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From Postblatt to Fieldpost - part 5 of 5
Is this a German made souvenir card, a regimental card, or a unity card issued for propaganda? It seems to have been prematurely issued as a souvenir of the Great War in 1915 by an overconfident publisher, and dedicated to the eternal memory of the 15th Reserve Army Corp then serving in France. Blank space is left for the sender to fill in his units number, making this a semi-generic. On it is a German and Austrian soldier standing under the boldly displayed symbols for both empires. In the background are troops carrying an Ottoman flag. This card is obviously sending a lot of messages. It represents the conflicting desires of publishes to produce cards for regiments while broadening the market for them by adding themes. This is an extreme example of how the traditional format of regimental cards was breaking down as publishers faced overwhelming demand.
This is a very peculiar Gruss aus or rather Groet van card. The back is typical of a French Postcard, its front is labeled in Dutch. It depicts a scene in Belgium being looked upon by a German sentry. Wherever the origin, its perforated edge indicates it was issued as part of a souvenir book, probably marketed to German soldiers then occupying Belgium. While it seems to follow in the tradition of early military themed Gruss aus cards, it has a German fieldpost cancel from 1915 on its back indicating it was used as a fieldpost card.
One of the most common genres found on military postcards were scenes of farewells and homecomings. They were always in high demand because of the way they addressed emotional needs in times of separation. The German regimental card above, postmarked 1917, is unusual in that it incorporates the theme of departure. It does however approach the situation from a more propagandistic than a comforting perspective. As a soldier gets ready to march off to war, he tells his family he will return when peace arrives. It is a celebratory scene with smiling faces in a street decorated with flags and garlands. It may be meant to ease the stress of departure but I doubt few believed it would be this simple. The regimental number is so poorly integrated into the composition that it is probably an over printing. This may be a generic regimental card, but I suspect it is more likely it is an ordinary farewell card that has been appropriated for another use.
The ability to easily classify regimental cards is a problem that defies borders. Military themes were so well ingrained into the normal production of British postcards that the many cards representing specific regiments are indistinguishable from any other card offered to collectors, a problem that existed well before the War. This card published by Millar & Lang has a genetic border and the image of the soldier is photo-based, both making it cheaper to produce. While a specific numbered regiment is represented on this card, it is still impossible to say if it was made for the regiment or for collectors. It is most likely the latter if we consider the greater output of British manufacture. Most British cards only reference types of regiments and the places where they are raised.
Hand embroidered silk cards had been around as novelties since 1898, but they only began being made in large numbers after British soldiers began to be stationed in Belgium. This opened a huge market for souvenirs at the same time there was an overabundance of refugees needing work. Most of these early cards were embroidered in long strips by women and girls at home and then sent to finishing factories where they would be cut and mounted between cardboard sheets. Most of these cards were issued as ordinary greetings, sometimes referring to a holiday or birthday. Many others functioned as mementoes, commonly embodied with sayings like Souvenir of France and accompanied by patriotic symbols. The card above features the British stronghold of Ypres under bombardment and is more rare fore its specificity. Unlike a typical Belgian souvenir card, these carry the British flag; a nod to their most likely customers.
Even though Switzerland was technically neutral during World War One, it only maintained this status by mobilizing its reserves to keep all its neighbors out. This was a huge effort that separated many families members and by doing so created a great need for correspondence. The Swiss thought the conflict would be short and publishers issued many cards as Souvenir des Frontieres, referencing the border where troops were largely stationed. While these cards may not have been made exclusively for the military, its obvious target audience were soldiers deployed on the front lines. Cards depicting maneuvers had been labeled as souvenirs long before the War began.
