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Belligerents and Participants
French publishers did not seem to issue many regimental cards, preferring to picture distinct unit types and classes of soldiers instead. While cards of types tend to be rather static, and common military cards overly patriotic, the regimental cards that do exist are a mixed bag. They may depict generic acts of heroism but can display everyday hardships as well.
About 600,000 colonials fought in the French army during the Great War. Most of these came from North and West Africa, with smaller amounts coming from Madagascar, Indochina, Equatorial Africa and Tahiti. They were basically divided into two branches, the Armeée d’Afrique, which included the Foreign Legion, the Bataillon Afrique, Algerian and Tunisian tirailleurs, and the all-White Zouaves. The other was the Armeée Coloniale, which included Vietnamese and Senegalese tirailleurs, though most West Africans were all grouped under the single term Senegalese. Westerners had an unfortunate habit of referring to all Muslims as Turks, which can cause confusion especially on cards where West Africans are fighting with actual Turks.
The first Zouaves to serve in the French Army were raised from the Zouaoua a Berber tribe from the Jurjura Mountains in 1831. The took on various forms over the years passing from being elite troops to more ordinary soldiers conscripted from French settlers in North Africa. They are noted for their distinctive uniforms based upon the native dress of the original tribesmen. This basically consisted of red bloomer like trousers, an embroidered blue jacket with vest and sash, which was topped off with a Berber style red fez. This uniform had an influence over the style for ordinary French infantry and cavalrymen who also wore red trousers and a blue tunic. While these conspicuous colors were not well suited to the modern battlefield, traditionalists held sway for some time. The massive casualties suffered by French troops early in the War led many to believe that the use of bright uniforms in battle might not be a wise choice. Their demise however may have more to do with the depletion of red dye since it was nearly all manufactured in Germany. Beginning in early 1915 the French Army began to be issued uniforms in a less visible horizon blue. This hue is a combination of white and blue threads of the French tricolor, without the German made red.
Paris had been a major center for the arts and printing before the Great War. Despite the milieu of modernist trends present in Paris at this time, little of it is evidenced on postcards that played to more traditional public taste. Many of the military illustrations created through drawing tended to be highly stylized or even cartoonish, especially with their bold hand coloring. This style had been popularized in France during the 19th century through Imagerie d’Epinal, the printshop of Charles Pellerin. Adherence to this style allowed many different publishers and artists to create cards that look alike, making it difficult today to determine their makers. The were often employed for simple instruction, which was very convenient for publishers because few expected illustrations in this style to be heavy with facts. Almost all these works hold some sort of positive patriotic narrative emphasizing bravery, endurance or victory. Just as many postcards carried anti-German messages.
While postcard publishers were not in the news business, the salability of many cards were directly related to current news stories. The time it took to print a postcard ate heavily into the timeframe it would remain popular so they rarely used time consuming artwork. Though the type of French paintings used for postcards tended to keep up the more academic traditions of the 19th century, the large historical paintings that were still in vogue could rarely be used. These paintings were still made and could be used when picturing events that had turned into myth, but most of these large more finely finished pieces only found their way onto postcards in postwar years. War artists working in France had less official status than in other Nations. After 1916 most were affiliated with the Mission des Beaux-Arts.
While the mail French soldiers received was not screened as carefully as might be expected, the imagery found on French postcards was curtailed by strict censorship. Reporters could not get to the front lines and were forbidden to talk to soldiers. Subject to the Espionage Act, they had to be fearful that publishing material not approved by the military could lead to their arrest and possible execution. Civilian censors were entrusted with dealing with political problems at home while the French Press Bureau that dispensed all news was directly controlled by the Ministry of War. All printed material sent through the mail was further scrutinized by the 300 provincial control commissions set up throughout France to enforce censorship. All postcards needed to have the censor’s approval number (vise) printed on it before it could be mailed. While this caused the majority of photo-based cards to be rather lackluster, the work created by artists at least allowed for much more drama to be displayed even if they were nothing more than generic narratives emphasizing bravery, endurance or victory. Even so relatively few French artist became involved in illustrating military postcards considering their numbers. Many of those that did contribute work, did so anonymously.
Propaganda on many French cards was oriented towards demonizing the enemy; whether this was by presenting him as a sub-human brute or just too human with theft in his heart. This played against postcards that reminded the French what they were fighting for. The spirit of the French Revolution was used to drum up support to defend France in Napoleonic times, and now appeals to defend the republic and its revolutionary values were used again. This was most often accomplished through allegory in the form of Marianne in her red Phrygian cap. She is a symbol of France, the Revolution, and liberty. Marianne is sometimes appears in reference to the Marseillaise, a song of the revolutionary movement, restored as the national anthem of France in 1879.
