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Themes of World War One:
The Dead and Dying  pt2


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The ability to give special care to all the dead after a major battle was impossible. Thousands to tens of thousands of men might fall within a short period and the bodies of those retrievable had to be disposed of before they became a health hazard. The most common way of addressing this issue was the digging of mass graves. Many of these were dug before a big offensive, sometimes lowering the morale of troops who had to march past them while going into battle. Each soldier knew of the possibility of meeting death, but they did not like to think that their demise on that day was inevitable.

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While burying fallen soldiers in mass graves was the official policy of some armies, such images rarely appear on anything but unofficial postcards since the practice went against public sentiment. Some printed postcards tried to circumnavigate the anonymity of mass graves by incorporating additional meaning. Bodies are not tossed in but placed with such reverence and solemnity, that the compositions resemble those found on traditional paintings of the entombment of Christ. This can be no coincidence; dead soldiers are meant to be seen as receiving the highest honors regardless of how their body is disposed of.

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While notions surrounding the good death were rather abstract, disposal of a loved one’s body had to be thought of in more concrete terms. For most this entailed the respectful handling and placement of the corpse. Leeway would be granted because of war conditions, but burials were expected to be as close to those provided at home as possible. These wishes were usually far from the reality of the War where mass graves were more common. Postcards played a major role in creating a more acceptable illusion where solders where given individual marked graves that were well attended to by chaplains or visited by surviving comrades. This brought comfort by creating the belief that even if the exact location of the deceased was not known, his body was most likely properly disposed of and not forgotten.

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Even though many solders wound up in mass graves or were left to rot on the battlefield, there was a reality that that came close to public expectations back home. Battles might produce long casualty lists but these were more than names to the soldiers who fought side by side. Whenever possible, soldiers would give their comrades as respectful of a burial as they could manage. This of course varied greatly depending on where they were deployed and whether the front was mobile or static. While it may have been important for soldiers to try to keep up these rituals of normalcy to retain connections with home, the need to respect one’s own dead was probably enhanced by their capacity to inflict widespread death and destruction onto others. While some of the depictions of individual graves were highly romanticized by artists, some depicted on location sketches by soldiers capture them with more realism.

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Proof of individual burials exists in the many photo-based depictions of soldiers posing with fresh graves that have been neatly marked. There is however a big distinction between a shallow grave hastily dug within a trench and one out in the countryside. The former leaves the body in a perilous position that could easily be disturbed by incoming artillery fire. We only tend to find these sorts of images on unofficial real photo cards. Those graves that found their way into print usually insinuate a more quiet setting where the dead can truly rest in peace. While these cards may have given some peace of mind to those at home, they probably expressed the hopes of soldiers as well.

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In addition to being given a decent grave, some real photo cards depict actual funerals in which honor guards and commanding officers are present. While such formalities did take place, they were usually reserved for high ranking officers. The sheer volume of dead prevented such services even if they were desired. Cards like these are meant to engender some peace of mind for those back home by presenting overly optimistic scenarios. Even if it was understood that it was unlikely that the deceased would receive such honors, these cards at least said that the military respects their dead.

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Soldiers were often buried in shallow graves within the trenches when there was no immediate way to transport their bodies to the rear. Since these graves were only meant to be temporary, they were rarely marked beyond the placement of a simple wooden cross. These markers can sometimes be found in the background on postcards of trenches where they are not the main subject. Unfortunately they can be easily be mistaken for simple memorials to fallen comrades that were not paired to a grave. A more elaborate memorial might be create if troops were forced to move on without relocating the grave. The dead buried at the front did not always stay buried as incoming artillery fire could churn up the ground and everything in it. The scattering of body parts often made life in the trenches more horrendous than it already was.

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Cemeteries and old graveyards were not immune from artillery fire because they were sometimes located right on the battlefront by chance. Military cemeteries were placed further back but not so far behind the lines to ease transport problems. Many considered damage to such places to be sacrilege, and so depictions of them could be produced as propaganda cards displaying atrocities. Labeling them as atrocities was not always easy for battles within cemeteries had already been a common theme in art due to its symbolic value. Though these scenes might be historic, they had always acted as a general inditement against war more than condemnation of a specific side in the conflict. The subject lends itself to so much symbolic meaning that it is often difficult to interpret intent on real photo cards.

