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Blog Archive 16
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Christmas in the Trenches
Nearly everyone is familiar with the saying, “The war will be over by Christmas.” Even without knowing any specific reference to place and time it has come to generalize a foolish naivety about warfare. Not everyone was that naive in 1914; those with enough military expertise knew what developed into World War One would not be easy or quick, but no one was prepared for what they found. Weaponry had changed drastically since previous wars but tactics had not. It was obvious that things would be different, but there was great uncertainty over how to adapt to these changes. By winter when a trench line formed on the Western Front extending from the Swiss Alps to the English Channel, everyone thought that this end to mobile warfare was just a temporary situation. Spring would surly bring about breakthroughs and the type of fluid combat that generals were trained for.
If some generals knew better as to what the War might bring, then the average soldier had no real clue to what he was getting himself into. While there was widespread antiwar sentiment, those holding these views paled in comparison to the almost universal urge to go to war. Armies swelled with recruits in the War’s first weeks; the biggest fear being that it would all be over before a taste of glory was found. The long history of romanticizing war through literature, poems, popular prints and fine art had seen to that. Once fighting started, it did not take long for reality to set in. Casualties on both sides mounted very quickly, and by Christmas the soldiers in the trenches knew they weren’t going anywhere soon.
On Christmas Eve 1914, British sentries were startled by a strange sight along the opposing German line as lights began to appear one by one above their trenches. Fear of a new weapon or impending attack were quickly dispelled when these glowing forms were recognized as small Christmas trees decorated with candles. In other places where the lines were close, the singing of carols erupted until both sides joined in on the same familiar songs. While the stories of fraternization that took place the next morning are often little more that antidotal, there is no doubt that soldiers, perhaps as many as a hundred thousand, disobeyed strict orders and came out into no-mans-land to greet one another. Many were surprised to see that the enemy was little different from themselves.
There is often a comradeship that develops among fighting men due to their shared experiences through hardship and combat. Living through these extreme conditions that are like no other can create bonds that extend beyond patriotic rhetoric. Once out from under the propaganda, veterans sometimes develop friendships with their former enemies because they might relate to each other’s experiences more than their own friends and family back home. This type kinship has always been a fear of those leading us into war. If soldiers stop hating the enemy they might loose their resolve to fight.
While often romanticized today, what became known as the Christmas truce was a serious threat to the continuation of the War. If solders came to see they had more in common with each other that those who were directing them to fight, the grand illusion might break and there could be mutiny. This was not such a far fetched concern for Socialists and trade unionists had grown very strong in the years preceding the conflict and they were decisively antiwar. The stance of their leadership held little sway once the populace succumbed to their old nationalist habits and ethnic hatreds stirred up by propaganda. The great European wide labor strike once proposed in prewar times for November 1914 would never take place. The working class of Europe were now busy killing one another instead of fighting for a better life. As the romance of war began fading for the soldiers serving in the trenches, the situation became more precarious. In some places the truce went on for days, and some soldiers refused to continue fighting. Soldiers have long come to respect their opponents, but most will continue to carry out what they see to be their sworn duty. Problems however can begin to arise with this situation when soldiers, especially conscripts, loose faith in their cause.
As news of the Christmas truce reached London, stories of it began to appear in the press and were then illustrated on postcards. The news of it became too widespread too fast for officials to completely eradicate, but they did insure that this symbol of solidarity would never be repeated. On every subsequent Christmas the British General Staff ordered up heavy artillery bombardments to turn no-mans-land into a killing zone. Peace on earth had become a subversive concept; another unauthorized truce would not be tolerated. The truce however had already passed into legend and could not be easily forgotten. Its powerful presence however has long obscured the true nature of Christmas in the trenches during the Great War. While there would be no more fraternization in coming years, soldiers did not give up on this well established holiday. The countless Christmas postcards that were produce can give us an alternative glimpse into this hidden reality.
While Christmas was probably celebrated much the same way on both sides of the battlefront, its representation on postcards is highly different. Great Britain had been the birthplace of the Christmas card industry in the mid-19th century, but they never came to represent religious or winter themes in noticeable numbers, possibly due to their strong anti-papist sentiments. In earlier centuries the Puritans had actually outlawed the recognition of Christmas outside of engaging in simple prayer. On early British Christmas cards we find overly sentimental motifs that often emphasize family or encourage thoughts of the oncoming spring. This tradition was carried into the production of holiday postcards, and can be seen on military cards from the Great War as well. While there are many written references to Christmas to be found, there is rarely any Christmas related imagery connected to them. The most common theme to be found is humor, which was generally a very popular subject on British made cards.
The publishers of many nations had always produced regimental cards that honored a specific unit through allegory or by highlighting a battle they distinguished themselves in. This tradition was carried over into the production of fieldpost cards that were printed specifically for use by soldiers serving in the field and usually distributed through the field post office. Though often generic, many of these were produced for specific regiments. While these were not meant to directly honor them, they allowed their members to stand out in a vast sea of anonymous soldiers. Such cards proliferate in the German army, but the card above is highly unusual in that it was bot only made for a British regiment, it also relates to the Christmas holiday. Like most British cards it lacks religious associations, but it does connect the plight of the men directly with the snowy winter conditions they are serving in.
