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Themes of World War One:
Destruction and Devastation


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Publishers during and just after World War One seem to have produced an endless supply of postcards depicting ruins. Some collectors less familiar with military cards might think there is little else on this topic to be found. These cards however do not present a single message for they are widely inconsistent when it comes to intent and quality. Some were meant to show the cost of war, the progress of the conflict, the enemy’s crimes, punishment for transgressions, and later act as mementos for war tourists. There are even some cards that perform at a level well beyond any of this either by intention or by accident. What must be considered is that all images are largely understood through projection rather than perception. Thus the same image can mean something very different depending on the context it is viewed in as well as the cultural makeup of the viewer. This is most obvious on postcards carrying images of destruction.

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Nearly all of Europe was gripped with great enthusiasm for war when it broke out in 1914. It would be a great adventure in which a man could show what he was made of. If there was fear it was that the War would end before one had the chance to see action and teach the enemy a lesson. Publishers were suddenly faced with a huge demand for War related postcards when there was not yet much subject matter to reproduce. The market was flooded with patriotic real photo cards shot in studios while war artists were being secured to provide illustrations. Many photo-based cards at this time had little destruction to capture, so they concentrated on scenes that gave some inkling of conflict such as roads blocked with wagons or civilians searching for souvenirs after a battle. Any disturbance to the normal patterns of life was considered unique enough to be placed on a postcard..

Real Photo Postcard

Most early real photo postcards largely capture the soldiers who marched off to war. These are usually posed shots that do not always contain a military themed backdrop. There are of course exception and the German card above showing the burning of the village of Domevre in 1914 is very exceptional for showing destruction in progress. Since the onlookers are Red Cross workers a safe distance away, it might be assumed that the village is being hit by artillery or that there is fighting in the streets.

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It only took a couple of months after the War began for French publishers to find all the subject matter they needed for postcards. They seemed to have produced more scenes of ruined towns and villages than anyone else. The German policy of laying waste to captured territory they abandoned was a gift to photographers that were not allowed to work near the front line. On those printed early in the War the message is clear; the beautiful French landscape is now in ruin due to German barbarity. It was a long time since this level of destruction was last seen in France, which made these cards expressive without the need for words. These black & white images must have stood out in sharp contrast from the colored view-cards that typically filled postcard racks in prewar years. Their purpose seems clear; to stir up hatred for the enemy and encourage revenge though their numbers can be numbing.

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An interesting set of ruins was produced by the noted French publisher of photo-based cards, Neurdein & Co. It is not the destruction pictured that is so unique, but the fact that it is shown side by side with a prewar view of the same location. In this way we do not have to guess at what was lost, the before and after images makes this quite clear. Most if not all of the photography presented in this double format was provided by Photo Anthony of Ypres, Belgium.

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The captions on most French cards depicting ruins differ little from their peacetime cousins in that they are straight forward descriptions. Some will push themselves a little further and mention those responsible for this carnage, and often in unflattering terms. These types of editorialized captions placing moral blame are most apt to be found on artist drawn cards but they sometimes appear on photo-based cards as well. One of the most notable sets depicts the Martyred Towns of France, which leaves no room for doubt as to what the publisher’s feelings are on this subject. While much of the destruction found on postcards was product of artillery fire made ever more powerful by modern technology, it wasn’t all derived from the course of battle. When the Germans withdrew from their advanced positions in 1914, they purposely destroyed all they left behind. For many this went beyond what was expected in warfare, and the transgressors were labeled barbarians.

Real Photo Postcard

Both an act of destruction and the images capturing them must all be seen in relative terms. What one side sees as a war crime, the other views as progress in the war effort or even a fitting punishment. This is very evident from the many scenes of destruction captured by both sides in the conflict and presented as self serving propaganda. Real photo cards tend to be rather neutral in this regard because they only capture an act, it is the viewer who reads meaning into it. While they might act as propaganda, the motives of unofficial photographers are always in question. Printed cards usually provide clues in their captions to help stir up hatred and then direct it toward the appropriate party.

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Much of the destruction wrought went beyond the scope of property for it was directed against the enemy’s culture as well. Religious and ethnic divisions that existed before the War grew more intense once the conflict started. While the age of religious wars had long past, growing nationalism throughout Europe fueled these old animosities. In an effort to promote one’s own culture, others had to be degraded by comparison. Nearly every country saw its neighbors as being inferior to themselves and thus less deserving for what they had and what they wanted. Germany in particular felt that their culture represented the progressive wave of the future, which was being held back by the moribund cultures surrounding them. As soldiers came to blame the War on the culture of the enemy, they saw no need to protect it and sometimes purposefully worked to destroy it. Churches, libraries, and works of art may not have been systematically targeted, but they became the focus of soldier’s rage. Many scenes of looting were represented on postcards, but this type of specified destruction was not always easy to capture.

