. Even the dead body caught in barbed wire only adds to the narrative, not to the drama. Austrian publishers did not shy away from producing postcards full of dramatic battle scenes, but it seems that their regimental cards tend to be more quiet, just like their German counterparts. It wasnŐt that public taste was averse to depictions of violence for there was plenty of that to be found on other cards. This aspect may have more to do with a distaste for bravado, at least among soldiers. Propagandists would have been happy to present all their empires’s soldiers as invincible heroes and the enemy as cowards; this is how they look on nearly every postcard published for the general public. Soldiers who suffered at the hands of the enemy had a different view. Victories could be celebrated and heroes praised but they did not like having their lives made to look too easy.

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This 1916 Austrian card drawn by Edward Schuckl depicts a K.u.K. regiment advancing on a Russian line. While there are casualties, the horror of battle is clearly understated. Cards published in wartime could not completely avoid the hard fact that men would die, but they still had to be attractive enough to find customers. The risk shown here is not overwhelming; victory seems assured. Presenting scenes in somewhat realistic terms was a reminder of the true sacrifice men in uniform were making.

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Hungarians had long struggled for independence after being absorbed into the Austrian Empire. In 1867 a compromise was finally negotiated, which formed the dual AustroĐHungarian monarchy. Czechs within the empire were hoping for similar status at this time but it was never granted and the struggle continued. By World War One, regimental cards were being made for Czech units serving in the Austro-Hungarian army but they tend to lack the patriotic trappings found on other cards. Even this one printed in Vienna only shows a lonely soldier in a trench quietly doing his duty under harsh conditions. The regiment’s number only appears on its back. Cards displaying Czech troops were largely made for a Czech audience. Their loyalty was questioned by Austrians and so their cards had limited appeal within the empire.

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Harry Sarwin illustrated a number of postcards for the Austrian Imperial Army (K.u.K.) during the First World War. While they depict specific Imperial regiments engaged in combat, they are toned down by eliminating their contact with enemy soldiers. Emphasis is solely placed on the men who serve the empire. They do however pose the question of whether they are true regimental cards or not. Their format is more in keeping with sets produced for collectors than individual regiments. The narrative on their backs appears in four languages of the empire insinuating they were produced for a wider audience. Can they be serving a duel purpose? This is a good example of how military cards grew ever more difficult to classify over time.

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Erich R. Dobrich was a prolific military illustrator, producing many generic images of German troops out on maneuver and specific regiments on World War One battlefields. Although Dobrich served in the War, it seems that most of these Continental sized cards were made in the 1930^esquo;s. While his first hand experiences undoubtedly contributed to the illustrationŐs accuracy and immediacy, it helps confuse their dating. Only by comparing his entire output of postcards do we see that there is no distinction between them other than some depict specific regiments and battles while the remainder are generic. Some regiments like those raised in China and Africa were disbanded after German Colonies were seize, and so these cards were definitely not made for their members. They should all be considered military themed postcards, not regimental cards.

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German postcards depict named battles more often than those from any other nation. While many illustrators tried to be accurate, their distance from the actual fighting led to a great deal of artistic license. When regimental cards show battles at all, which is rarely, they tend to look very generic. The set of cards made for the First Royal Bavarian Reserve Infantry depict a number of the battles they participated in while campaigning in France. Though highly stylized, they are drawn with the intimacy of first hand knowledge. Is this the work of one of the soldiers in the regiment? Its free style seems a little forced, which might indicate that this was a professional attempt at imitating a field sketch. The use of field sketches was widespread on fieldpost cards.

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More often than not, German regimental cards focus on troops in non-violent situations even when they are serving in the trenches. These can also be generic scenes but many are based on actual frontline sketches. A number of cards of note were produced in 1916 for the 4th Jagar Battalion that depicted various aspects of their men’s lives while serving in trenches. Although published for a specific unit, their renderings of intimate moments are much more typical of German fieldpost cards than regimental cards. Eventually most German regimental cards were issued as fieldpost cards.

