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Themes of World War One:
The Dead and Dying  pt1


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While there seems to be countless postcards of wounded soldiers receiving help in one form or another in order to allay fears, there was no getting around that the constant companion of the battlefield is death. It was a delicate subject to which publishers had to keep public sensitivities in mind when choosing pictures to be place on postcards. The problem was that society itself was divided on what it wanted to see. Attitudes also changed as the War dragged on, and the romantic sensibilities of the 19th century that still dominated people’s outlook in 1914 had substantially dissipated within two years. Many dealt with their fears by simply avoiding the topic, and because of this there are far fewer recordings of how people contended with death than on other subjects. Postcards go a long way to give us insights where other types of documentation fail. How well they express a society’s thoughts is reflected in their numbers. The various approaches to publishing and growing interest in unofficial photography also demonstrate how attitudes shifted over time as the strength of the market for these cards had to always be considered.

It must also be remembered that while postcards picked up on mythical and religious themes that were embedded within a society to put a calming perspective over death, the need was based on the failure of the very same traditions to provide solace and understanding. Despite the comforting messages that faith provided and the rhetoric of self-sacrifice that faith promoted, most societies at large did not fully embrace these concepts. The very existence of so many cards promoting these themes reveals a society that was still very concerned over the well being of friends and family members.

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Military painting had been refined in the late 19th century to depict a broader more heroic and drama pact story of war. Here the dead were numerous but rarely shown in a distasteful way. Generic bodies may litter the ground but they are whole and do not express suffering. They often look so peaceful that some token blood must be added in to make sure they are perceived as wounded or dead. Most of the dead belong to the enemy to imply superiority and prowess of one’s own army if not victory itself. Some friendly troops need to fall to remind us of the actual danger involved, and thus enhance the bravery and sacrifice of those still fighting. This tradition carried into the First World War and accounts for how most battle scenes on postcards were composed.

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Along with illustrations based on traditional military painting, there was also the widespread use of studio shots for real photo cards expressing military themes. These tend to be so highly posed that they look like a scene out of a theatrical performance or silent film, and there is no mistaking them for reality. They were usually produced in sets to present strong patriotic narratives. They help divorce all the romantic rhetoric that makes up the general perception of war from its actual violence and destruction. Some publishers would carry this stage-like look onto their printed cards.

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While many postcards depicting battle scenes of the Great War mimic 19th century sensibilities, there seems to have been a growing tendency to depict combat as more vicious and deadly if not gory. In a time of so much death was the public demanding a more accurate portrayal of the War or was this the influence a sensationalist stories reaching the masses through cheap magazines? Soldiers often voiced their frustration at the sanitized way their life at the front was presented in the news. Although these images are not graphic by today’s standards, they go well beyond what would have been socially acceptable in years not too far past. Part of the difference may lie in that most 19th century military works were painted after the fact while postcards of the Great War were acting as propaganda to affect a conflict in progress.

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Both sides in the conflict produced cards showing piles of dead but they were always of the enemy to express a great victory. Sometimes the niceties of providing a generic corpse is overlooked in favor of showing blood soaked clothing. These types of cards go beyond the normal efforts made to get a propaganda message across. They seem to cater to the darker side of human nature that often seeks revenge. There is of course a more generalized appeal to violence, and this type of sensationalism is still widely used in marketing today. Publishers wanted to sell as many cards as possible, which meant that they had to be aware of what the public wanted, even if secretly, and what they would not tolerate.

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Sometimes the stricken soldier has not yet succumbed to his wounds and can be seen reaching out for attention to relay his last message. Captions are very important to these cards for the natural tendency is to read these gestures as a cry for help, which is far from their intent. The fallen soldier is often just giving a final farewell to a comrade, but if this emotional moment is not enough it can be laden with propaganda. The goodbye given may be a more formal one to his commanding officer or he bravely overlooks his fatal wounds to encourage other soldiers to continue their advance. Even though all these scenes represent self-sacrifice for a greater goal, they also represent the good death. These men do not die alone or in pain but play there dutiful role among their fellow soldiers to the very end.

This theme was was made popular by the poem The Good Comrade, written in 1809 by the Austrian poet Ludwig Uhland. While it was inspired by the Tyrollean rebellion against Napoleon, it deals with personal loss rather than political issues, which has allowed it to gain universal appeal. After its words were adapted to a popular folk tune, it was used as a marching song by many armies around the world. Even tough it was widely sung by the German army during the Great War, the general theme was mass produced in popular art, and appears as a troupe on postcards from all nations. The line from the song, I had a friend, is often directly printed on postcards made in Austria-Hungry and Germany.