Many Holiday cards were provided for British and American troops for free soldiers mail. While most of these reflect on soldiers missing home, some have very strong religious themes. They do however tend to depict troops on the home front and not out in the trenches or in other combat related situations. The card above from the Home Words series of 1916 is somewhat of an exception. Here we are confronted with warships on duty protected by God’s angels in the form of a rainbow.
British soldiers also used silk cards, though these were made in France. They were usually hand sewn in long strips either by woman at home or by refugees in camps, and then sold to a publisher who would cut and mount them between heavy weight paper with a preprinted postcard back. They were specifically oriented toward the British soldier, and later Americans, who had more money in their pockets for such luxuries than their French equivalents. These cards not only had English wording with British or Dominion flags, they also followed the British tradition of depicting flowers over religious themes when made for Christmas. The most common exception was the inclusion of seasonal holly sprigs, whose symbolism could be read in different ways.
As a whole, the Allies did not seem to publish many Christmas cards, at least in relation to the vast numbers made in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Christmas was not just an important holiday within these Empires, there were many visual symbols attached to them. The vast amount of military Weihnachtsgrusse cards they produced however are rather plain in their design; often providing little more than a clipping of an evergreen tied with a ribbon in the national colors. There are of course many variations. Sometimes the German Oak replaces the evergreen, and flags, bells, and little vignetted landscapes are introduced, but overall these cards a kept very simple.
While the vast majority of Christmas postcards are rather bland, there are also a great many that were made with such artistry to make an exploration this topic worthwhile. These cards tend to fall into a few major themes. The most common show soldiers in snowy settings carefully posed around a Christmas tree. Evergreens have had a long association with everlasting life since ancient times. Unable to stamp out this pagan connection, the Christian Church incorporated it into its own symbolism so that by the 19th century the custom of dressing Christmas trees had spread across most of Europe. The power of the evergreen grew to have particular meaning in parts of northern Europe where its bows sometimes even substituted for the traditional tropical palm leaves used by the Church. Troops from Germany and Austria-Hungry seemed to have a particular passion for acquiring anything that could pass for a Christmas tree at this time of year.
Sometimes depictions of these gatherings around a tree are very informal. The men out on cavalry patrols or in advanced positions are often shown observing the holiday with makeshift trees out in the middle of nowhere. While it is unlikely that troops on such duty would actually give up their position by lighting a tree with candles, the representation was meant to show those back home that all soldiers, no matter where they are can take part in this communal holiday.
Despite that the duties of the navy take place out at sea, this did not diminish cravings by sailors for the Christmas trees they were familiar with back home of from childhood. While most trees acquired while in port were placed in common areas below deck, some very large evergreens often were placed right on deck and illuminated. Such trees might not withstand the rigors of the sea, but many German ships spent long periods docked in their homeport so such sights around the holidays were not that unusual. These types of postcards however are not so easy to find as most publishers concentrated on holiday cards oriented to the larger numbers of men serving in the army.
There are many variations on the Christmas tree theme, all expressing a slightly different sentiment. Many of these scenes take place in realistically portrayed claustrophobic trenches or bunkers where groups of men not only celebrate the holiday but their comradeship as well. In the card above by Dr. Trenkler from 1915, German soldiers are closely huddled around a lit tree as if it were a campfire to create the same sense of intimacy as if it were a family gathering. It is meant to remind the viewer that a soldiers comrades at arms is also his family. In the background one lone sentry stands apart keeping watch to remind us that this peaceful scene of Christmas cheer is taking place in a war zone.
On this anonymous Italian holiday card from 1917 we see a similar group of soldiers huddled together in their trench during a snow storm. There is no captioned greeting or even a tree, but the decorative border of holly combined with good spirits gives the card’s purpose away. While the man in the center wears the uniform of an Italian Alpine soldier, his comrades represent the soldiers of other nations, making this a propaganda card for unity as well.
One of the most tedious yet essential jobs of a soldier is sentry duty. While such a simple and undramatic task might seem hardly worth mentioning, it is a major theme of military cards and found very often in conjunction with holiday cards. Even in a scene where solders are happily relaxing around a Christmas tree with plenty of presents and food, this observance can only take place if one of them, who would obviously prefer to celebrate, takes on the uncomfortable and dangerous duty of standing vigilant. The purpose of illustrating this scenario is to mirror the role of the entire German army in protecting those back home while also serving as a reminder that all Germans are expected do their duty for the nation is counting on them.
On this photo-based monochrome card published by Hans Tohmfor in Berlin we see that while guards play an essential role in keeping Germany safe, the holiday season has not forsaken them. The back of the card reads, even the sentinel on this lonely stretch has an adorned Tannenbaum all for himself on Christmas.
The unusual greeting card above from our brave troops in enemy territory does not let us forget that the Christmas scene is taking place on a battlefield, but its matter of factness makes it more comical than horrifying. While half the troops in the trench are fighting off an attack, the remainder are sitting around their tree eating recently delivered gifts of food, and amusing themselves by playing cards and music as if it were any other holiday back home. It may be war but life goes on.