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Cultural destruction was widespread in Belgium, France, Italy, and Serbia, but it was the Belgian town of Louvain that received a disproportionate amount of attention on postcards. This was probably due to it being the first noteworthy example in which a major cultural institution was destroyed. Louvain was the sight of a great Gothic university dating back to 1425, and by 1914 the town had become the center of Catholic culture and thought in Belgium. While this did not make it a military target, many German soldiers indoctrinated with anti-Catholic rhetoric entered the town predisposed against its inhabitants. When fighting broke out in the streets, the Germans quickly assumed that the priests in town were leading an uprising against them. Even when it could be seen that this was obviously not true, it was too late; a wave of seething anger was unleashed that could not be contained. In addition to hundreds of civilians being killed and their homes destroyed, the great Catholic university with its library containing many rare manuscripts was purposefully set ablaze, not to destroy anything of military value but the soul of their enemy. This was not just retaliation for a perceived attack but the sign of passionate deep rooted hatred.

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The ruins of churches seem to have been a popular subject from the large amounts of them that appear on postcards, but their meaning is not always clear. Do they represent cultural destruction or are they just another damaged building? The uniqueness of many designs combined with their height makes them a natural focal point when searching for a composition. While their large numbers may be due to nothing more than aesthetic choices by photographers, this type of image is so loaded with meaning that it is difficult not to believe that the destruction of a church was not meant to represent an extraordinary transgression. Unless the title gives us a clue there is no sure way of understanding the intention.

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The clearest example of cultural destruction to be found on postcards is that of the damage inflicted on the cathedral at Reims, the traditional site of royal coronations. While Germans either denied responsibility or made excuses for it, the bombardment still became an important component of Allied propaganda itemizing German crimes. No military rational would be accepted in an attempt to describe the cathedral’s destruction as a deliberate act by those with no respect for culture. The countless artists signed and photo-based postcards of Reims cathedral helped to turn the War into a Crusade to save Christian civilization from German Kultur. This propaganda had great effect in turning public opinion in neutral nations against Germany, especially in the United States and Italy. Much of Germany’s actions going forward would be presented with moral rather than political overtones.

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In cases like the destruction of the cathedral at Reims where there was a great public outcry, it wasn’t enough to produce endless cards showing its destruction and ruins. Damage to other smaller churches may pass for the expected byproduct of war, but Reims was an opportunity to convert documentation into pure propaganda. It was no longer good enough to just picture destruction, it had to be definitively presented as a criminal act against civilization and the criminals responsible for it clearly defined. This is a rare occurrence on cards picturing war damage but it was a fairly common practice when picturing the destruction at Reims. It proved so successful to the propaganda war that some did not want the Martyr Cathedral restored in favor of its ruins left standing as an anti-German monument.

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The London View Co. was an early publisher of military cards that covered all aspects of the War from the Allied point of view, so it should be of no surprise that they also depicted ruins. These cards however are not just of rubble and bombed out buildings, this set captures the major cathedrals of Belgium and France burning in dramatic fashion. It is difficult to tell if this pictorial strategy was meant to arouse more passion against the Germans or increase the sale of cards. It was most likely a combination of both.

Real Photo Postcard

The damage depicted on most cards has a somewhat generic feel even when exact locations are given. They are often just meant to express revulsion at destruction in general, blaming Germany as the cause if only indirectly. Some cards however refer to specific weapons such as the Paris Gun that bombarded the city from a great distance in 1918. Most often specified damage is portrayed as a result of Zeppelin raids. While the damage itself looks little different from that caused by a common artillery piece, it was the caption that directed attention to the uniqueness of these weapons that made them stand out in the public’s mind. These weapons were also directly employed against civilians, which created a market for mementos among witnesses.

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If depictions of ruined towns by Allied publishers were meant to display acts of German barbarity, then it would seem that German publishers would try to avoid depicting the destruction their armies wrought. This however was not the case, as there are almost as many postcards displaying ruined French towns on German cards as there are from France. When no narrative is provided in the caption, the card’s meaning is a matter of interpretation, and the same subject was viewed with a different mindset in Germany than it was in France. To the Germans such destruction was seen as a natural outcome of war with no moral judgement placed on it. If anything images of destruction represented the prowess of their army and the inability of their enemy to defend their territory. Every ruined town brought the War closer to its end. This might not be a cultural difference as much as one of circumstance. It was not German towns that were in ruin, and many Frenchmen wanted to bestow the same destruction on Germany in revenge.

