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Themes of World War One:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 oneŐs own family, the primary duty of every man.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Children who were too young to take up weapons were traditionally used as drummer boys to signal acoustic commands to the men in the ranks. In a time when men moved and fought in tight formations, a drum beat could also help keep them in lockstep and booster determination when it was most needed. By World War One the drum was no longer essential for communication and had inconsistent use. By this time drummers were often men serving as part of an established military unit used for communication. Despite this the tradition of drummer boys was so well-established that many felt comfortable with serving in the military. This now makes it difficult to discern the actual roles such boys take when depicted on real photo postcards because the theme was so widely in play. Are we looking at real drummer boys or has a photographer just decided to exploit a popular trope?
While drummer boys served in some armies, it must be remembered that even today many children wear military-like uniforms in school marching bands. These types of representations without context become even more confusing when a motley assortment of young boys is shown in actual uniforms. These images are not to be confused with playful studio shots; these images are presented more as an act of photojournalism. It is however difficult to tell if this is scavenged gear rounded up for more realistic play or if these are actual child soldiers conscripted in desperation as the War dragged on. Thirty-thousand civilian boys as young as twelve retreated with the Serbian army during the winter of 1915 so they would not fall into the hands of their enemies. Most would die along the way or starve in exile.
It is often impossible to obtain exact figures concerning various aspects of the Great War. This was certainly true on some fronts more than others. Sometimes good records were not kept, sometimes records kept did not survive. Unauthorized practices, even when common were rarely recorded and are often only known through antidotal accounts. Children serving in armies was one of these practices for which no proper statistics exist. It is known however that it was a widespread practice in the American and Russian armies, but by no means exclusive to them. On the German card above, based on a color autochrome, we can see a Russian prisoner of war being marched off who seems to be little more than a young boy in uniform. Calling these boys underage is problematic as standards for adulthood were usually lower back then, and they were not consistent between nations. In many places mandatory schooling ended at thirteen, which was also the minimum age for legal employment.
The true content behind some photo-based postcards depicting armed children is even more confusing because it has been manipulated for propaganda purposes. Through the change of a caption the same image can take on many meanings. Ranks of armed children filling the streets of Berlin may have been shown on German cards to show that all members of society were rallying to the cause if only in spirit. In French hands the same compositions becomes an act of desperation insinuating that the German army has taken many casualties and is on the brink of defeat. Since most of these types of cards seem to have been printed early in the war, this notion is a complete fantasy. They do probably represent a real enthusiasm of children to play an important role in the War.
Since artist renditions of children aiding the war effort easily outnumber photo-based postcards it is easy to assume that they are all propaganda fantasies but this is not the case. Children too young to take part in serious military duties often helped with charitable causes that were directly linked to helping soldiers or their families. Sometimes these efforts were more overtly directed toward the War like collecting scrap metal that could be melted down into weapons.
The idea of directing boys toward a virtuous manhood took hold in the real world with the formation of various organizations such as the Boy Scouts. Here the chivalric traditions continued as they were to be interchangeable between peace and wartime activities. When World War One broke out many Scouts were ready to do their duty, which did not necessarily mean fighting but freeing grown men to fight by taking over their responsibilities at home. Some have referred to this as, killing by proxy. Many British scouts were used in the Coast Guard or as messengers. On the Continent scouts sometimes helped to bring essential supplies up to troops on the battlefront, even during combat. While not a common subject on military postcards, they are to be found.
On some postcards there is no question that we are being presented with a boy soldier. They are presented in documentary form with names and dates. These cards are not condemnations of the practice, they are meant to memorialize those who could have avoided this final sacrifice but honored what they felt was their duty instead. The concept of duty was very strong at this time, among children as well as adults. Underage children were not automatically removed from the ranks if discovered. They were expected to fulfill all the duties of adults and were sometimes even executed as cowards when they could not live up to these expectations in battle.
Young soldiers were often paired with older veterans on postcards. While there is a practical aspect to passing down military wisdom, these images conjure up the archetypal father son relationship. While these images can be heartwarming and provide a sense of safety, they are largely meant to reinforce the idea that fighting for one’s country is as much a national tradition as the paternal ones passed on from father to son. The nation is presented as an enlarged family to whom loyalty is owed.