Some of these scenes on military Christmas postcards are quite festive as on the one above published by Shaar & Dathe in 1915. It vividly shows soldiers singing and playing music as well as feasting on much welcome gifts from home. These types of cards are meant to show loved ones that Christmas at the battlefront was little different from those celebrated back home, and that their families should not worry about them.
While suspicions might grow at the frequency of such celebrations depicted on holiday cards, the existence of many real photo postcards displaying Christmas festivities shows that this is not a fiction. While the men are usually posed more respectfully in photographs, a Christmas tree is usually prominent to show those back home the holiday is being properly recognized and they are for want. What is also interesting about the card above is the large collection of Christmas postcards put out on display.
The great number of men fighting instead of farming, the consignment of nitrates to explosives rather than fertilizer, combined with embargoes led to food shortages all over Europe during the Great War. Most food was set aside for soldiers in the field for they required a high calorie intake to perform their duties. Even so their diet was usually less than it should have been, and the arrival of any sort of parcel containing foodstuffs any time of year was a genuine cause to celebrate. Soldiers laden with foodstuffs from home arriving at the front became a popular holiday card theme as all could relate to hunger. Often these soldiers can also be seen carrying small evergreens as it was not just the stomach that needed to be satiated.
On another holiday card we find a Mercy Dog, usually employed to carry essential first aid to wounded soldiers on the battlefield, now carrying presents and a small Christmas tree to troops in the front line trenches. It is a very clever variation of a traditional theme adopted to newfound circumstances. Its light mood is enhanced further by the incorporation of an elaborate decorative border.
In this German card from 1917 Christmas gifts fall from the sky but not from Santa or even a flying sleigh but from a military biplane. The markings on the aircraft reads Brunswick, a place name in reference to the regiment that the card was designed for. It was not uncommon on early greeting cards to find automobiles or airplanes substituted for more traditional means of transport. This breaking of expected norms in the face of modernity was considered quite playful.
While the military spent much effort into delivering food parcels from home, the tradition of receiving gifts from Santa Clause is alive and well on military cards. Often the usual storyline is enhance by the new conditions that a battlefield creates. In a fine set of light hearted cards published by Gerhatd Stalling in 1917, Santa is depicted facing various obstacles such as getting lost and being confronted by a vigilant sentry before eventually surprising soldiers in the midst of holiday celebration.
There are also similar cards depicting traditional gift giving themes but in a more bittersweet manner. In this Austrian Red Cross card from 1916 we find Santa or a young lookalike bearing gifts separated from the town below by a string of barbed wire. The inability to perform traditional tasks must have struck a chord with all living through a wartime holiday, whether it was at the front lines or the home front.
Both Austrian and German publishers had a long tradition of portraying Krampus on their holiday cards. Krampus was a mythical figure who acted as a foil to St. Nick; they often traveled together, but while one brought presents, Krampus punished the naughty by whipping them and carrying off children in his basket. This scenario was updated to fit into a military theme during the war years. While the figure in the card above does not have all the trappings normally attached to Krampus, the association is still obvious. Here however he represents Germany punishing the French for rising up in arms. It is very similar to other cards where French soldiers flee in the face of an approaching giant German.
The unusual Austrian Christmas fieldpost card above was published by Bruder Kohn in 1915. In it foodstuffs are strung out on barbed wire in front of a trench as holiday decorations. It seems a playful gesture at first until one looks in closer. In the background is a sniper aiming his rifle directly at the viewer, while in the foreground a cap forebodingly lays empty in the snow. Is this fanciful display being used to entice enemy soldiers to their deaths?
In another Austrian Christmas and New Years card from M. Shultz in Prague dated 1914, we are also presented with a morbidly playful holiday image. Its focus is a colorful Evergreen decorated with dolls. Most of these figures represent Allied solders, and they are not just hanging from the tree, they are hanging by their necks. A monkey and ape are added into the mix to degrade the Allies further through association.
The French card above, posted in 1917, is one of a series depicting various Allied soldiers in different national uniforms at Christmastime. Their highly stylized drawing leaves some ambiguity as to whether these are men or children. Though they are accompanied by toy soldiers and are in somewhat playful poses, there is a mean spirit about them that is not so obvious at first glance. Here a British soldier happily marches forward with two German dolls skewed on his bayonet.
While the venom and hatred spewed in many military cards from the Great War was not always diluted for those issued for the Christmas holiday, there were cards that presented a more natural message of loving and caring suited to the season. To counter images of the barbarous German that began to appear in conjunction with the rape of Belgium, publishers from the Central Powers created the good German who could be seen befriending and helping out civilians in the lands they occupied. This theme also carried over onto holiday cards. On this Red Cross card we see an Austrian soldier sledding with a little girl. While the warm emotions displayed are normally the type reserved for ones own family, the rifle the soldier carries indicates he is near the front taking time to play with a foreign child.
Many troops at the front were wanting for all sorts of everyday items, and while the extent of their plight was not well publicized, their needs were not hidden. A number of charity cards were produced to enhance the life of soldiers fighting in the field, and at Christmas time the German Red Cross published charity cards to help ensure gifts would reach them.