Even though postcards were introduced for the purposes of communication, their fate began to shift as soon as pictures began to appear on them. This made them attractive to a new audience, the collector, who may or may not purchase cards as souvenirs. As tourism increased, so did the production of Souvenir Cards. By 1914 few cards were distinguished in this manner, most having simply being absorbed into the genre of view-cards. This is why cards issued as souvenirs at the outbreak of war seem even more out of place than just from the subject they cover. What must be remembered is that most at this time thought they were entering a short war; one filled with more glory and heroics than bloodshed. Many young men who rushed to enlist were fearful that they might lose their chance to participate before it was all over. The initial production of military souvenir cards are similar in purpose to the earlier Gruss aus Maneuver cards. They could be used as a themed greeting card or a memento. The French card above has been made as a generic without even a reference to war. Blank space is left for a few details to be filled in.
The French souvenir card above is a bit more specific though still a generic. While no place name is given, no doubt is left that this is a World War One battle scene. The type of tank pictured on the card indicates that it was not made earlier than 1917. By this time the true nature of the War was known and cards that more directly referenced the frontline were more likely to find customers.
Reserves sent to defend Switzerland’s borders wound up being deployed much longer than expected. Many were eventually allowed to return home but then found themselves redeployed whenever the threat of invasion grew likely. As with the belligerents, many Swiss military themed postcards were produced during this constant state of mobilization. Many of these are distinguished by the phrase, Occupation des Frontieres. These took the place of souvenir cards as a more appropriate response to the hardships caused by a long war. The duotone card above is from a set by J. Courvoisier that pictures ordinary soldier life.
Even when there was no early end to the War, souvenir cards continued to be published. These seem even more out of place as this French card entitled, Souvenir de Heroique Defense de Verdun. The French Army suffered terribly here, and it seems strange that souvenir cards would be issued for such a bloody battle. It was most likely issued towards the end of the War as were other souvenir cards outlining campaigns fought. As soon as the prospect of returning home for good became real, the War could be viewed differently. Tragedies make for good stories after the fact, not when they are lived.
As demand continued to grow, the entire embroidery process moved to machines, which could not create the same nuances as hand stitching. This was made up for by a broadening of subject matter. In high demand were military insignias and they were embroidered on cards for every British regiment. British soldiers were singled out simply because they had more money in their pockets to spend. Emphasis would shift to American themes after they began arriving in 1917, but these cards were more generic. There was also an upsurge in production toward the end of the Great War as soldiers tended to purchased souvenirs before returning home.
This folding two panel French souvenir card was issued at the end of the Great War, though not so far after as it contains an approval mark from censors. It features a detailed list with dates of all the battles fought in the War against the Germans by a particular battalion, and it also honors earlier campaigns fought overseas. Only one returning poilu is represented here, most of the card’s narrative is taken up by symbolism. Its size is also an indication that it was made to be a memento rather than used for mailing as a regular regimental card though it could be. These cards do not seem to have been produced in large numbers, which brings up the question of there popularity. They might be an example of publishers trying to exploit perceived consumers, the returning soldier, rather than producing cards to fill demand. It is often difficult to tell as keepsakes that hold greater meaning are not always past down through time the same way as postcards.
While the French card above looks typical of many souvenir cards, the location in combination with its 1921 date and depiction of a soldier must be taken into consideration to decipher its specific purpose. First, it is a generic hand colored real photo with a space left for the depiction of a specific interchangeable scene, in this case the military barracks at Metz. Though located in the reconquered province of Lorraine, the population was considered German and a French garrison was required. Many French soldiers were also serving as an occupation force just over the border in the Saar Basin. Just as with any army, publishers saw an opportunity in producing cards for these soldiers. They tend to carry just enough military themes to attract the interest of soldiers without upsetting the delicate political balance of the region.
Even though the trend in regimental cards was toward high quality complex designs, the need for cheep correspondence in wartime that could be used by any soldier led to a proliferation of simple postals. These greatly varied in design, quality and the way they were used. They differed from the ordinary military themed postcard that proliferated the market in that they were specifically designed for solders’ use. These cards continued to play the same role as those first postals suggested by Dr. Emanuel Herrmann back in 1869. While civilians were constantly hungry for news from the battlefront, these cards went beyond being a cheap method of exchanging information. They were an extremely important link between the soldier serving at the front and family and friends back home, supporting social and emotional ties that could so easily break under the stress of war. We can talk of bullets and bombs, flame throwers and tanks, but it was this personal correspondence that held nations together. Many like the German fieldpost card above from 1914 were made a little more interesting by carrying a simple design. To keep costs down, there was no printing on the back like a typical postal, it was reserved for a written message. Spaces have been carefully laid out so none of the required information about the soldier’s unit will be inadvertently left out.