Large numbers of children were also portrayed as victims of war. This theme was most commonly expressed on French and Italian cards, for what better way to define German barbarism and sadism than in their mistreatment of innocent children. These cards were meant to evoke compassion, and through it stir up feeling of hatred, and a dedication to resistance and revenge. They were to encourage enlistment while reminding those already at the front that they were protecting their families from a predatory enemy ready to rape and murder. Here we have another contradictory approach to propaganda; for these cards to work well, children must be portrayed as innocent of violence and cruelty when other cards show them savaging the enemy with resolute determination.
In many cases the child on atrocity cards is an anonymous victim to German brutality whose broken body is used as metaphor. By presenting this narrative trough symbolism the theme could be expanded upon by representing it in ways that were even more repulsive than reality thus evoking a higher emotional response. These types of images were first used to illustrate the rape of Belgium, but they proved so successful as a propaganda tool that the theme was continuously used throughout the War. It is rather ironic that the Swiss artist, Pierre Chatillon chose to express rumors such as Germans routinely cutting the hands of of innocent Belgian children on the card above, when the real crimes of Belgians cutting off the hands of Africans who refused to submit to their rule went by without notice.
The threat that the enemy posed to children was sometimes expressed through entirely symbolic means. This was most effective when it could draw on a commonly held narrative that everyone understood such as fairytales. By using this method there was no need to validate facts or try to get people to believe a new narrative; the storyline and villain were already in place. We also know in advance that the child will be okay but in this case only if we are vigilant. While these postcards were made for adult use, some must have would up in the hands of children. Many traditional childrenŐs stories were rewritten to include military themes, and many were graphically violent.
Even though the many propaganda cards that show the abuse or killing of children are highly exaggerated, there can be no denial that children died because of the war even if they were not specifically targeted. While not common there are such cards that depict dead children in a believable manner. They are usually charity cards that could get away with such portrayals as they needed to pull on heartstrings if they were to raise money. Although these cards seemingly carry an antiwar message, they had cover from sensors since they were usually published to aid wounded veterans and their families.
Even when children are not being killed, their victim status comes from being depicted as refugees on postcards. While some of these are propaganda cards to promote the idea of enemy barbarity, the majority seem to be charity cards that are trying to evoke sympathy in order to raise money.
Although Louis Raemaeker began to produce illustrations for the Amsterdam newspaper Der Telegraaf outlining German atrocities in Belgium at the beginning of the War, His postcard production picked up after moving to London in 1916 where he found work with the British War Propaganda Bureau. There he produced many illustrations of the brutal German occupation of Belgium and other atrocities in both realistic and allegorical form. These images, which included children as innocent victims were published as charity cards for the French Red Cross and printed with English and French captions. They would later be republished in Italy.
Many postcards show children as victims of war through allegory. This gave artists much freedom since they did not have to worry about accuracy, just their ability to project a hateful message. Sometimes the killer of children is presented in the form of Germania. As a personification of Germany she could be used to direct insults against all the German people, but it is difficult not to feel that she was specifically used to attack German motherhood. These cards present the narrative that German women are not like the rest of us, they have no natural inclination to nurture and protect children. They are brutal merciless killers just like all Germans.
Some artist drawn cards present atrocities as if they were real news events. This however poses a problem for in this climate of bias and hatred there is often no telling if any incident presented as fact actually happened. While truth became the rarest commodity in these years, it is not beyond reason to believe that some of these wartime incidents really did occur. One of the most commonly depicted situations involves a boy with a toy gun shot down in the street by a German soldier. It is a plausible scenario considering interactions between kids and police on American streets today, but there are so many renderings of such events to make them more generic than real.
Death is not the only way in which children are victimized in war. Loss of family members or home could have a traumatizing effect that long outlasted the conflict. Few propaganda cards seem to deal directly with this theme as they tend to evoke immediate emotions to get their simple message across. Despite this the longer term effects that the War had on children can be read into many of these cards.