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Hans Weiss illustrated a very interesting set of Bavarian regimental cards where the troops are represented by scenes of soldier life behind the lines rather than in combat. One shows men playing cards and another pictured above shows a kitchen scene complete with a hungry mascot. Such unglamorous topics were rarely placed on cards because they fail to glorify the regiment. Soldiers however often preferred cards that portrayed them as ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Families were probably happier seeing their loved ones in uniform involved in mundane tasks such as getting a good meal rather than fighting. Glory is best suited for peacetime fantasies.

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In 1914 the German army not only consisted of active troops and reservists, but a home guard (Landstrum), made up of men who had already served in the reserve for eleven years. By this time most had settled into family life so they were normally excused from their light duties upon reaching the age of 45. With the coming of the War they were placed unto active service, which caused quite a hardship to their families. It also created a large market for postcards. German publishers produced many cards specifically focused on these older men, which included large numbers of farewell cards and some regimental cards. The beards they wore ad the pipes they smoked became the signature of their status, and postcards usually depict them this way.

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Cards representing different branches of service traditionally provided illustrators with opportunities to stretch their talent. This 1915 card displays four Bavarian Pioneers with the tools of their trade. One prepares to deliver explosives into the enemy line, another cuts barbed wire in preparation for an attack, another digs a trench, and yet another carries tools for the construction of bridges and quarters. Real and imagined are combined to create an appealing image that also expresses the diverse and important functions these types of troops carry out.

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The regiment card above illustrates a lesser known but very specific activity carried out by pioneers during the War. After trench lines grew static, tunnels would be dug under no-mans-land until reaching enemy lines where chambers were hollowed out and filled with explosives to destroy strongpoints from underneath. While one gets some idea of the hard work involved from this card, it does nothing to express the extreme danger of such endeavors. The idea was to peak the interest of those unfamiliar with these activities, not make them more anxious over the safety of their loved ones.

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During the Great War, the German army began testing out new tactics on the battlefield. This led to a new type of storm troop battalion that was organized out of pioneer regiments. Each storm trooper section was armed with hand grenades, flame throwers, machine guns and a variety of light mortars. These tools were all essential for the quick clearing of enemy trenches. Once the hodgepodge of experimental stormtrooper units proved their worth in battle, efforts began to train more of them. By October 1916, all armies on the Western Front were ordered to create stormtrooper battalions through retraining. By 1918 large numbers of German troops who had learned the methods of stormtroopers were reformed into attack divisions (Angriffdivisionen). Even though these units lacked a long history, they were so romanticized in the publics eye that many regimental cards followed. Storm troopers are usually depicted carrying hand grenades, which became their signature.

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While this German regimental card depicts a classic storm trooper with grenade in hand, it is titled Vauxsturmer (Fort Vaux attacker). This is not a military term but a nickname given to the troops that captured the Vaux fortress in 1916 during the battle of Verdun. This was an exceptional victory that was widely publicized, and the name became part of the public lexicon. By attaching the fortŐs name to that of the regiment it served as a badge of honor. It also served as propaganda by espousing the prowess of German stormtroopers.

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Although storm troopers were a product of the German Army, their effective tactics were eventually imitated by friend and foe alike. The Austro-Hungarian Army would deploy special assault troops (Jagdkommandos) in May 1917 that were trained on the German model. While these elite troops are rarely shown in action as on German regimental cards, they are still given heroic stature.

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A number of nations had elite fighting units in the form of mountain troops. They not only had to be trained and equipped to fight, but to deal with the harsh mountainous environments they might be called to fight in. The Germans formed mountain infantry units (Gebirgsjager) who were the first to employ stormtrooper tactics. Austria-Hungary had its own Alpine regiments (Landesschutzen), which often fought against their counterparts on the Italian Front. This Austrian regimental card from 1916 is typically subdued. While we a presented with a well equipped soldier on skis, it has the look of a greeting card. The Alpine setting evokes beauty rather than the harsh environment that killed so many men. These cards were not meant to frighten.