In many places the shortage of food began to bring on starvation during the War. Prisoners of War, never well taken care of to begin with despite agreed upon conventions, fared even worse under these conditions. Fed only when convenient, many met their deaths through hunger. Charities were set up to help alleviate this situation with promises that food relief destined for POWs would not be diverted. The Red Cross charity card above produced by E. Nister in 1915 makes such an appeal. While it makes no direct reference to Christmas, the snowy landscape combined with helping those in need makes the connection implicit.
There were also unusual cards published during the War whose connection to Christmas are obvious but whose meanings are sometimes obscure. The card above from 1917 seems to have been based on a frontline sketch depicting soldiers caring for horses in a stable. The manger is prominently placed in the foreground while the Christmas tree can just be made out in the back through the nervous line work. Is this card only making a subtle reference to the Christmas holiday, or is there an implied connection to where Jesus was born? A number of cards depict stables as the setting for holiday observances. Are they all referring to the manger of baby Jesus or are their numbers in line with more ordinary cards depicting cavalry units?
Other publishers such as Anton Renn in Prague presented images on his holiday cards that were drawn in a style to imply a frontline sketch. The printed card from 1914 above is made to look like it was drawn in pencil. The scene is not only intimate, but the simple almost primitive rendition creates its own sense of intimacy by connecting us to the soldier who supposedly drew it.
Not all German holiday cards deal with Christmas trees, nor are they all serious. In the fieldpost card above, a well equipped snowman replaces a German sentry on duty. Perhaps the real soldier has retired to celebrate the holiday in the warmth of the nearby farmhouse; but we are not to worry, only a single bird seems to question the resolve of this guard.
You might think that soldiers at war didn’t really have time for such trivial pursuits as building snowmen, that it is just an artistic fantasy created to satisfy the expectations of those looking to buy holiday cards. This idea is easily disproven by the presence of real photo postcards, like the one above from the Balkans that show soldiers posing with their snowy mascot. Enacting familiar rituals whenever possible played an important role in keeping up morale at the front. While cards are only anecdotal evidence of how soldiers behaved, they at least provide us with some information from which inferences can be drawn.
While many publishers tried to keep their holiday cards upbeat, there was no escaping the growing numbers of dead, wounded, and missing. There was a great need to help people contend with these situations and related anxieties. On the German card above we see a posed scene of a wounded but recuperating soldier in the loving care of a nurse. The Christmas tree and presents that surround him serve to unite him with his traditions and family. Though the composition is highly contrived, such images gave comfort to families who could believe that even if their loved one was injured, he was ensured great care, which was often far from reality.
A common variation on the theme of the wounded soldier depicts an entire hospital ward with their Christmas tree. In the card above published by Wetzel & Naumann in 1914, a very festive occasion is portrayed. Not even serious wounds can dampen the Christmas spirit here. Though obviously different in tone from the previous card, the message in inherently the same; if wounded your loved one will be taken care of and will still be able to have a happy holiday. Similar images can also be found on real photo postcards though the scenes they show tend to be far less festive.
A tremendous amount of solders fighting in the Great War were blown to pieces or churned into the mud without a trace. The inability to find out what happened to the missing, let alone retrieve their bodies led to much distress and pain among families back home. In the same manner that postcards depicting the good treatment of the wounded were made to alleviate worry, many postcards were produced to show how the dead were given a proper burial and how soldiers continued to pay respect to their fallen comrade afterwards. This of course was meant to comfort those back home, not reflect the anonymity of mass graves. Such themes were sometimes extended onto Christmas postcards as the one above from 1915.
In their rush to produce new images on familiar themes, a number of publishers issued cards whose meaning is not always easy to decipher. On this holiday by the Austrian publisher Habernal & Co. we are confronted with what appears to be the end of deadly hand to hand combat. A closer look reveilles that the fallen soldier is German while the man nest to him wears the uniform of an Austrian ally. Such pairings were numerous to show the unity in a common cause between the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires but in this context it seems strange even if they were trying to imply that both share the same family values as well. The Austrian clutches his chest; is he wounded, dying? The caption holds the popular refrain Silent Night, holy Night but the visual narrative remains unclear. The only thing certain is the vision of his family celebrating Christmas. While the theme of a dying soldier having a last vision of his family was also a common theme on cards, this morbidity is rarely combined with the Christmas holiday. Despite the unusual pairings on this card, it still was meant to give comfort by reinforcing the idea of strength through family ties.
In this German card from Martin Serpich, postmarked 1916, a Christmas celebration is hinted at but it cannot be confirmed. Its focus is on the solitary soldier, made ever more lonely by the bleak winter landscape. A family homecoming appears in the sky, as much a desperate vision as a dream. Such cards are unusual for their subtlety but the message is very common.
Visions of family by the soldier at the front is a widespread theme of military cards from many nations. It can be presented in different contexts from the last thoughts of the dying to simply the wishes of a sentry out on a lonely watch. It is only natural for the theme to be presented in conjunction with Christmas postcards as it is a family oriented holiday. On the German card above from 1916 a group of soldiers stare at the lit tree in their bunker and a vision of family appears behind it. It is not a single vision seen by the entire group but a shared wish and memory. The evergreen may symbolize eternal life, but here it represents family because of the memories attached to its ritualistic use. This image was reproduced on a fieldpost card, one of many published specifically for use by the Second Army.
