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Themes of World War One:
Children and War  pt1


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Today we have tried to divorced children from all forms of violence, only accepting visual connections when they are presented as victims of abuse. While these efforts have not been very successful, as any toy and video game manufacturer can testify, there still has been a paradigm shift that makes many in Western society feel uncomfortable when seeing children with guns. If postcards are to be believed, no such attitudes existed during the Great War when children appeared on military cards in surprisingly large numbers. In fact both boys and girls were a favorite subject for propagandists, and they appear on countless postcards. These early cards were intertwined with references to war in a variety of ways, but almost all emotionally exploited children. While much of this propaganda was directly aimed at molding the perceptions of children, it was also used guilt adults into mobilizing for War. Even in this capacity they capture that era, but they can be so representative of social attitudes that are no longer very common that their meaning is often difficult to decipher. Although children contributed materially to the Great War, their greatest contribution was as a tool for propaganda.

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After the Napoleonic era, European wars of the 19th century were more sporadic and brief. This reprieve allowed romantic notions concerning the gentlemen’s way of warfare to become even more distant from reality. To become a military officer was a sign of prestige that spoke more of character, class, and upbringing than a desire to kill. Participation in combat was of course part of it, but this was only to expose the virtues of bravery and to gain honor; the actual spilling of blood was distantly abstract. If the public at large lived under a spell of naive innocence, then maybe the association of children to war could be viewed as nothing but playful, which many cards seem to suggest. Sometimes these attitudes are used to set Germany apart from the civilized world, labeling as an example of Prussian militarism; but they were common to all nations.

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There is always a danger of imposing our own desires on what others once felt. If one looks at a variety of documentation, it is soon discovered that few shielded their children from the horrors of the Great War. In many if not most cases it seems just the opposite that parents wanted their children imbued with all the rhetoric that came with nationalistic and patriotic desires. They were to learn who the enemy was and why he was hated. They were to learn the importance of duty to one’s country. Through this expression they would become strong men and good citizens, which is why parents often felt there was a positive side to war. These viewpoints can also be found directly expressed by children who felt they must do their part for the war effort. The ways that children were portrayed on postcards can often give the best clues as to adult feelings toward the War.

Colored Real photo Postcard

The most familiar use of children on postcards comes from the traditional genre of boys playing with toy soldiers. These images are meant to reinforce the proper interests that budding men should hold. Such depictions could be found in painting long before the Great War, and as such some were placed on postcards as art reproductions. The greatest use of this theme during the War seems to occur on the hand colored real photo cards that were produced in France. These were all studio shots, and often issued in sets to create a more patriotic narrative. While the contrivance of studio shots may suggest their message is less than honest, the war years saw a tremendous increase in war related toys, games, and children’s books.

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Although the production of military toys saw a great increase once the Great War began, they were already being produced in very large numbers by the latter 19th century. This can be seen as part of the general trend to provide ever increasing amounts of consumer goods to a growing middle class, but it also reflects growing concerns regarding the education of children. In places where warfare had been absent for some time, it became easier to reconcile military ideals with teaching proper behavior. While military toys were used to teach virtues and patriotism, these same actions were highly criticized when taking place in other countries. Yet when supplies of of these toys were cut off from Germany due to war, both Britain and France had to take up the slack because they were seen as being necessary to prepare children for the task that lie ahead of them. Parentís interest in providing military toys to their children dropped of dramatically towards the end of the War.

Real photo Postcard

Family life plays a major role on Christmas cards but children were not often singled out for special consideration. When they do appear on cards it is usually because the toys they receive can be used to reinforce propaganda themes. Proper gender roles are often encouraged by showing girls doting over their dolls while boys receive toy soldiers. They are miniature adults preparing for their grown up life. While dolls and toy soldiers seem outwardly different they are basically the same; they both provide children with access to the adult world through role playing. It is only the associated expectations that are really different. Children, never eager to follow rules did not always pay attention to adult distinctions, and many girls driven by the excitement of war played with military toys.

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While gender roles can be expressed easily enough through the toys children played with, additional symbolism can be employed to further the narrative and explain why these toys are appropriate. Just as Christmas carries down a traditional story from year to year over generations, it is sometimes tied to other myths to show that the nation’s military traditions are just as old and important. Germanic cults placed a strong emphasis on the non-Christian foundation of German society. Even though these connections appealed to many, they could not replace Christian associations with the turn of the year, and this is reflected on postcards.