Before the Great War, Francisque Poulbot was known for his illustrations of the street urchins of the Montmartre, and he would expand this theme into the War years on posters and postcards. A large series of French cards depicts the War through the eyes of orphaned children, often maimed, roaming the countryside while fending for themselves. Though they tend to express more black humor than bitterness, they still manage to convey some of the real cruel realities of war that are too often overlooked. They still never fail to be anything but patriotic.
Gaston Marechaux was a graphic artist who created illustrations in many mediums in a lively fanciful style. During the First World War he produced a set of cards for I. Lapina entitled En Alsace Reconquise using orphaned children from Alsace and Loraine as subjects in a lighthearted yet bittersweet patriotic narrative.
If Germans were the barbarians that rejoiced in killing children, then by contrast Allied soldiers were often depicted as their saviors. Sometimes this just meant creating images of soldiers holding orphaned children by the hand or offering them food. In other cases Allies soldiers perform heroic deeds in pulling children out of the immediate danger of the war zone. Except for cards depicting atrocities, the danger to children is always more implied than depicted to make these cards more palatable. This also causes a shift in focus away from the barbarity and toward the heroics.
German and Austro-Hungarian publishers countered Allied propaganda by showing their own troops feeding and playing with children in occupied regions. These good Germans were often given the same insulting titles as Allied atrocity cards so they could directly mock them. If occupation created terrible problems then this was the cost of war, but it had nothing to do with the natural good nature of their soldiers. While there were career officers, armies were largely made up of civilian warriors who hoped to return home to their own families on day. Though it was important to portray soldiers as being capable of defeating an enemy, it was just as important to those back home to see that they were not losing their humanity and could integrate back into civilian life. While these cards served as propaganda, there are numerous accounts of children developing close ties to enemy soldiers they grew familiar with in occupied territories. Some of this can no doubt be traced to needs created by absent fathers fighting in the War. Many children were also taught to show disrespect to the occupiers.
Many war orphans were produced early in the conflict and they quickly became part of the Allied propaganda war. Those from Belgium and France were particularly singled out for attention to bring the results of German barbarity closer to home. For many the War was an abstraction but most could relate to the plight of children. These propaganda efforts inadvertently helped raise funds for orphanages, and even inspired some in Great Britain to set up these institutions for Belgian children. Allied postcards mostly deal with soldiers finding orphaned children on battlefields to show that they are caring people as well as warriors, in contrast to Germans.
There are many real photo postcards that show soldiers posing with children who are obviously not theirs. Since these images rarely contain any information, what they depict can only be guessed at. Though these scenes are not on a battlefield they often look as they are taken somewhere near the front lines. Are they curious local children who want to check out the men in uniform or are they employed by them to do menial tasks in exchange for money or food? Over a million children were made orphans by the War, and families and institutions were hard pressed to take care of all of them. Some were used as forced labor. This situation was more precarious on the Eastern and Balkan fronts than in the West. Many children probably tagged along with soldiers as their only means of survival.
The plight of children may have been powerful subject matter for propagandists during World War One but it was still very real. Not only were many killed, wounded, and starved, many were orphaned and left to fend on their own. Charities did what they could and published cards to raise money to feed and shelter these children, but in the chaos of war not all were well served. While horrific depictions of the killing of children were placed on artist drawn propaganda cards, the public would not accept such imagery in photo or photo-based form. When suffering children do appear it tends to be on charity cards, and the suffering shown only grows in intensity in proportion to the distance the children are from where the cards were sold.
Although German publishers depicted children as victims of war, they walked a strange balance almost in the same way as when they depicted ruins. Displaced children seem to be presented as a natural byproduct of the War; so while they are meant to evoke suffering, they also tend to say there is little that can be done for it as if it were no one’s fault. While some believed that war cleans a society by weeding out the week, these cards do not seem to go that far but they still treat war as a natural phenomenon.
Some charity cards offer a more positive outlook toward children suffering from the War. Rather than dwelling on the suffering, they remind the viewer of the joy their help could bring. While the gift of a toy is an obvious answer to a child’s depression, most cards include the gift of edible treats. This was not just candy but real food. Hunger was a real and serious problem throughout all of Europe during the War sometimes leading to starvation. Aid organizations delivering food did more than make children happy, they saved lives.