Though German troops often wished to make use of evergreens around Christmas, they were not always available for a variety of reasons. Sometimes these trees arrived unexpectedly at the hands of angels, at least according to postcards. At other times such divine arrivals are little more than a dream. In either case it represents a longing, not just for a tree but for family. Even if its earthly appearance is not real, the card says the well wishes for home are.
There were also many cards produced depicting the Christmas holiday from the home front perspective. While a few of these are lively, especially when they depict soldiers returning home; many more of them were subdued and intimate in tone. In the card above, a family gathers around a Christmas display, an infant in a cradle mirroring the nativity scene on the mantle, but there is an implied absence. While the scene takes place far from battle, it is just as much about the soldier in the field whose fate may be unknown but whose well being and return is anxiously prayed for.
Postcards with direct references to religious subjects were printed in number during the Great War, but they seldom seem to be associated with Christmas. The unusual German card above from 1915 is a hybrid of religious and military motifs. In it St. Michael, leader of God’s army against evil, is represented as both knight and angel symbolizing the strength of the German army as well as the divine power behind it. On his belt reads the words “God is with us.” Standing with sword and lance in hand he protects a family from the dragon behind him. The family is a strange hybrid in itself; one member is reminiscent of Mary cradling the baby Jesus while another appears as a contemporary soldier. In return for his protection St. Michaelis presented with a Christmas tree as a reward. Are the trees presented to German soldiers in the field their reward for defending their families back home from the monstrous intentions of the Allies?
An outstanding holiday card with an implied religious theme was published by Georg D.W. Callway. Here in a snowy nighttime landscape the Christ child is held safely in the arms of a German knight. It symbolizes how the German army is the protector of all families as well as their values and their faith. The medieval knight often becomes the archetype of the warrior on German cards, and was often used to symbolize the German army as a whole.
In this fieldpost card published in 1917, a well quipped soldier stands in a snowy warn torn battlefield reading a letter. While there is no guarantee to meaning here, it seems that the two little angels reminiscent of small children at his feet are representations of the contents of this letter from home. One presents him with a wreath and a card as a thank you for his service. The other angel hugs his long winter coat thankful for his protection. With his family behind him, his gas mask isn’t his only good defense.
In this Austrian card from 1916 produced by Hermes, we see a group of solders in their tight quarters; a small Christmas tree nearby. A letter is read, probably from home, and they all partake in the familiar memories. The candles on the tree fill the small room with a warm cast; its glow reflecting the warmth in their hearts as they connect to the words in the letter. Though it no longer conveys the celebratory mood found on earlier cards, its quiet tone remains joyful.
In the German fieldpost card above made for the Forth Army, we are presented with a very similar image to that on the preceding card; two soldiers sit around a lit tree in their quarters as one of them reads a letter from home. Here however the mood is even more subdued; there is no warm glow but a view out into an icy landscape. Even the rooms occupants seem not to relate despite their close quarters; alone together in quiet contemplation. Perhaps an excessively joyful spirit seemed out of place amidst the mounting casualties and growing hardships back home. Christmas postcards had to at least reflect some continued aspects of normalcy while the mood in Germany grew darker and sparks of unrest began to fly.
While it is said that there are no atheists in trenches, just as many men probably lost their faith in God as found it during the Great War. Scenes in the trenches eventually became studies in loneliness. Often what kept men going under these conditions were the memories of loved ones, which Christmas traditions helped provided. While German and Austrian publishers often had greater latitude in the types of subjects they could represent when compared to the Allies, they still could not depict despair. More truthful representations of declining support for the War would not only be detrimental to sales, it would most likely bring down the wrath of the authorities. Even so cards like the one from Ottmar Zieher above carry some melancholy.
A British Christmas card from 1916 offers much the same spirit as the German card above it. It typically lacks the traditional seasonal trappings of English cards, focusing instead of the battles fought by the 7th Division who issued the card. The soldier however does not dream of the heroic campaigns he took part in but of being reunited with his family back home. While it reinforces the ideas of sacrifice and duty, it also carries a melancholy spirit.
After years of fighting with nothing to show for it except mountains of dead, soldiers lost faith in their generals and statesmen abilities to bring the War to a close. There was overall resignation to the idea that there would be no victory, that they would just fight on until all were dead. As many in the trenches looked toward divine intervention as the only hope to end their ordeal, the allegories of victory leading men to victory on the battlefield that were so plentiful on postcards early in the war gave way to angels of peace. On the German Red Cross card above published late in the War, two soldiers partaking in the holiday are surprised by an angel baring the ultimate gift.
It is often difficult to read intent into the cards of publishers from the belligerent nations as voices of descent were not well tolerated, and those calling fore peace were not allowed. Charity cards, like those coming from the Red Cross sometimes got a way with mixed messages as long as they did not equate peace with defeatism. Neutral countries usually lacked such constraints and calls for peace are found much earlier in the War. On this Swiss card entitled The Last Bomb, an angel of peace suddenly appears in the midst of a winter battle as the year turns, palm branch in hand to put an end to the carnage.