If French publishers did not produce many regimental cards, they issued great numbers of simple postals issued exclusively for the use of their soldiers. There designs were very similar to German fieldpost cards with their simple patriotic symbols, printed lines for unit identification, and blank backs. This card from 1915 features a symbol of unity between the Allies.
As even the simplest German fieldpost cards add more pictorial content, French postals remained relatively restrained. Their simplicity was often made up for by the introduction of eye catching colors. As the variety of these cards increased substantially, their designs also grew more complex. This card has a special franking stamp (Franchise Militaire) affixed to it, which were given out to soldiers so they could send mail for free. Sometimes regular postage stamps overprinted with the letters F.M. were used by the military.
Cross out postals became popular with British censors during the Great War because by requiring a soldier to cross out pre printed statements that did not apply, it severely limited the message. While these cards dit not even carry a design, more liberal fill in postals were issued in Germany. While the message was still limited, the card itself spoke more to the soldiers state and was fare more interesting as the one posted in 1917 above.
Since the ability of soldiers to find postage stamps was severely limited during wartime, methods were established by which a soldier could send a card for free. The availability and exact requirements of what came to be known as Soldier’s Mail varied from one nation to the next, but most offered this service in some form. Soldiers usually only needed to write their name, rank, and unit on the back of a card and the words Free, Soldier’s Mail, or Fieldpost in place of a stamp. A postcard sent this way is sometimes referred to as franked mail. Even if postage was free, many soldiers still could not afford to buy cards or they simply were not always available. A number of charities stepped in to fill this gap and began issuing postals for free. The Res Cross probably produced the most cards of this type and they came in a variety of designs.
Charities that provided facilities to help troops recuperate while on leave from the front lines also distributed postcards for solders through them. The Salvation Army and the YMCA are two notable examples. The card above is from a large set produced by the Swiss Commission for Soldier Reading Rooms in 1918. A serious effort was made to provide interesting imagery within the limited space of a card that was only printed on one side.
In addition to normal Christmas cards, German publishers issued a vast amount of these as well made fieldpost cards. Many soldiers who might not ordinarily be able to afford such cards would pay a little extra on this holiday. Even so, not all could afford to do so cheap single sided Christmas fieldpost cards were produced that carried some decoration. This example is more elaborate than most.
There were other charitable organizations that made free cards available to soldiers such as the one from the Knights of Columbus pictured above. They did not always provide space for a full message. Many of these cards were only designed to let the recipient know that their loved one arrived in Europe safely; no small concern with a U-boat warfare raging out at sea. Other cards let families know the ship the soldier would be returning on so that a proper reunion could be arranged but such critical information could only be given out once the War was over. Mail from American soldiers was handled by British authorities and was subject to their censorship rules, which were quite strict. If these simple cards were mailed outside of the military postal system, no harm would be done because they did not reveal any information.
Charities would also create simple cards for prisoners of war so they could contact their families. Most were not illustrated to save on printing costs. While made exclusively for the use of soldiers, the particular circumstances of their issuance puts them out of the scope of this article.
Commercial publishers also sold cards that were designed for use as Soldier’s Mail. Those produced in Italy usually had the same type of image printed on its front that could be found on common military themed postcards. Their backs however were carefully laid out to contain all the information needed for this special type of free correspondence.
Apart from regimental fieldpost cards, German publishers also produced a tremendous amount of generic fieldpost cards that could be used by any soldier. While these fancier cards were sold through the hundreds of military field post offices set up by the German army, they could be mailed for free if the word fieldpost was written upon them. To expedite free Solder&esquo;s Mail, the term Feldpostkarte eventually came to be printed on the backs of most of these cards. Fieldpostkorrespondenzcarte was printed on the back of these cards from Austria-Hungary.
