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Belligerents and Participants
As a gateway to the Rhineland, control of Luxembourg had long been a contentious issue between France and Prussia since the end of the Napoleonic wars. The potential for conflict was only settled in 1867 by the second Treaty of London that left the duchy in the German Customs Union (Zoliverein) but removed the Prussian garrison. With neither party securing territorial gain, Luxembourg’s neutrality could be reaffirmed. After Germany seized the province of Alsace from France in the Franco-Prussian War, German railroads were expanded through Luxembourg. This simple fate of geography would prevented it from sitting out of the Great War.
Once Germany decided that its main offensive against France would be launched through Belgium, it could only properly supply its armies by using the railways running through Luxembourg. Prime Minister Paul Eyschen opposed any German incursion but he knew he had no means to stop one. By reaffirming Luxembourg’s neutrality, he was at least able to secure the duchy’s independence and largely continue to run its own affairs. Germany was granted permission under protest to cross its borders on August 2, 1914, the day before war was declared on France.
General Joffre, commander-in-chief of the French Army suspected that an attack from Germany would mainly come through Luxembourg, but he thought they would head for Alsace and he had already positioned French troops their to meet them. Before the month was over, the French Army of Alsace would advance toward Luxembourg but they were turned back by a German counterattack before they ever reached the border. There would be no fighting near Luxembourg for the remainder of the War.
Even though the closest the Allies came to invading Luxembourg was the failed offensive into Alsace in 1914, it remained a tempting target throughout the War. As the major transportation hub on the Western Front, nearly all supplies and reinforcements for the German army passed through this small duchy. Occasionally French bombers got through and like most air raids their bombs were dropped somewhat haphazardly. While the Germans must have kept strict control over the recording of military damage, local photographers were allowed to capture the destruction brought to civilians by errant bombs. Although these types of real photo cards must have been curiosities, they also served propaganda purposes by showing the French also caused damage to innocent civilians.
At first Luxembourg just served as a transit area, but as the Western Front bogged down into years of trench warfare the Duchy was occupied by German troops to secure the safety of their army’s supply line. The duchy’s small army offered no resistance to German occupation, though many of its citizens left to volunteer in the French Foreign Legion. Administration of the dutchy was left intact, though German authorities would exert growing influence over affairs as the War progressed, especially in regards to rationing and censorship. While theoretically free to exert their own foreign policy, the German occupiers could not be removed or crossed. Prime Minister Eyschen died in October 1915, which touched off a crisis in leadership. The Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide tried putting a new government together by only appointing Conservative ministers, but this overstep of the constitution outraged the Socialists and no government that followed could hold. It was in Germany’s interest to let disarray continue as long as it did not interfere with the transit of men and supplies. Many in the general staff assumed that Luxembourg would become a provence of Germany at the War’s end.
With the German army collapsing in the fall of 1918, occupation forces in Luxembourg began to evacuate on November 6th. Four days later the Socialists seize power, declaring Luxembourg a Republic but it died nearly as fast as it arrived. When American troops under General Pershing entered Luxembourg on the November 18th, the political situation remained unstable. In early January 1919 French troops were called in to put down a rebellion. Grand Duchess Marie-Adelaide, unpopular for her pro-German stance and autocratic ways, abdicated in favor of her sister Charlotte on January 12th, and then she entered exile in Italy. The occupation had caused allegiances to shift; the nominally pro German Luxembourg was now decidedly pro French. Belgium who had always considered Luxembourg a lost province would attempt to annex it during the Paris peace conference, but France fearful of losing its new found influence over this small duchy insisted that the Treaty of Versailles guarantied her independence. This position was backed by the United States from where President Wilson was pressing for a doctrine of political self-determination.
Most military postcards of Luxembourg only exist as real photos. They usually depict the Germans marching in, the Germans marching out, or the Americans marching in.
The military postcards produced by W. Capus during the early stages of the Great War were obviously French leaning as the one above depicting those who left Luxembourg to Join the French army. The French normally place volunteers from other nations into the French Foreign Legion, which raises some questions over the validity of the card. These types of cards displaying many men crowded together was more than a group portrait; they were a symbol of power that comes with unity. The greater purpose of this card was to present a pro-French message at the expense of the German The dates 1914/15 printed on the front of the card indicate it was produced during the War when they could only guess when it would end.
The largest postcard manufacturer in Luxembourg was P. Houstraas, having produced numerous collotype view-cards of the region since 1905. Many of their ordinary view-cards were used by German troops during the Great War for fieldpost. They also produced some military themed cards on photo paper early in the conflict, but their pro-French leanings became harder to express as the German occupiers tightened censorship rules over time. They managed to survive the War and expand their business afterwards.