While a full scale analysis of the Great War’s last campaigns and what ended this conflict is not warranted here, I feel it safe to say that the end grew out of exhaustion. It was not just a matter of resources; by November of 1918 soldiers all over Europe had shown they were tired of fighting. Many units in France had already mutinied and stopped obeying orders. Many more in Russia simply went home. While there was heavy fighting on the Western Front until the last minutes of the War, the final campaigns were often little more than the Germans walking away and the Allies following. The final suicidal attack to be made by the German High Seas Fleet never took place. The mutiny that ensued instead led to the downfall of the Kaiser and the German Empire.
Many today downplay the significance of the Christmas truce as an aberration that had no real effect on the War. While the incident has definitely been unnecessarily romanticized, objections to taking a serious look at it seem to stem more from fear of its implications that national policy can be controlled from the bottom up. The truce may have had no immediate affect on the conflict, but it was still a serious symptom of wider unrest that eventually grew to undermine the entire struggle. What is that other familiar saying, “What if they thew a war and nobody came?”
The Consequences of the Riff War
Recently I purchased a card illustrated by the Moroccan artist Paul Neri, and published by Marcelin Flandrin (Photo Flandrin), one of the the largest postcard publishers from North Africa, and an important aerial photographer. The scene was quite colorful and animated, and deciphering its meaning proved quite illuminating.
The postcard shows two elderly Jewish men standing in a trench and involved in animated conversation. Around them is a war scene, replete with a guard house, native riflemen, canon, barbed wire, and an armored vehicle. At the top of the card the translated French caption reads: The Consequences of the Riff War. Below the illustration is the caption: Casablanca in state of siege, and in broken French: “Ah! Jacob if Abd-el-Krim arrives, our business is screwed.”
The Jewish figures are war profiteers, worried lest the rebel leader el-Krim drive the French from their stronghold in Casablanca. The consequences would be dire: the war would be over with no more opportunity to milk it for what it is worth. The implication is that the Jews have no allegiance to France or Spain, the occupying powers, or to Morocco itself - only to their own selfish monetary gains. The card might rightfully be cataloged more as an expression of French anti-semitism of the 1920’s (Jews as war profiteers in the First World War, a view shared by both the German and French Right), than reflective of native Moroccan views.
CONTEXT FOR THE CARD
The Riff War:
Colonial or native troops have long been used by the European powers not only in their conquest of the African continent but in wars as far reaching as the Crimean War and World War I. In the Riff wars, Spain employed native Moroccans as well as a unit called the Regiment of Foreigners. The French deployed Metropolitan forces (coming from France itself) as well as North African, Senegalese, and Foreign Legion troops. So it is not surprising to see a battle scene on a Riff War postcard where the majority if not all of its fighters are of African origin.
Paul Neri was a Moroccan illustrator who depicted life in his country mostly through political satire. He produced many postcards with cartoon-like characters, featuring peddlers, beggars, soldiers, brothels, battle scenes and Jews. His Jewish types are usually spindly figures with hooked noses and large lips. His black African soldiers are shown in the standard red hat, or ché;chia, and always with enormously exaggerated red lips. This is the only pre-modern North African anti-Semitic postcard I know of that associates Maghreb Jews with war profiteering.
The Hoboken Fire of 1900
June 30, 1900, fell on a Saturday, which meant that it was only a half day of work for those laboring on the docks along New York’s West Street. Before heading home, many took advantage of the beautiful sunny afternoon and cooled off in the steady breeze coming off the Hudson. Hundreds of commercial ships plied these waters back then but the view must have been as serene as it is today. Suddenly their ranks began to swell into the thousands with everyone’s gaze acutely focused on a single point across the river. A great dark ashy plume of smoke was bellowing high from the New Jersey shoreline. As the plume drifted across Manhattan it blotted out the sun, arousing the curiosity of many more who rushed to the river. Those familiar with the waterfront quickly determined the source, the North German Lloyd piers in Hoboken were ablaze.
The Hoboken waterfront was dominated by seven large covered piers sitting just above the ferry terminal that carried passengers to Manhattan. The southern most three were owned by the Hamberg Amerika Line, and the northern most by the Scandinavian American Line. Sandwiched in between were the three piers of North German Lloyd (Norddeutscher Lloyd). This German steamship line had been running regular service between Bremen, Germany and Hoboken since 1869. Its business had steadily grown, and in 1897 they commissioned what would be their flagship, the SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, the largest and fastest ship in the world. This was only the first in a series of four funneled superliners, that would enhance their line To the public their size equaled safety, and they quickly became the most popular. By 1900 North German Lloyd had surpassed the British steamship lines and were dominating transatlantic travel.
Passenger liners of the day, even the most exclusive ones also transported cargo. Wooden barrels and crates, small enough for a few men to handle were the preferred packing method of the day and the North German Lloyd docks were crowded with them. They contained all sorts of goods and were placed wherever space for them could be found regardless of content. The wooden structure overhead was of light construction, open and airy, in other words the perfect tinderbox. No one can say how it started, only that a watchman first spotted the fire just before 4:00 p.m in a small mountain of cotton bales piled high on Pier #3. A fire here would be hard to contain under any circumstances, but when it reached the barrels of oil and turpentine piled next to it they began to explode spreading the fire at an alarming rate. The strong cool breeze off the water that was so refreshing just a moment ago now fanned the flames. Before anyone knew what to do it seemed that the fire had spread throughout the entire terminal at incredible speed.