Cutout Postcard

Paper cut outs, especially of dolls, was a popular 19th century novelty that expanded with the growth of the printing industry. The tradition was carried onto postcards where it was extended to cover toy soldiers for boys. Such cut out cards depicting solders of many nations as well as airplanes and ships began being produced in the United States by J. Alan Fletcher during World War One. It is always difficult to say if such products were an outgrowth of patriotic fervor or just a business opportunity. Production of traditional metal soldiers decreased during the war years as these resources were reallocated to the military, but war toys in general grew. Many were no longer generic but tied to the specific equipment being used in the conflict such as ambulances, canons, and tanks. In many cases this provided a way for children to connect to absent fathers. When children became more attached to actual events of the War, they became more susceptible to the propaganda concerning it.

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There are also many early portrayals of children on cards playing at war with wooden swords or toy guns. This theme was already common in artwork when postcards began to appear in the 1890’s and their numbers increased substantially during the Great War. They often seem to follow the traditional playful narrative that has more to do with assigning proper gender roles than war; girls are often only observers or partake in limited ways. Here waging war is not only an adventure, it is presented as a virtuous activity. Such play during the war years tended to mock much more violence and acts such as pillaging, though this is mot well represented on realistic cards.

(See Give Me a Gun dated March 3, 2013, in the archive of the websites Blog section for more information on children and guns)

(See Give Me a Gun dated March 3, 2013, in the archive of the websites Blog section for more information on children and guns)

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There were many artist drawn cards that added symbolic content to children playing in uniform. Some of these cards are rather creatively playful like the set drawn by H. Aurrens for A. Noyer. Here children mimic the various branches of military service in the most innovative of ways. There are other cards drawn by a variety of artists that are also playful, but most of these carry more overt patriotic messages through their short captions.

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A strange dichotomy existed in the United States between war and guns that evolved from its colonial experiences. While British oppression had left a long standing suspicion of professional armies, guns became such an important tool for militias and expanding the frontier that their use quickly became part of the American myth. Even without a strong military tradition, gun ownership was a strong part of American identity for it represented freedom and liberty even to those who never fired a gun. This is expressed on all sorts of patriotic messages including those displaying children. Postcards have children playing at war, celebrating military victories, and showing of their desire to do their part in protecting the nation. In many ways they are presented in the same manner as children on European cards because politics aside, war was seen as a gateway to manhood.

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Presentations of distain by children often extend beyond playing at war to play in general where there are clearly good children and bad children. Here we usually find more realistic situations where displays of favoritism, cruelty and even hatred are surprisingly presented as virtues that children should learn as long as the vitriol is directed towards the perceived enemy. On these cards there is no innocence to be found in childhood. Bad character is predetermined by nationality.

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When we reach World War One the traditional theme of children playing at war begins to assume the role of political propaganda. Children no longer just play together; sides are distinctly drawn and they assume the identity of distinct nationalities that express their bias. Many of these cards are closer to political cartoons where children are not the true subject of the narrative but only act as surrogates for adult behavior and attitudes. Some nations can thus be represented as well behaved while others display infantile traits that require punishment.

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Children were also often directly used in political cartoons where there is no doubt that they are meant to function as surrogates for adults. Uniforms and national symbols were usually employed to make these associations easier to identify. While it would be easy to say that children were used to soften a harsh message, I’m not sure this was always the case. Publishers did not seem to shy away from clear distasteful messages during the War, so are these cards meant to fulfill the needs of a more polite audience? Using children in place of adults in some situations, especially where cruelty is involved only seems to make it more disturbing.

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There was little tolerance for neutrality during World War One. The refusal to take sides was usually seen as a cover for support for the enemy. This same attitude was applied toward children where the idea of keeping them innocent and above the fray was anathema. The teaching of hatred was considered a patriotic virtue; and children learned at an early age who their enemies were. When children display distain for the enemy on postcards, they are not just standing in for adults; they are showing signs of what was considered good character. If children could not go off to fight, then their sacrifice must come if the form of deep hatred.