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When actual casualties began to occur, how soldiers die, the numbers they die in, the reason for their death, and what happens to their bodies afterwards was of great concern to the men who fought and their families alike. The concept of the good death was to help alleviate the anxieties of those at home since soldiers at the front quickly learned the realities of warfare. Most soldiers died as a result of artillery fire that tore off limbs and riddled bodies with ghastly wounds. This death often came anonymously as they never saw the enemy or the gun that killed them. Postcards told a very different story. The fallen solder is usually depicted out on a battlefield indicating his wounds were the result of his bravery in combat. He is always whole, his wounds disguised or only indicated by a bandage with a trace of blood. In general both his environment and his wounds are not severe enough to deny him a relatively comfortable death. Even if in the company of a friend, his last thoughts go to his family, which are typically montaged into the composition.

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While the good death is usually presented in highly symbolic form, sometimes a more realistic approach can work just as well. In these narratives the dying soldier is not alone but in the company of a friend. There need be no mysterious spiritual connection to get a last message back to one’s family; his comrade will jot down the words and find his family afterwards. Such images were not pure fantasy for many soldiers made it their business to visit the family of dead comrades while on leave. They not only brought messages and un-mailed letters, they often instructed the family as to where to find the grave. Despite this reality, it seems that most preferred the idea of spiritual encounters by measuring the disparate number of postcards that pick up on each theme.

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Even though a dying soldier’s connection to family is usually portrayed in very personal terms that rarely relates to the specifics of the War, there are cards that try to redirect the strong feeling aroused at such moments to work for propaganda purposes. In the British Blue Bell series by Bamforth & Co. pictured above, the strong sentiment of loss is tempered by the idea of honor and sacrifice for a cause worth fighting for. While the cards words remain poetic, it alludes to the German invasion of neutral Belgium, which was promoted as a wrong that wants righting.

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The idea that a fallen soldier on the battlefield can somehow connect to his family back home was a very important theme on postcards, but the exact nature of this encounter is usually left open to much interpretation. It is very common to find montaged families included on postcards of soldiers on sentry duty or writing a letter. It was a simple symbolic method of showing that soldier’s thoughts were never far from home. These types of montages function the same way on cards of the good death showing that dying soldiers would be lucid enough to have these last pleasant thoughts. Sometimes family members do not appear in a distant bubble but as actual figures within the scene even if ghostly. While these may also symbolically represent memories, they seem to imply an actual presence. This interpretation is not so farfetched for beliefs in real contacts between the living and the dead grew with the dramatic upsurge of spiritualism during the War.

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Many postcards dealing with dying or dead soldiers have strong religious overtones. The figures hovering around them in these cases might be angels though sometimes it is difficult to separate them from allegories of victory. Specific symbolic characteristics existed, but illustrators at this time often based their work more on their own personal inclinations than classical traditions. Angels are easier to identify when they are scene carrying a dead soldier up into the heavens.

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There is never any confusion to the religious significance of an image when Christ is present, and he is pictured on many cards. He is usually found comforting a dying soldier or sending the dead off to heaven. Sometimes the figure of Christ can be found in a sorrowful pose standing over the dead. This type of antiwar message seems to have escaped sensors, perhaps because it does not specifically cast any blame for the tragedy outside of the abstraction of war.

(See Religion and War in the Themes of World War One chapter of this guide for more on religious aspects concerning death)

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While there are numerous postcards depicting dying solders in the company of angels or Christ, there are nearly as many that use non-religious allegories. They are another variation of cards representing the good death, only the trope was exploited for more overt propaganda purposes. Instead of family members comforting their fallen soldier, we find classical personifications of victory visiting the dead or dying soldier; often honoring him by presenting a wreath. This shows that the death is not insignificant but part of a long historic cycle.

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In Germany, where pagan mythology often played a more important role than Christian traditions when it came to forming national identity, these old myths were often referenced on propaganda cards. This can be seen on cards dealing with the topic of death where the Valkyrie, a host of mythical female warriors serving the god Oden escort fallen warriors to Valhalla on their flying horses. Since it is they who determine who will live and die in battle, those they take to heaven are true heroes. Such stories became ingrained in popular German culture during the 19th century, and were further popularized by painting and opera, which secured their mythical position by World War One. Now the myth could be applied to modern soldiers if only to insinuate by metaphor that all those who die for Germany are heroes.

Sometimes it is the personification of the state through a figure or national symbol that honors the dying man by presenting him with a wreath of victory or a medal designating service and bravery. A variation of this is when the spirit bestows the same honors on a grave. These types of cards that represent the nation honoring the dead are an outgrowth of 19th century nationalism. Great efforts were made toward unification by trying to get populations to give up their provincial thinking in favor of a new national identity. This included allegiances to religious values, but they were transferred rather than replaced. Patriotism became the new national religion, and although secular in theory, it came with the same notions of self-sacrifice to a higher cause just as the crusaders had with God. As patriotism took the role of a unifying national religion, wars continued to have overtones of a crusade, only now it was for one’s country as well as one’s god.