The fire had become hot and intense so quickly that there was no time to get steam up in the cooled down boilers of the liners that were docked there. Unable to get underway and avoid the inferno, their crews gambled their salvation on the tide and nearby tugboats. Before the fire department could arrive, the SS Saale caught fire and she was set adrift into the river when flames cut through her moorings. While most of those on the docks had been able to run toward safety, those who were aboard the four liners soon found themselves trapped. Nearly all the passengers had already been offloaded, but Saturdays were a favorite time for visitors to come by and tour the ships. Now many of these visitors along with crew members were trapped below deck on the Saale as fire raged on above. The tugboats Grasselli, M. Moran, and DiWitt C. Ivins finally caught up to her as the tide pulled her dangerously close to the Manhattan docks. Her Captain, August Johann Mirow had burned alive, refusing to leave before all his crew was safe. Everyone who could had already jumped overboard, and there was little anyone could do for those below deck except pour water onto the ship. Witnesses recalled the horrific sight of faces framed in every porthole gasping for air. These small openings only provided momentary relief as they were too small for a person to fit through. Would-be rescuers could only watch as victims perished in the smoke and flames. She was then towed back to mid-channel, and then down to the Communipaw marshes behind Ellis Island. As the ship settled down into the mud those left alive below deck drowned.
Although the SS Bremen sat in the next slip, this distance proved to be of little protection against the huge flames that were being propelled by strong winds. Before the Saale drifted away, flames from her decks had jumped this great distance setting the Bremen ablaze. When the fire cut the Bremen’s moorings she too drifted away in flames. The steamships slips were also filled with barges, lighters, and canal boats carrying cargo or coal to fuel the larger ships. They too were now all on fire and drifting toward the Manhattan shore with bits and pieces of flaming debris expelled from the collapsing pier sheds added into the hellish mix. New York’s fire department was already deployed at critical points along the waterfront in anticipation of disaster. Before it could be secured, the Bremen, now a complete inferno slammed into Pier#32 (some say Pier#31) at the foot of Desbussies Street. The Fire Department was ready and put out the flames before they barely had time to spread. Many on board this ship were lucky as the tug Nettie Tice was able to safely remove more than a hundred occupants from her deck. The Bremen was then pulled away by tugs that towed her northwards to the Weehawken flats where she was beached.
The heat that fire transferred to these iron and steel ships made them intolerable to all on board. Decks were littered with bodies who had succumbed to the heat, but many who tried to jump overboard from the great height of the ships deck ended up drowning. Tugboats quickly filled the river doing whatever they could to stem the disaster. There were many people in the water who they needed to rescue, but there were also fires that needed to be extinguished, and boats that desperately needed towing. In all the chaos one flaming lighter headed to New York was missed by lookouts until it drifted into Baltimore & Ohio’s Pier#22 and set it afire. New York’s two fireboats, the New Yorker and the VanWyck, were then dispatched to help get this situation under control.
The SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was docked right next to the Bremen. Its crew was frantically trying to cast off as flames licked her side. Tugboats arrived just as the flames began to spread and devour her but these craft were not strong enough to move a ship that was over six hundred feet long. By the time the more powerful tug Admiral Dewey arrived, the docks on both sides of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse were aflame. She managed to tow her out of the slip and into midstream where she anchored. The Liner was not out of danger yet for she was still burning and out of control flaming barges were floating her way. With the help of the Admiral Dewey these barges were kept at a safe distance and the flames extinguished. Amidst this chaos her captain kept the crew from panicking and got all the weekend tourists off safely. He then had tugboats tow the ship toward the Cunard docks on to the Manhattan side of the Hudson where she would be safe.
For a moment the SS Main, which was tied up in the last slip seemed to have been granted a reprieve. With one eye on the rapidly moving fire, the ship’s crew was frantically engaged in casting off its lines in the hope that the strong currents of the river would carry her away before the flames reached her. In the end these attempts proved futile. The fire caught up to her before she was fully released and forty-four crew members perished, many trapped below deck. Eventually the Main broke loose from the pier and the current took hold and dragged her out into the river. After being intercepted by tugboats she was also towed north to the Weehawken flats, where she was left to burn right next to the Bremen. Fifteen crew members miraculously survived and were later rescued from the smoldering hulk. They had managed to save themselves by taking refuge in one of the ship’s empty coal bunkers that protected them from the flames though they all suffered badly from the heat.
Back in Hoboken the fire department was still facing a situation that was nearly out of control. Part of the Hamberg Amerika Line terminal was demolished to prevent the fire from spreading there. The Scandanavian-American Line pier was not so lucky and burned. Store houses and railroad sheds also caught fire but all was contained before it spread into the town proper largely due to the quick response. All that was left of the North German Lloyd piers however were rows of blackened pilings stretching out into the Hudson. Ruins and hulks would smolder into the night, but for the most part this entire episode was over in only three quarters of an hour.