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Some children playing with toys have obviously taken sides. They are dressed in the military uniform of their nation as they attack their toy dolls dressed in the uniform of their nation’s enemies. While this is only mock violence, the joy or intense determination on the child’s face while they dispatch the enemy tells another story. Children are only biding their time until it is their turn to really kill. While there were many such cards expressing overt violence to choose from, the German artist P. Heydel was a master of such imagery. Children often acted as a surrogate for the feelings of the adult buying the card. In this way the guilt caused by conflicting feelings between hatred and moral values might be diminished by presenting it in a playful way. While this explanation might be true for many, it should not be forgotten that expressions of hatred by children or adults were considered a high form of patriotism in most nations.

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There are cards that are far more problematic than others when it comes to understanding them. They tend to clearly express antagonism toward the enemy but the manner in which this is done raises many questions. This problem is very obvious in a set of postcards drawn by F. Charmouin for A. l’Hoste in Paris, where it seems as if the artist is exposing some deep seated personal issues rather than just political ones. They show typical uniformed children engaged in what first appears to be playful combat, but the situations all seem to entail the actual killing of German children. The message they invoke is not tempered much by their cartoonish style. This is however indicative of social attitudes of the time that encouraged children to be exposed to the horrors of war. Many drawings by children during the War incorporated scenes of destruction and death to the point of growing indifferent to it.

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As depictions of children drift into political satire they can become quite vicious, with some narratives expressing outright cruelty and hatred. They seem excessively callous to the modern eye, largely because of our associations of children with innocence. This of course was probably always part of their power. On these cards even the most innocent looking children seem to have the natural instinct to know who their enemies are and hurt them with glee. These types are cards are most common in France where children are often used as surrogates to express a deep hatred of the enemy.

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Gender roles generally limited how violence emanating from children could be expressed. It was usually shown emanating from boys since they were young warriors destined for battle. Girls on the other hand were natural nurturers, which made associating them with violence too contradictory to depict. Sometimes this was exploited by showing that even an inherent good nature could be overcome by the vileness of the enemy. These types of cards however are few, and they tend to be more associative than overt.

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Not all images of children on wartime postcards espouse hostility; girls who have always displayed a loving tenderness toward their dolls now do so toward dolls of soldiers or at least some of them. These dolls of course always represent friendly soldiers as those dressed in enemy uniforms can still be treated quite cruelly. While this story line might be used for propaganda to indicate that even innocent children know how to treat their enemies, it ids not too far from the truth. Although generosity seems to come naturally to most children, it usually only extends to those recognized as part of their group. Little to no empathy is displayed toward those seen as outsiders, though this designation of otherness is often imposed by adults.

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On most cards, girls are usually just presented as ordinary children but they are sometimes dressed up as a nurses. They are usually administering first aid to a boy dressed as a soldier or their pets when more humor is desired. In this way girls can be included in exiting wartime play without allowing them to escape from defined roles. While these cards are playful, many young girls engaged in activities such as sewing that directly aided their nationís war effort. These cards are also a reminder that grown women have an important role to play in war even if distinct from the men.

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Even when playing at war children can show their caring feminine side on postcards. This is needed to counterbalance images depicting pure hatred. Even if directed at the enemy, not all costumers wanted to buy cards of children with a murderous spirit in their hearts. This is the same problem propagandists had when depicting soldiers; they needed to be fierce enough to defeat the enemy but human enough to return to civilian life. Contradictory messages were able to stand side by side during the War with little trouble as long as they tapped into archetypal story lines.

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It was also common to place boys and girls together on cards in situations that were usually reserved for adults. The most popular of these seems to exploit the theme of farewells where a romantic couple take part in a last kiss or embrace. When children are substituted, we often find girls exploiting play to satisfy their desires by mimicking this grown up act of delivering a kiss. The reluctant boy at the other end of the kiss is only interested in fighting and recoils, sometimes in horror, from this affectionate gesture. It is hard to see these cards as being anything but playfully humorous, though they do reinforce stereotypes portraying females as more emotional than disciplined.

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There are many other types of cards of children combined with romantic themes, but the meaning behind some of these is a bit more muddied. They often involve suggestive word plays that imply a double meaning, a form that was popular when picturing adults in similar romantic situations. Postcards appear at a time when most people had no access to pictorial media. Reading was a very important part of popular culture and word games were considered a high form of humor. It becomes difficult to tell if the sexual overtones on these cards are being used as a marketing ploy or if they are just incidental to the humor in an age when sexual abuse was not a publicly discussed issue.