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Some artist drawn cards did not display the usual comforting message when dealing with death. Here death is a companion to the warrior on the battlefield; they have become partners in crime. In personification death can be found directing the aim of an artillery piece or of a soldier’s rifle to make sure the enemy is done in. These cards were probably passed by censors because the traditional use of symbolism to represent the macabre was part of the culture. Symbols of death were already in use on insignia as a symbol of a soldier’s prowess and strength. Even so, the numbers of cards embracing the macabre were few either out of censorship or their lack of appeal in the face of real death.

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The Danse Macabre (Dance of Death), in which people from various occupations and stations in life make acquaintance with death personified by a skeleton, was present in medieval art from the early 15th century. This allegory based on sermons concerning the inevitability of death was popularized a hundred years later through the woodblock prints of Hans Holbein the Younger. His approach of showing people happily engaged in everyday life being embraced by death was so inspiring that it became the standard for other artists to match. Many have since brought this allegory up to date, but they often continue to work in woodblock as a tribute to early renditions to which it is so attached. This was true during World War One when the motif was sometimes used when showing soldiers. It is interesting to note that the soldier pictured on the German fieldpost card above is Russian. The reminder that death comes to all is skewed to create an anti-Russian message. There was no tradition than could not be corrupted for the purpose of propaganda.

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Some personifications of death were very troubling even when they were used in a positive manner, to show what was in store for the enemy. It is always difficult to escape the horror of death knowing your own ultimate destiny. No matter what the artist’s intentions, these works come off as frightening to all and can thus be as easily aligned with an antiwar message as a hateful one. Symbols only work as intended when there is a shared vocabulary between creator and recipient, though some images seem to have archetypal meaning. Skeletons are the most commonly used allegory for death, but sometimes they are replaced by demons. In this case death does not just appear tragic, it takes on evil overtones.

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Alberto Martini was an Italian artist and a master of the Macabre. Borrowing heavily from Symbolists, Mannerists and even older medieval traditions of the grotesque, he created postcards during World War One that uniquely capture the conflict’s horrors. Though usually political and very specific to subject, they create a universal sense of foreboding. Even on cards that represent the terrible fate in store for the enemy, it is easy to feel the terror but difficult to feel the joy of revenge. Death has such a strong presence on his cards that it is easy to feel it is coming for us next.

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Interest in the macabre does not stem from an interest in death as much as an acceptance of its inevitability. When directly faced with the realities of combat in war, the usual places one hides from death become less protective. This stoicism his difficult to represent in visual terms but it is sometimes captured in the games of chance that soldiers play. Here the luck involved in the dealing of cards is a kin to the hand one is dealt on the battlefield when it comes to matters of life and death. The most acceptable form of the macabre appears on postcards that express black humor, but not all of these can be read as comic.

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Photo-based printed cards depicting the dead are quite rare for it is almost impossible to capture the good death on film. Even when we are not confronted with the ugly facts of dying, then neutrality is the best we can hope for. The problem is that neutrality is not good enough, for it does not alleviate fears and the absence of information may very well give rise to them. The fate of a loved one’s body once he had died in a far off place was of great concern to families. Not knowing caused much anguish, and postcards often tried to fill in some of this information. Cards could not address specifics, but they could paint the picture that great care was universally taken. Considering this, the presence of cards that depict the careless treatment of bodies, even when there is some ambiguity between the wounded and the dead, is quite an anomaly that is difficult to explain. They evoke a sense of abandonment, which contradicts what most cards were produced for. Despite the existence of set rules to guide censors, implementation was often a matter of interpretation, and when overworked standards can deteriorate. Although British generals sometimes referred to casualties as wastage, this was not an attitude they could openly express to the public. With modern eyes these cards are difficult to see as anything but carrying an antiwar message.

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Images of dead soldiers who were prepared to sacrifice their lives are regrettable, but images of dead innocent civilians who should be free of such unexpected danger presented a true tragedy in the propaganda war. These types of cards were tolerated because they are not meant to speak of the treatment of the dead as much as the barbarity of the enemy. It also reminds everyone that all are at risk in this War, and so all have a stake in it. There is often a horror that resides in these images, evoked from the casualness in which bodies lay the streets like pieces of unwanted litter. These do not just show images of death but the collapse of social order.

Real Photo Postcard

Images of dead civilians made it on to published cards when their deaths could be directed against the enemy in the propaganda war. While some of these depictions are very disturbing, there was still a line of public acceptance that could not be crossed no matter how well it documented atrocities. Such images however do exist thanks to the work of unofficial photographers who worked without constraint except for the fear of getting caught at it.




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