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Some charity cards show Red Cross workers burying the dead under harsh conditions. This is to say that the dead will be properly cared for no matter what the conditions are out at the front lines, and that Red Cross workers can be depended upon to see that this important work gets done. The message of course also insinuates that without the Red Cross your loved ones body might be put at risk so help support us. Fears could be allayed and exploited at the same time.

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The importance of a grave is not just that the dead be respectfully buried; they must be remembered as well. This always entails some sort of marker, but more importantly visitors. The most common way in which this is represented on postcards is by showing soldiers who are ready to march off to a new battlefield saying their last goodbye to a fallen comrade before moving on. These types of sentimental images were popular with those at home as they showed that there was no anonymity in death.

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Death themed postcards no doubt also helped solders who suffered in their bereavement over the loss of friends. Despite the sentimentality these cards convey, many solders did in fact go out of their way to mark, decorate and visit the graves of friends. There was no attempt to cover over these feelings on postcards. When depicted in battle soldiers were nothing but stoic and brave, but it was also important to show that they were still human with human feelings. This was a popular theme and it is represented on many postcards.

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Another common type of graveside visit portrayed on postcards is that by cavalrymen. Their mobility meant that the graves of their fallen comrades might be spread far and wide in remote places. These cards also say that no matter where you may die, your friends will go through the effort to visit your grave and you will not be forgotten. Horsemen rarely dismount to indicate that they are carrying out this visit with little time to spare and must soon return to the fight.

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The close relationship that a cavalryman had with his horse was the subject of many postcards. Since horses died alongside men in battle, it should then come as no surprise that postcards also dealt with their wounds and deaths. There are many cards that show cavalrymen hugging their dying mount and mourning their demise. This theme was sometimes carried further to show horses prodding their fallen riders or crying out in agony over their broken bodies.

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Although images of cavalrymen at gravesides are usually greatly sentimental, this level often rises further when describing the great emotional attachment that could arise between cavalrymen and their horses. Many of these cards go well beyond real ties by creating implausible scenarios and anthropomorphizing the mounts. Horses can be readily found not only visiting their wounded riders in hospitals but they come to visit their graves as well. These types of sentimental cards were probably not produced for propaganda as much as for touching something inside a person that would generate a sale.

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If it was important to show an anonymous soldier visiting the grave of a friend, then the presence of a monarch or a general at the same grave gave it special meaning. This showed that the soldier was not just remembered but he and his service was valued and respected by someone important. It is not that these visitors are celebrities; it is that they represent the entire nation, and as such give added weight to the honor. In the same way that an important visitor at a hospital could help keep up morale, a visit to a grave as represented through postcards could also improve the morale of those still fighting. Since many of these narratives are generic fictions of the illustrator, the visit is often portrayed as solitary to make the emotions expressed look more honest and caring.

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When postcards depict soldiers visiting each other’s graves, it is a symbol of comradeship and remembrance. Despite the sadness there is the positive message of honor and self-sacrifice. The mood quickly shifts when civilians enter the composition. Now the death becomes more tragic. While the notions of honor and sacrifice are usually still promoted, they are no longer prominent. We are asked if this loss was necessary, and in doing so the enemy is indirectly blamed. These cards are meant to evoke the same emotions as atrocity cards even though soldiers can be expected to die in war.

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Monuments to the dead began being erected early in the War well before anyone knew how long it would last. These represented public displays of mourning that were largely meant to channel grief by creating a social structure through which it could be acceptably expressed. They were about bereavement and did not express political attitudes toward the War. As casualties quickly mounted, these sorts of monuments continued to be created but they seemed increasingly out of place when men were still dying. Most of these small monuments only functioned locally for a small community or individual family. Larger monuments that express a nation’s grief would only be erected after the War.