Colored Real Photo Postcard

There are many postcards depicting young boys dressed as soldiers; most often appearing on hand colored real photos. It was a popular subject before the War in France where children could be found posing in Napoleonic era uniforms. These types of posed studio shots were largely meant to be used as greetings and some have holiday or birthday wishes printed on them. It was considered cute to have children posing as adults, and soldiers were just one form this took.

Colored Real Photo Postcard

Guilt was not only used to encourage men to enlist, children were also encouraged to do their part in the War by constantly reminding them that others were dying to keep them safe. While this form of guilt was often used to modify behavior, it created deep longings to be a part of the war effort. This was somewhat playfully expressed by the continuing trend of photographing young boys as soldiers into the years of the Great War. This was not in spite of many young men dying in battle, but because of it. These cards show how much a role in the military was considered acceptable for boys, even if the results are a wound. While this is obviously playacting, it does show a wound as proof of valor and duty fulfilled. If he survives this test of moral character he will grow into a good man. Such cards produced during the War were usually enhanced with the addition of patriotic messages.

Real Photo Postcard

Real photo postcards can also be found with small boys dressed in military uniforms that look like family photos. Sometimes a girl dressed as a nurse would pose with the uniformed boy so not to be left out of the role playing. Children acting like adults is of course child’s play, of which adults have always been a bemused audience. It is only in retrospect by knowing of the generation of youth lost to this War that the easy acceptance the these images now seems so haunting. The fact that so many real photo cards exist shows that this was a popular trend and not one just made up by artists for propaganda. It is testament to the extent that children were emotionally taken up by the War. Military costumes, though made in great number for all ages were not simple toys; they took a real commitment to make and to wear.

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While hand colored real photo cards of children seem universal, artist drawn cards of children in uniform seem to have been equally popular in some countries like Germany. An expressiveness could often be drawn into them that could never be captured on film. This is not that photographs are incapable of capturing true emotions; it is that the seriousness of the patriotic feelings depicted on propaganda cards is not something typically expressed by children.

Colored Real Photo Postcard

Children were placed into patriotic narratives that are based more on propaganda needs than child’s play. While there is usually some connection to activities children actually engage in, the narrative is extended far beyond what children would naturally express. Young girls may throw tea parties but they were probably not to toast the latest victory on the battlefield or to honor their nation’s generals. It is very unlikely that any of these narratives were presented to pass as real situations. While they were meant to amuse, their propaganda message was no less real. Such cards seem to have been often sent to soldiers at the front by their families. Despite their overt political message, they were still welcome reminders of home life, and that their families were supporting their actions.

Colored Real Photo Postcard

Children are often portrayed in sentimental narratives missing their father. The concept is usually actualized through montage where the missing family member is cleverly added into the composition. Most of these cards tend to be overly sentimental as they play on the same emotions that might be found on more ordinary greeting cards.

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While the emotions of cards dealing with children missing their father seem honest enough despite their exaggeration, they can be pushed beyond the pale when text or poems are added to images of children praying. In an effort to render these cards more patriotic, the child’s worry goes beyond the safe return of his father to his overwhelming concerns over the war effort, the nation’s leaders, and victory. Were these cards meant to be instructive to children or are they meant to alleviate the worries of mothers concerned over a child missing their father too much?

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Children often appear on postcards depicting troops marching off to war, which are always joyous occasions. The children are not only waiting their turn, they show pride in those doing their duty. These cards remind soldiers that they have the backing of not only their family but their community as well, which they must fight to protect. It also tells those back home that their neighbors enthusiastically support the War and they should too. The enthusiastic crowds are also entirely made up of children, woman, and sometimes old men as a reminder that celebration is only possible when every able bodied man has taken up arms.

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Children can often be found on cards greeting their father as he returns home on leave. Their long separation can induce doting behavior, but the absence is never criticized as it is an expectation of duty. Even when the leave of absence is a result of wounds, the injured father never dampens his children’s patriotic fervor. A wound is only a sign of bravery and manhood. The children wait impatiently until it is their turn to march off to war so they too can show what they are made of.

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Children often appear on postcards depicting troops marching off to war, which are always joyous occasions. The children are not only waiting their turn, they show pride in those doing their duty. These cards remind soldiers that they have the backing of not only their family but their community as well, which they must fight to protect. It also tells those back home that their neighbors enthusiastically support the War and they should too. The enthusiastic crowds are also entirely made up of children, woman, and sometimes old men as a reminder that celebration is only possible when every able bodied man has taken up arms.




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