While the ability to reproduce photographs in print had a huge effect on postcard production, most cards produced during World War One were still being hand drawn. At least part of this may have been due to the difficulty of taking photographs on the frontlines. The few who were allowed to work there were still hampered by danger and security restrictions. The best battle scenes found on cards came from the imagination of artists. Despite these obstacles many fieldpost cards were photo-based though they tend to capture more mundane scenes behind the battlefront. Their variety often reveals detailed insights that did not attract artists as on this fieldpost card from 1915 showing soldiers pushing a car filled with artillery cartridges along a narrow gage railway.
The most unusual photo-based fieldpost cards were taken from autochromes and printed in tricolor. While Hans Hildenbrand was the only official German war photographer working in color, there are a number of uncredited color fieldpost cards that that obviously reproduce autochromes. There is a very realistic quality to these color images taken from behind the Vosges and Champagne fronts during 1916 and 1917, but they are rather sedate. The slow speed of early autochrome film also encouraged carefully posed shots.
Even while photo-based cards were trending, there was still enough of an audience to support the production of finely printed chromolithographs. This artist drawn fieldpost card is from a set that dates from 1916 though it high quality makes it look like it came from an earlier era. The production of similar cards continued to the War’s end but their numbers dropped off dramatically when desperate times called for the skilled workers needed to manufacture them to be inducted into military service.
Swiss publishers would also issue fieldpost cards for the large number of men under arms. The card above is from a set drawn by Carl Moos for Emil Goetz who produced many fieldpost cards during the war years. Even though Swiss troops were not actively engaged in combat, artists sometimes depicted them in more active if not dramatic situations to increase the card’s appeal.
Otto Plattner designed sets of colorful fieldpost cards for the Swiss army early in the Great War. These do not depict soldiers guarding the border or the hardships of being called up for service as much as ceremony and pomp. It was difficult to avoid touching on the horrors of war in nations engulfed in conflict but in neutral Switzerland such topics could be more easily avoided if not forgotten. While there was plenty of hardship to go around and a real appetite for war news, not all could stomach it. Cards such as this one could embrace military themes without adding stress to those at home. There was not a single type of customer for cards even among soldiers.
Thousands of different fieldpost cards were produced during the Great War making it difficult to examine them in all their variations. There is however one particular type worthy of special consideration. These are cards that reproduce the sketches of soldiers made on the frontlines. While some of these come from professional artists and others from amateurs looking to earn some cash, they all have an immediacy to them that work drawn from the imagination fails to capture. They often represent small things that loom large in a soldiers eye. While these soldiers also drew from their imagination, many satisfied themselves with sketching their quarters, their camp and the surrounding scenery. Many such images were drawn directly onto blank postals.
Even though German publishers seemed to capture all aspects of the Great War on their postcards, it was nearly impossible to get first hand images from the battlefront. Even official military artists tended to work behind the most dangerous sectors. There were times however when soldiers and artists alike made sketches while on the move capturing the /war in motion. Cards that carried this little bit of realism were very popular, not because of the news they carried, which was always vague, but because the more real the scene, the greater the bond created between sender and recipient. Here there is no bravado, just a sharing of an experience.
This fieldpost card shows German soldiers emerging from their bunker at the sound of an alarm. While all the men wear gas masks, the representation fails to capture the drama of the situation. Even so, its handmade look provides a sense of the real and we are drawn in as voyeurs into this odd way of life.
When a card does display high drama, it arouses suspicion. This card showing two soldiers trying to carry a heavy food container to their comrades while under enemy shelling. It was obviously not sketched under these conditions. It is never easy to tell if these kinds of scenes represent a vivid recollection or are completely made up. My guess would be that this is a real event that was prettied up by someone with the eye to know what makes good art. Publishers would not pay for everything drawn at the front. They still had to make decisions on what best satisfied their customers.