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Sometimes monuments to individuals or specific grave sites were highly publicized on postcards because they fit neatly into the propaganda war. These were usually those who died under extraordinary circumstances or were claimed to have died in this manner. They are presented not as casualties caused by the hands of the enemy, but as victims of the enemy’s inhumanity. In this way death was not shown as an expected outcome of the War for which all might be culpable; blame was clearly cast in one direction only. Prime examples of casting blame can be seen in cards dealing with the execution of the British Nurse Edith Cavell in German occupied Belgium, and the victims of the U-boat attack on the passenger liner Lusitania. Sometimes these noted deaths could be more anonymous when caused by unusual weapons such as Zeppelins.

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The prewar years were filled with many rituals concerning death and mourning that the Great War put asunder. Now it was the young who were dying in great numbers before the elderly, which seemed to disturb the natural order of things. At this time most died at home surrounded by family and friends, who would give comfort, as well as clean and prepare the body for burial. This important ritual ended once the War started, for families almost never saw their loved ones again if they perished in battle. Only the bodies of those who died in a hospital back home were returned to their families. Few widows would have graves to visit though the opposite was stressed on postcards. Knowing where a loved one’s body lay was important to nearly everyone, and some were desperate enough to venture out to the front lines in search of it, even before the War was over. If lucky, a few salvaged personal effects might be able to be returned. These cherished mementos might be put out for display in a home or even come to decorate an alter.

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During the 19th century there was a very strict code in place in most societies regarding what was to be worn and what activities could be engaged in after a relatives death, especially for proper women. While the pomp and expected time to be put aside for mourning had decreased by the eve of the Great War, there were still rigid expectations. As more and more people were touched by those who died, the normal trappings of mourning became overbearing and seemed out of place. Individuals were given much more discretion over how to handle a death in the family. Many women eventually gave up wearing black mourning dresses because it seemed to self indulgent; a cry for attention when those around them had to stoically face hardship. There would be a gradual erosion of the recognition of death that would have great influence on how the dead and dying were distanced from society in postwar years. In the meantime postcards publishers rarely acknowledged these social changes as they represented an adaptation to the harsh conditions of war. They focused instead on traditional expectations, showing widows in black mourning at graves that most likely didn’t even exist.

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Despite his radicle beliefs, Christopher R.W. Nevinson was made an official British war artist in 1917 and spent time France sketching on the frontline. Though he first worked in his accustomed Futuristic style, it was unsuitable to his growing pessimism and his work suffered for it. When he took up a more naturalistic mode of painting to better express his narrative content, it was widely criticized from all sides. Nevinson, now painting his experiences had crossed the line of what his superiors expected from him. His worse offense was the painting Paths of Glory, which references an honored burial but depicts the bodies of two neglected British soldiers lying on the muddy battlefield. While the image might be true to life, it was also the type of image that officials had been keeping from the public in fear of hurting the war effort. Though censored from the exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in March 1918, Nevinson hung it anyway wrapped in brown paper with the word censored written across it. This got him into further trouble as the public was not supposed to know that their government was censoring what they could see. While this now famous painting is widely reproduced on postcards, it like many other great war paintings were never placed on cards in their own day due to official efforts to control what people believed. Realistic portrayals of the dead would be reserved for unauthorized real photo cards.

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Many cards concerning death were published during the Great War, and in one way or another they were created to help civilians and soldiers deal with their fears. While the content of these cards was well suited for this purpose, the reality for many soldiers was quite different. Many were just blown apart and others disappeared into the mud of no man’s land. Some were heaped into piles or just left to rot on the battlefield where they died. This was not the message that government officials anywhere wanted the public to hear or see. This more unpleasant reality however was captured of film by numerous unofficial photographers who did so at their own peril. While it is not known who these photographers were, it can be assumed that most were army officers that managed to defy regulations and brought their cameras to the front lines.

