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Themes of World War One:
Children and War  pt2


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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While many postcards were published of soldiers and their loved ones thinking of one another, it is the rare card that captures real concern. These often revolve around infants, a newly born child that the father may have never seen. The worry of course is that the father may not return to see the child grow up. It is an emotional message meant to pull on the heart. Such narratives were far from patriotic and usually only tolerated on charity cards designed to help families and widows in need. They also remind us that while the art to be used on wartime postcards was carefully selected, artists continued to create work that truly expressed the feelings of those around them.

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Women were often seen as having a duty to sacrifice their children to war. This does not mean they should send them to their deaths but rather they should be prepared to accept the sacrifice if necessary for the nation. While artists did not seem to hesitate to express this viewpoint, it seems they often lacked the ability to express it realistically. The model is presented in the passion of Christ, but this can be too graphic to bear when applied to children. This idea is usually carried forward through the portrayals of children alone where infants are dressed in uniform. These are not like the real children who playfully dress up; here they are ready to willingly accept the call to duty with greater expressiveness than their years would ever allow. There is almost a yearning for death and martyrdom.

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The theme of duty and sacrifice is often carried along much further in allegorical renditions of infants. We find storks delivering newborns already dressed for war. Every child from birth knows where his true duty lies. The comparison of mothers producing babies to factories producing arms cannot be avoided. Though this idea may seem shocking today, it may have been the exact intention of some cards from a time when some saw childbearing as a woman’s principal role in wartime. It demonstrated how the whole of society needs to be united in a war effort driven like a religious crusade. Self-sacrifice was a guiding principal in chivalry, only here no distinction is made between the warrior and the child.

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Throughout the 19th Century a number of manuals were written that instructed boys on how to grow up to become men. In doing so they often presented the process in chivalric terms where moral character was a sign of good breeding, and knights were invoked as symbols of virtue. While violence was often downplayed, responding to a sense of duty was not. The idea of becoming a man by putting on a uniform was firmly ingrained in most societies of this time. This theme was also stressed in attempts to recruit adults by implying those that do not serve are mere children and don’t deserve to be respected as an adult.

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On many recruitment postcards, brave young boys are shown marching off to face the enemy or offering a helping hand if needed. The implication is obvious; if a child is brave enough to face the enemy, what does this say about the man who decides to sit the War out? The answer of course is cowardice. Such depictions were very common in the effort to mobilize a country for war. They do not just evoke cowardice but the charge of failure to protect oneีs own family, the primary duty of every man.

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Many postcards of all nations used children as recruiting tools in very simple ways. Rather that alway use shame as a driving force, the patriotic feelings of children were often used as inspiration to encourage their fathers to fight. This less heavy handed approach that focused on family over country still pulled on emotional strings to great effect. Since many children did in fact want to fight, these types of cards played off of real family dynamics.

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The idea that war or at least the virtues imbued in a warrior was what made a good man was deeply embedded in society at the turn of the 20th century. Praise of these virtues extended beyond men in uniform to maleness as a whole. This allowed propagandists to shame adult males into fighting by simply comparing them to women. Children were also extensively used in this capacity. The challenge to one’s manhood can be even more biting if the young child willing to fight in your place is a little girl. This myth had great resonance and its effect should not be underestimated; it still affects military thinking to this day.

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For the most part, children take up adult roles on postcards when they are meant to stand in for proper adult behavior. Children are brave, generous and helpful; they always do their duty with a lighthearted spirit, and they always know the right thing to do. Despite this well represented presentation on postcards, children were also used to emphasize more realistic childlike behavior with its negative connotations. These cases were usually associated with the enemy, demonstrating that they are not up to the manly task before them. The enemy is often presented as immature in both political cartoons and on comic cards.

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In the 1880’s Symbolist painters began creating compositions that sometimes included renditions of multiple babies in unrealistic situations. While this type of work remained very limited within the fine arts, it seems to have found appeal in the commercial arts where it was often used in very kitschy ways. When postcards came into vogue, images using multiple babes proliferated. These now rarely contained symbolic meaning but were presented as light humor. This trend continued into World War One where patriotic themes were usually added to these fantasies.