A number of photographers created hand colored photo-montages with military themes that expanded the look of the usual studio composition. Many of these cards display cartoonish battle scenes that are so fanciful that it is obvious that they were never meant to look real. While there roots seem to be in studio photography where elaborate backdrops may be used, it is difficult to know if the exaggerated abstracted space is borrowing from folk art or modernism. In any case their naive charm often makes up for their lack of reference, and shows that even the harshness of war doesn’t always stifle creativity.
Although collotype and lithography were widely employed to produce printed postcards in France, probably far more were created as hand tinted real photo postcards. They were usually simply composed studio shots often supplemented with photo-montage. Most were issued in narrative sets and fall within a few basic themes; farewells from loved ones, thinking of you, the brave soldier, the wounded comrade or the caring nurse, allies in arms, and victory leads the way. These types of cards were commonly used before the War as holiday cards, and this tradition continued only with military themes. French postcards are most typified by this type of production.
While the printing industry in France was large enough to compensate for the cessation of imports of cards from Germany, the War had also created a worldwide shortage of printing ink since Germany was where most of it was manufactured. This might generally explain the great abundance of hand colored cards from France at this time, though it must not be forgotten that this medium was popular both before and after the War.
Many of these tinted real photo cards emphasized the common soldier or Poilu (hairy one) as he was best known. The term dates back to the Napoleonic Era when citizen armies were created, and tends to emphasize the rural background, simple nature, and endurance of the typical soldier in the face of hardship. Some of these cards were also of a humorous nature. They poked fun at all aspects of army life from recruitment to life in the trenches. The most common seem to be oriented toward sexual encounters, especially with prostitutes. Brothels were legal in France though regulated.
(See Filles De Joie dated May 7, 2012, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on prostitution in France)
In the early months of the war, when stories of atrocities perpetrated by the advancing German army began to emerge, it wasn’t just reported as news but taken up as ammunition for propagandists. If few facts were actually known it did not mater, they would be made up to make the Germans look like a barbaric horde descending on civilization. These events that came to be known as the rape of Belgium were mostly captured on French cards since nearly all of Belgium was soon occupied by the Germans. While most of these tragic events only took place over a few months in 1914, the French would capitalize on it and turn it into and endless stream of atrocities that they exploited throughout the war. The Press service of the Ministry of War eventually banned postcards that exaggerated enemy behavior in order to demean them, but this rule was rarely enforced. The stories of pillage and murder that first appeared in Belgium would be seamlessly transferred to France as the frontline moved forward.
While most nations portrayed their enemies in a bad light, France produced the greatest number of anti-German cards with the most vitriol. They didn’t just expose and ridicule unacceptable behavior; they planted the problem directly on being German thus creating a myth about barbaric German Kultur. Through the use of allegory, artists could not just raise emotions higher, they were no longer limited to depicting crimes that were humanly possible. This was no longer a war over politics or territorial ambitions; it had become a crusade against evil. This not only continued to inflame the public, it made it impossible to find any grounds to negotiate peace.
The destruction of villages, towns, and cities was massive during the Great War, largely due to the greater presence of artillery that had far more destructive power than in previous wars. People were not used to seeing such images except after some great natural disaster. Now the scale was incomprehensible and made ever so real by the ability to mass produce photo-based images on postcards. While many cards do nothing more than represent the destruction of property, some cards add narratives to straighten their propaganda value. In this way they become personalized leave the viewer with no doubt that this was an inhuman tragedy caused by the Germans. While popular early in the war, the public appetite for images of destruction decreased as the War dragged on.
Postcards depicting destruction would make a resurgence in postwar years when the battlefields of France became a huge tourist attraction. These cards were often sold in booklet form (identifiable by a single serrated edge), which were supplemented by guides, tour companies, and souvenir shops. Many of these cards served an important social role as concrete mementos that could be held of a place from which a loved one never returned.
At the outbreak of the Great War, Paris was a leading art center. No matter what academy in the world an artist might have attended, it seems that they would inevitably spend some time in Paris furthering their studies. This was not only due to the city’s schools and museums, there was a great romantic attraction to the Bohemian lifestyle that developed there at the turn of the 20th century. The accumulation of so much diversified artistic talent led to great advancements in modern art for which Paris became well known. Despite this reputation, few modernist trends trickled down into the applied arts that provided illustrations for postcards. Even most military paintings that were reproduced were little different from those made a half century earlier. Publishers dependent on sales were slaves to popular styles that the public was already familiar with. If French authorities had no use for modern art they used the talents of these artists to design camouflage.