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The anonymity of real photo cards depicting the dead also makes it impossible to designate motive. Some shots were most likely nothing but macabre souvenirs while those who were disturbed by all the positive propaganda wanted to secure a small record of the truth. These cards defy the official line that the dead were all well cared for and treated with respect deserving of heroes. It is probably safe to say that these unsanitized views of death only came home with the soldier for they could never be mailed. Even then they would have been difficult to disseminate as publishers would have faced harsh punishment for distributing non authorized images. This insured that the public’s concept of the War was very different from the reality experienced by soldiers.

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Many real photo postcards depicting the dead are difficult to read because the amateur photographer who took it did not compose the scene well, took little notice of lighting, and often followed up with a poorly made print. Sometimes this is no one’s fault as some scenes are just too chaotic to properly capture. The object here was documentation, not art. Since censorship prevented their mailing, real photo cards of the dead rarely provided us with the time or place where they were taken, but this does not detract from their power.

Real Photo Postcard

Despite all the bad photographs of the dead that exist, there are many outstanding images to be found. Some of these achieve their power from the sheer number of bodies they portray. Men were often cut down in attacks in concentration and these types of cards give a real feeling for it. A failed attack meant that the contested land where most fell remained in enemy hands and that the dead would not be retrieved. The best that could be hoped for was that these men would be placed in a mass grave for health concerns but there was no guarantee. If the area remained contested or if armies moved on afterwards these fallen soldiers would be left to rot. Some of these places became such health hazards that they were just fenced off after the War and left to revert to nature.

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There are plenty of cards showing the remains of the dead that have been lying on battlefields for some time. There were many who were forgotten or died in obscure places; bodies of those killed in World War One continue to be discovered to this day. These unofficial cards could have been taken by soldiers but also by local civilian photographers once armies had moved on. Punishment for taking such photos could mean death so they were not credited. The market for these types of images seems to have been strong, which might have provided at least some of the motivation behind them but this remains unclear.

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Photographs of the dead on the battlefield were so hard for publishers to come by that once an image was found that gained acceptance, it was used over and over again. The best example of this is a photograph that is sometimes entitled The Valley of Death, which is probably the most commonly reproduced image of soldier’s remains. It goes by other names on other cards, and because of the advanced state of decay, it was used to represent either French, German or the unknown fallen. Most cards place this image at Verdun but others leave the location anonymous to increase its salability as a generic. This image has been used to represent the consequences of German aggression as well as the horror of War.

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While piles of dead have shock value, a cruel intimacy can be captured when real photo cards focus in on a single soldier. Sometimes they go beyond showing just rags, shoes, and jumbled forms to provide us with a recognizable face. The death becomes more real if the viewer if forced to contemplate their own personal loss or a loved one still at risk. Unofficial real photo cards do a better job at capturing human destruction than the printed cards passed by government censors, but they still only go so far. Despite the horror captured on many postcard images, we must remember that these are only small glimpses into the War; they do not come close to the actual lived experience. Soldiers were discouraged from keeping diaries for they might reveal sensitive military information should they be captured. While this makes good sense it is difficult to believe in the face of all the censorship and propaganda that officials did not want the true horrors of life on the front to be exposed. Diaries do not usually make good histories but they are essential to understanding what solders really lived through.

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Even though the dead were exploited for use on postcards, some respect is usually maintained through their anonymity. Even when we can read part of a uniform to ascertain nationality, we can rarely identify an individual. This tends to give all such cards a universal look that comments more on the horrors of war than specific battles or causes. Death brings a commonality to all. This approach however was not always used as the captions added to real photo cards could transform them into propaganda, in which enemy casualties are often mocked. Disrespect becomes another weapon that can even be used against the dead.

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Not nearly as common as views of the dead scattered across a battlefield or lying in trenches are cards that show soldiers posing with them. Even so, they exist in enough numbers to take notice though their meaning is usually unclear. While they can be nothing more than a variation of the many cards that depict human destruction, they seem to carry an extra weight even if that was not the photographer’s intention. We are not just presented with anonymous corpses but probably the men responsible for their deaths. This becomes the new narrative, but without a caption we get to draw our own meaning. They seem to fall into the tradition of hunting cards where the kill is proudly presented as trophies. The problem here is that there is only a fine line between the living and the dead, which makes both those posing and the viewer of the card uneasy. Perhaps that’s its message.