While it took awhile for the half submerged hulks of the three burnt out ships to be recovered from the flats, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was quickly cleaned and repainted to hide her ordeal. Only three days later she set sail for Germany as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. She seemed to be a ship of miraculous luck, but fate caught up to her during World War One. After being converted into an armed merchant cruiser she would be lost off the coast of Africa early in the Conflict at the Battle of Rio de Oro.
Though few of us today know anything of this disaster, it was widely publicized at the time in newspapers, magazines, and on postcards. With few public outlets for imagery, postcards played an important role in disseminating visual information. Postcard publishers however were not journalists, their purpose was to sell cards and if they documented an event then so much the better if it increased profit. The fire at Hoboken was witnessed by countless people on both shores of the Hudson who were all potential costumers for cards. For them postcards could function as a memento of this extraordinary experience, as well as provide proof of what they saw when they shared this story with friends.
Despite the incident’s brevity, the great number of photographers in the metropolitan area insured that it would be recorded. Most photographs however capture the scene after the fact and focus on the salvage efforts. While many photo based cards were produced they tend to suffer from the long distances between photographer and subject plus the wide scope that needed to be covered. Many illustrated cards were also made because they were better able to capture the unfolding drama. Unfortunately the American postcard industry was only in its infancy in 1900 and the private mailing cards that were produced were not all up to the higher standards usually found on later cards. Many of New York’s early publishers seized the moment and had printed cards of the Hoboken fire that were already up for sale that July all around the city. Sets were produced by Franz Huld, H.A. Rost, Arthur Livingston, and Arthur Strauss. There were also some oversized cards of this event published in Germany.
The disaster was commemorated in Hoboken on its first anniversary, which is also represented on cards. At the same time a granite monument was placed over the mass grave at Flower Hill Cemetery in North Bergen, New Jersey that holds the remains of all the unidentified that were recovered. Many victims were burnt beyond recognition so its bronze plaque lists the names of the missing. No one is sure how many died but it could be close to four hundred. There seems to have been a coverup at the time to minimize the reported loses to diminish the disaster, but this continues to be debated.
The burnt out piers at Hoboken were a tourist attraction for some time, but they were eventually replaced by new steel structures. The surrounding wooden piers that survived the blaze were never fireproofed despite the obvious danger to them and would also go up in flames in the years to come. The horror stories of those burnt alive below the deckÕs of these ships continued to fill the press until it had a positive effect. Despite complaints of an undue burden to ship owners, they were forced by law to enlarge porthole size on their ships in order to lessen any future tragedies.
Moltke’s New Patent
From what seemed just another ordinary French anti-German propaganda card from the First World War, I was able to discover several underlying new meanings. On the face of the card, mailed in 1914, a French colonial soldier is sticking his bayonet into the derrriere of a German soldier, who is throwing up his arms in pain. The translated French caption above the illustration reads “War 1914” and the one below reads “Sheaths for French bayonets patented by Moltke.”
The notion of a German soldier’s derriere being treated as a sheath for a bayonet implies an act of sodomy (penetration) on the part of the French soldier. Feminizing the enemy Other is rather standard in war propaganda, and illustrations of the enemy being sodomized are also not uncommon - a more recent example being cartoons and quips punning on the name Saddam (Sodom) Hussein. But first, letÕs discuss Moltke. Who is he and why is he designated the person who patented this new use of enemy derrieres for sheaths?
Lieutenant General Kuno Augustus Friedrich Karl Detlev Graf von Moltke (1847Š1923), was a military commander and adjutant to Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1907, he became involved in a scandal in which close members of the Kaiser’s entourage were said to be engaging in homosexual acts and threatening the security of the State due to their vulnerability to blackmail. The affair which lasted through 1909 was heavily publicized and was the equivalent in Germany of the Oscar Wilde affair in England. Homosexuality was for the first time openly discussed as charges and counter-charges of libel, blackmail and depravity emerged. Reputations were ruined, high ranking officials forced to resign and prison sentences handed out, in the end chiefly to Maximilian Harden, a well-known journalist who had first brought forth the charges (Harden himself had earlier in 1902 threatened to blackmail Philipp, Prince of Eulenberg-Hertefeld, another of the accused homosexual players, if he did not give up his ambassadorship in Vienna). One lasting effect of this scandal was the association of homosexuality with Germans in the coming years, especially by the French and English. (Homosexuals seeking liaisons in public toilets in France, for example, would often ask as code, Parlez-vous allemand? (Do you speak German?) This connection then explains the reference to Moltke by the postcard’s illustrator, and is one of the earliest and relatively rare allusions to homosexuality in the early postcard era.
Another interesting aspect of the postcard relates to the use of a colonial soldier to evoke sodomy. Annabelle Melzer in her article Spectacles and Sexualities: The Mise-en-Scene of the “Tirailleur Senegalais” on the Western Front, 1914-1920, points out how images of the sodomization of German enemy soldiers is commonly found, be it by a bullet, a bottle cork or a trumpet, but it is never by a French white soldier. Here, the colonial soldier is used to substitute for the white man’s fantasy, reflecting fears not only of homosexuality, but of the dark-skinned Other as an undisciplined savage, ready to engage in abnormal forms of sex. Whereas I find Melzer’s arguments a bit forced, I do think the racial-sexual element found in the depiction needs to be acknowledged at some level.