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Even though the humor in multi-baby cards is derived from fantasy, problems can still arise when extraordinary events overtake reality. On the French card above, naked infants enter an academy and come out wearing military uniforms without growing up. Though this can easily be interpreted as a bitter social comment on the efforts being made to quickly refill the depleted ranks of the military, the card was most likely made only to be funny. When the War started, everyone between eighteen and forty-seven years of age was inducted into the Army. Those in essential jobs were spared, but there were no exemptions for conscientious objectors. While this removed men from nearly every family, it was not as controversial in France as elsewhere because of their long standing policy of universal conscription.

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The postcard above projects the idea that French children have the innate character to be patriotic and defend their republic. Even though these four poilu are still swaddled infants, they are accompanied by a medal for bravery. It doesn’t matter that they have not yet accomplished great deeds on the battlefield; there accomplishments are insinuated just by their being French.

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Since propaganda messages were designed to have an effect on behavior rather than convey truth, they often contradicted each other in their approach to subject matter. While French postcards like the card above this one often showed the need to produce a new generation of warriors as a patriotic gesture, this same principle was turned against the Germans. Any associations of children to their military were shown as the awful proof of Prussian militarism. Nothing good can be expected from those who are raised as soldiers since the time they were babies as illustrated on the card above.

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The quirky tradition of placing very young children on comic and fantasy postcards did not just extend into World War One, there were many artists like Ad. Hoffmann who put them into uniform at the battlefront. While their obvious intent is to create humor, it is not always easy to see where the humor lies. If these children are surrogates for adults, what is the message? While these types of cards may be difficult to read with modern eyes, they were very popular in their own time as the large quantities of them printed indicate. Even though this trend was popular enough to outlast the War, the depiction of all children in military settings declined as casualties mounted.

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Not all postcards dealt with harsh military themes when picturing children in uniform. Publishers sometimes produced cards in ways that would have passed for quite ordinary in prewar years. Many of these are comic and are based on wordplay, which was then considered a high form of humor. Despite the lightness of these cards they can make reference to serious issues such as looting. It also seems that placing a boy in a military uniform is not just a matter of narrative conveyance, but a reflection on how many boys actually wore uniforms as a patriotic gesture at this time.

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The propaganda war, aimed at instilling and reinforcing specific ideas in adult minds could not help but infect the thinking of impressionable children. This activity was further enhanced when children were exposed to a lot more hateful messages from their parents and community. While this can result in casual discrimination and bias, it can also be drummed into children to the extent that they truly feel they must do their duty and kill. This desire to participate in the great adventure surrounding them went beyond pleasing their elders for it is evidenced in the large numbers of underage children who felt compulsion to run away from home so they could join the army.

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On German postcards, children were more likely to focus their anger on surrogates for the enemy like dolls. There was even a greater tendency to show them in some stage of disappointment at not being able to fight. This scenario allowed publishers to avoid the uncomfortable associations of directly linking children to violence while still evoking their patriotic fervor. These cards operate on the principle of shame; if a child can be this upset at not being allowed to fight, then all adults should be proud to serve.

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When images of very young children are depicted on military themes postcards, it is easy to dismiss them as playful allegories. This however overlooks prevalent forms of propaganda oriented to infants not in postcard form. Items such as military themed baby rattles, dolls, and even uniforms were commonly distributed to children that were obviously too young to understand their meaning. This however does not mean they were without purpose; war toys may largely reflect the attitudes of parents, but they began providing children with a familiarity of what would eventually be expected of them. In this perspective, no postcard depicting a child of any age can be dismissed as innocent.

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Rose Cecil O’Neil had already shown talent at the age of 13 when she took first prize at the Omaha World Herald’s children’s art competition. She went on to supply magazines with illustrations, drew the comic strip, Old Subscriber, and worked in advertising. In 1909, her Kewpie character became an overnight sensation after appearing as an illustration in the Ladies Home Journal. This image was licensed out for use on all sorts of products including Campbell Soup ads. By 1912 Kewpie dolls were being manufactured in Germany, and they were further popularized during the Great War when they were sold for good luck charms. In Great Britain these charms were often referred to as Fumsups. By 1915 Kewpies began being placed on countless postcards published by the Gibson Art Company. Kewpies had become an overnight sensation and their universal appeal caused them to be appropriated for patriotic postcards in many nations as on the Italian card above.




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