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Dead horses often litter the ground on real photo postcards, often caught by enemy fire while pulling a caisson or hauling a wagon. These images were more apt to be published for there were different rules for depicting dead animals than there were for men. Since countless numbers of horses were killed, the fact that these cards exist does not seem so strange, many are almost matter of fact. There are however some images where the photographer seemed to go out of his way to capture something truly gruesome. Fought alongside World War One was the Mexican Punitive Expedition, where American photographers understood the public’s fascination with death. They did not want sanitized views, they wanted to see gore and they were given scenes of those dying, hanged, lying dead, being cremated or just rotting. Gaping wounds were not covered up but often highlighted for effect. Despite their gruesomeness these cards remained palatable and highly marketable to an American audience because all those depicted were Mexicans. With both sides taking heavy casualties in Europe, the marketing of such images became problematic. This does not mean there was no desire for them; their numbers prove otherwise.

(See The Dead of Antietam dated, September 11, 2010, in the archive of the websites Blog section for more information on depicting the dead)

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Despite the great price the world paid, it was left a troubled place in 1919 with food scarcities, economic ruin, political infighting, and in some places the warfare just continued. People needed to feel that the sacrifices made were for something. While monuments were made to celebrate victory, greater efforts had to be placed on addressing personal bereavement. This led to an effort to consolidate many of the scattered graves across the landscape into cemeteries, usually on the site of battle where they fell. Only American and French families were eventually given the right to bring the body of a fallen soldier home. Postcards had already captured some of these more makeshift burial grounds with their wooden crosses during the War, but now they grew to overwhelming size.

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Military cemeteries appear on both photo-based and artist drawn cards, the latter often containing added meaning. The endless rows of grave markers may evoke outrage at the waste of life from the modern viewer, but these postcards were made to honor the dead by displaying their gigantic sacrifice. It did not matter as to whether victory was obtained, these men played the role of crusaders for God and country, and can be honored for their moral character.

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An unfathomable amount of bodies went unidentified at the War’s end, which brought much pain to the families of missing soldiers. Not only were there no grave to which to focus grief on, there was no narrative to explain how these soldiers met their death. Monuments were designed to bridge this gap in social order that would not only hold these anonymous remains but commemorate their service to the nation as well. The best known of these and the one most widely captured on postcards was the Ossuary at Douaumont situated on the Verdun battlefield. Construction on it began shortly after the War but it was only partially open by 1927 and not inaugurated until 1932. It contains the remains of at least 130,000 unidentified men of both French and German origin. The structure itself turned sacred as it came to substitute for the missing individual.

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There was no one accepted approach to memorializing the dead because the ideas and emotions that needed to be tackled were often contradictory. This is the same problems that publishers faced when depicting the wounded and the dead; the sacrifice had to be ennobled to show the cause was worth fighting, and the great outpouring of grief had to be acknowledged by presenting the loss of a loved one as a tragedy. Many monuments are a careful balance between these public and private modes of grieving. Those that emphasize the public aspect usually tie into notions surrounding chivalry by relying on medieval symbolism. A good example comes from postcards depicting the monuments at Augsburg and Munich. Here soldiers are represented in the same reclining pose that was once reserved for the tombs of knights placed in Gothic cathedrals. Whether on the winning or losing side, these men fought for God and country and have earned a place by Christ’s side through their service. These types of monuments were a reaffirmation of society’s values.

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Other monuments to the fallen of World War One stress the personal side of the conflict by evoking a sense of loss. This stems from a romantic tradition that was very commonly displayed through statuary placed in cemeteries during the late 19th century. These works helped provide a coping mechanism for a society that had difficulty facing death in a world where religious values were changing around them. While some of these monuments were elaborately carved or cast, many were only adorned with classical elements and remained austere. Though they borrowed from personal monuments that acknowledged a tragic loss, they worked to express a collective grief. By creating a focal point to which society could rally, these monuments softened the blow by keeping the dead within a larger living memory.




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