Most fieldpost cards were drawn by ordinary soldiers picturing their comrades doing ordinary things. Drawing was one way a soldier could break up the tedium of trench life, which was largely filled with as much boredom as mud. These cards often capture their listlessness and other small details that might otherwise be forgotten. Soldiers did not want to worry their families with the dangers they faced, but they also wanted their lives to be truthfully represented. This is why these types of cards proved to be so popular, at least in Germany. Allied censors who wanted to carefully control all aspects the War&esquo;s narrative were reluctant to approve such images. This began to change a bit in Britain about halfway through the conflict so the public could better understand the sacrifices that their men were making.
This German fieldpost card from 1916 is typical of many produced in that it shows a small section of trench line. Unable to peer out beyond their enclosure in fear of receiving a snipers bullet, soldiers became fixated on the small details of their limited world. The artistry on these cards varies a great deal but they all represent a precise reality, not only of trench construction but the state of mind of those forced to live within their confines.
Many of the sketches placed on military themed postcards came directly from official war artists on or near the frontlines. While they had first hand knowledge of their subjects, the images that found their way onto postcards still had to be approved by censors. There were of course many more artists in each nation than there were official positions for them. Most served as ordinary soldiers, but when they drew they could still produce wondrous things. This sophisticated sketch from a fieldpost card really captures the cramped quarters inside a communications bunker. Skilled artists recognized from their postcard work were sometimes promoted to official war artist, which came with a rank.
When not stationed in trenches, soldiers were often on the march and they made sketches of the sights they saw. One of the most common subjects that drew their attention were ruins, probably because of their unfamiliarity with such things, at least on this scale. There is no moral judgement here; they are usually portrayed very matter of factly. They rarely contain any printed message other than the name of the place they depict. They are presented as if they have the same appeal of an ordinary tourist oriented view-card. This is where I’ve been, this is what I did.
By the end of the Great War the heart of the postcard industry in Germany and Austria were in shambles. It fared little better in other nations. The golden age of postcards had ended. While there was a continuing demand for postcards, military cards would never play such an important role in their production again. Italy was one of the few nations where the tradition of producing regimental cards remained intact. This was no doubt due to their increasing importance in spreading propaganda for the new fascist regime. Continental sized regimental cards became an instrument in promoting militarism and the legitimacy of wars of conquest, especially after the campaign for East Africa was launched in 1935.
Although innovations like the telephone siphoned off many users of postcards, it was of no help to soldiers in the field. They still had to rely on the mail to stay in touch with their families, and a tremendous amount of postcards were sent during World War Two. Most of these were the type available to the general public even when they carried military themes. There were however many continental sized fieldpost cards, a format revived for use by German soldiers. Some of their illustrators had produced art for cards made during World War One. They also continued the tradition of using frontline sketches. The large set of Eastern Front scenes drawn by Fritz Brauner are a good example. While other artists presented dramatic scenes of battle, these cards do not glorify the soldier, but tell his story. Such honesty seems naive in a world where nearly everything is presented through propaganda. We should however remind ourselves that all postcards push some sort of agenda. It is when we fail to recognize this that they have their greatest effect on us.
So, did the soldier’s need for an inexpensive method of correspondence lead to the introduction of the postcard? Probably not; it was an idea whose time had come. This was however the main impetus for Dr. Emanuel Herrmann whose arguments led to the production of the first correspondence card. Even if postcards were bound to eventually be released, this is the way that history unfolded. Military postals and postcards were a huge part of early production and it is impossible to say how the industry would have progressed without this share of the market. This is not to say there would have been no postcard boom, greetings and view-cards always made up the greater share. What we must remember is that the whole is made up of many parts, and those cards made for soldiers were an important part of the postcard industry. Today, when we are all so interconnected by digital devices it is almost impossible to conceive of a time when the whole fabric of society was tied together by this fragile thread. Without understanding the role postcards once played we cannot truly understand our own history.
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 3
Postblatt to Fieldpost part 4