Jean Béraud had made his reputation as a renown painter of Parisian life during the Belle Époque. Though he did not shy away from high society, he tended to focus on everyday life capturing everything from busy boulevards to nightclubs. He even created a studio in a cab so that he might better observe modern street life. His compositions were somewhat academic, but they were infused with influence from the Impressionists. By World War One his output had been diminished for some time due to poor health, but his interest in modern themes caused him to document the conflict from portraits of leaders to the bombing of Paris. These images were placed on postcards by the Parisian publisher, Paul D. Rose & Bourjois.
Some French postcards depicting wartime destruction left no ambiguity to their meaning. A set printed by Art G. Bertrand in Paris depicts both attacks on cities and the damage left behind under the bold title Les Villes Martyres.
Fernand Besnier was a landscape painter who illustrated a number of battle scenes early in the war. These would be reproduced in color lithography in a style that imitated hand colored engraving. These popular prints were then reproduced again as hand colored lithographic postcards.
While many individual propaganda cards were produced referencing the provinces of Alsace and Loraine, a very interesting postcard set illustrated by Albert Bettannier captures the dilemma of its citizens being called upon to fight for Germany when their hearts are with France. These cards were issued with both French and English captions. After his home in Metz was ceded to the German Empire at the end of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Bettannier moved to Paris. He became a strong proponent of reacquiring these lost territories; a theme that began to show up in his paintings during the 1880’s.
Joseph Felix Boucher was a well known landscape painter capturing scenes from Holland to Venice. He became an official painter to the French Army during World War One, largely producing scenes of activities behind the lines. These range from interiors of officer clubs, aviators, portraits of leaders to the training of American soldiers. A number of these images were placed on postcards. After traveling to Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco in the postwar years he became an Orientalist painter.
The guide book and postcard publisher E. Brocherioux of Paris produced a number of military themed postcards during World War One. Most of these seem to be front line scenes by the artist, E. Ploix, printed in dutone.
Byrrh was a popular French apéritif that was extensively marketed since its introduction in 1866. They used the work of many well known artists in its advertising posters and postcards. During World War One they published many military themed cards with the Byrrh name boldly printed across the image. They mostly present generic scenes within popular themes. Many such postcards that carried advertising were given out for free.
Before Jacques Carlu became a well known Art Deco designer, he was a young artist illustrating posters and charity postcards during World War One. Most of these seem to have been produced by G. Bataille in Paris.
Just after the Great War ended, many local photographers turned to publishing souvenirs depicting local scenes involved in the struggle. One of these firms was Cotte from Chateau-Thierry who produced postcard books of various fought over sectors entitled French American Battle that captured heaps of abandoned German supplies as well as ruins. The images were captioned in both French and English to appeal to all the soldiers who fought there in 1918.
In 1914, the illustrator Jean Coulon produced a postcard set for S. Farges that publicized the Exposition Internaionale opening in Lyon that May. These cards featured the characters of the Guignol Theater that were so closely associated with the city. When war broke out only two months later, the exposition quickly fell into decline, but this also opened a new opportunity for both artist and publisher. Coulon agreed to provide Farges with illustrations featuring these puppets that would appear in print as well as on postcards. While a set of hand colored cards of the leading characters were produced, the most outstanding results were a 60 card set in black & white collotype covering theGreat War as events unfolded. The narrative is largely told through the exchange of letters between Guignol representing the idealized spirit of France at the battlefront, anding Gnafron represent the common concerns of the home front. These cards are unique in that they give voice to street in their criticisms of authority. They were written under the pseudonym Gérôme Coquandier.
See Guignol and the Great War in the Blog section for more information on this subject.
The Parisian publisher E. Deffrene borrowed from the 19th century tradition of producing pictorial novelties made from woven silk and applied it to his postcards. During the Great War the vast majority of these cards seem to depict churches going up in flames or famous people. Their color scheme was limited to black, grey, red, and silver threads. Other publishers produced similar work.
Photographer Ernest Le Deley was a major publisher of postcards. During World War One and the years following, he produced large sets of black & white cards that documented the conflict. They cover grand battles and smaller incidents from all theaters of war. Some of these are photo based while others reproduce artist drawn work that was largely made for the Illustrated London News. Both types of cards were usually printed with both French and English titles to appeal to the many British and American soldiers fighting in France.