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The introduction of innovative weapons created the need to form new units that were of the most effective size to use them. Although they might be deployed on the company or battalion level, cards were made for them as if they were organized into regiments and they can still be referred to as regimental cards. One of these new weapons was the machine gun, which proved to be so effective that Maschinengewehr companies were assigned to support every infantry battalion in the German army. Early guns were very heavy and they required four to six operators to handle all the equipment. Although a belt that feeds bullets into the gun is used to good effect as a decorative border on this card, its most interesting feature is the sweat pouring out of two soldiers. They validate the difficult work that was required just to carry the gun, tripod, coolant and ammunition. The hard work of soldiers must be respected as much as their valor.

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France, who was on the receiving end of many of these new German weapons presented the destruction that rained down on their country as acts of barbarity. Countess French postcards were produced depicting burnt out churches and the ruins of towns as part of their propaganda efforts. While it would seam that that German publishers would try to avoid this subject, there are almost as many postcards displaying ruined French towns on German cards as there are from France. To the Germans, such destruction was seen as a natural outcome of war with no moral judgement to be placed on it. If anything images of destruction represented the prowess of their army and the inability of their enemy to defend their territory. Every ruined town brought the War closer to an end. It was not uncommon for German regimental cards to pick up on this theme and display the destruction they had wrought.

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Medical personnel were well represented on World War One postcards, and hospital units were also portrayed on cards just like any other regiment. This 1916 card for a German sanitation company displays the makeshift operations of a field hospital. It tells the story of the difficult conditions these men must work under while not showing any real danger. A harsh environment is only meant to show that medical personnel need to be respected for their hard work in the field, and that they are there to help fallen soldiers anywhere. They could not even hint that the wounded did not receive the best care under these circumstances.

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This rather matter of fact 1915 Austrian card drawn by Otto Barth for a hospital unit is not as gritty as the card further above, but it still captures the spirit of the unit. Its highly decorative style makes it attractive, which also allows it to avoid the horrific details of ghastly wounds and mutilated bodies. While there is no attempt to insert propaganda beyond stating that wounded soldiers will receive good care, it is still propaganda by omission. It was very difficult to overtly insert propaganda into hospital scenes without looking exploitive.

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This Fieldpostkorrespondenzkarte from 1917 aligns a profile of an Austrian soldier from a K.u.K. regiment with that of Nike, the personification of victory. She wears a helmet here to represent victory in battle. A likeness of the goddess was often placed on medals given out at athletic games in ancient times. The Austrian soldier has similar medals for his feats pinned to his hat. Most soldiers could not comprehend the reasons behind the War, they only new they were defending their homeland. Tying them to established traditions helped to give purpose to their cause. Regimental cards did not only provide soldiers with a means to correspond, they helped to mold character in a direction that supported the empire.

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Allegory was allowed to proliferate on postcards produced during World War One because the symbolism found in the classics were a part of the general population’s vocabulary. Newer symbols that had long been used to promote nationalism were also widely recognized. The Great War made the more obscure visible when it connected to current events. It had already been common among gunners to evoke the name of St. Barbara, the patron saint of artillery, as protection against sudden death by explosions but her name gained wider recognition after her presence began being placed on postcards. Rather than the personification of nation or victory, it is St. Barbara that stands by the gunner on this Austrian regimental card.

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France produced an enormous amount of postcards during the Great War, most of it vitriolic propaganda. Relative to Germany, little attention was paid to the lives of ordinary soldiers in any realistic way. Cheap postals were made for soldiers to correspond with but few honor specific regiments. The 79th Infantry is a rare exception, having a whole set of cards produced just for them. These cards depict named battles as well as quiet moments in camp.


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



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