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The illustration on the German fieldpost card above, painted by H. Bauer is barely discernible as a destruction card. It first reads as a pleasant pastoral landscape until the burnt out homes in a gentle fold are discovered. Could this be an attempt to appeal to the soldier who wanted a military themed card that might not be too upsetting for his family? There was always a divide between demonstrating the destruction that would lead to victory and disguising all the surrounding danger that might prevent a soldier from returning home.

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Schaar & Dathe of Trier published many military postcards, but they are especially known for their attractive brightly colored cards issued early in the War depicting non-combat scenes from the Western Front. Most of these cards depict ruins, but here the destruction of property is presented as the natural outcome of war without any overlying moralization. This approach was very common on German cards. The particular interest of this publisher in ruins may stem from their proximity to the battlefront. Many of their customers no doubt had some connection to many of the places they depicted. The monotone photo-based cards of ruins produced by Schaar & Dathe much later have the same documentary feel but without the same appeal.

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French postcards may have deplored the destruction of their towns on postcards, but as in most cases destruction is usually only found to be abhorrent by the victims. Since the Western Front was largely fought on French soil, their publishers concentrated on depicting the destruction of Germans rather than their towns. This is often represented in conjunction with their famous 75mm field gun. Here its destructive power is displayed not as horror but as a symbol of hope and joyous revenge.

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There were some German towns that suffered war damage, particularly in East Prussia, and charity cards were published to provide aid in their relief. The set produced by E.V. in Berlin however mimics many of the same characteristics of the color cards produced by Schaar & Dathe. The cards are attractive, and at first glance there is no realization that the subject is a town suffering from the effects of war. Perhaps the publisher was trying to sugar coat the destruction in Prussia while downplaying the power of the Russians. This formula is contrary to the cards published in other nations that focus on pulling emotional strings.

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Perhaps the best example of the matter of fact attitude toward destruction can be found on German fieldpost cards that depict ruins from all battle fronts. Many of these images appear to be based on firsthand accounts, presumably sketched by soldiers or war artists. They rarely contain any printed message other than the name of the place they are depicting. These types of cards must have been popular among German soldiers or they would not have been produced in such large quantities. Some of these cards were produced for specific regiments. If these cards actually captured towns that the regiment fought in, they would have the same appeal as any tourist oriented view-card. This is where I’ve been, this is what I did.

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While most fieldpost cards depict ruins rather than action scenes, there are cards that reproduce moments of destruction though the sketches of artists on the spot. These may not have the benefit of carefully composed illustrations that were commonly placed on artist signed cards, but they often capture the immediacy of an event. Though they may still convey a propaganda message, it feels as if they are only presenting the facts.

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While most postcards depicting ruins are photo-based it is much more rare to find them issued in this format as fieldpost cards. Even when artwork does not cover up the damage, it creates a barrier between viewer and subject matter to make it more palatable. On photo-based cards there was no escape from the horrors of war. Even so these types of cards were mailed out as if they were ordinary view-cards from a holiday except that the houses pictured are burnt out or have no roofs. In peacetime, many people sent cards to relay a message that had nothing to do with the subject matter pictured. It can only be assumed that this was a result of price, limited choice, or convenience. Soldiers in the field rarely had the opportunity to be very choosy.

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Nearly all postcards that convey the message of destruction do so through the depiction of the ruins of buildings, but there are exceptions. Boats, railways, and roadside convoys hit by artillery fire were all prime subjects for postcards. Even if the physical damage was relatively smaller than on cards showing a bombed out town, these images could still convey an equally potent message. Their secret laid with the photographer not the subject. The ability to see the essence of one’s subject and to capture it through careful composition can turn anything into a powerful image. This was a particular concern when such images were recorded for charity cards for the mood of the buyer had to be carefully manipulated to produce sales. Of course not all postcards achieve this balance and are simply bad as both postcards and art. Not everyone in publishing was good at what they were doing.

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A number of artists incorporated images of destruction into their work to produced antiwar messages during the conflict. While they usually portrayed some elements of death and ruin, they largely conveyed their meaning through classical symbolism. These works tended to be tolerated by authorities to some degree if they presented their message in general terms without specifying the complicity of their own nation. All that felt the pinch of war were sympathetic to these images, but troubles could always be blamed on the enemy. As the War progressed so did the suppression of this type of expression within belligerent nations.

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Some cards did not hold back when presenting the destruction caused by the War. It was not so much the imagery that was different since the actual destruction was as bad as it gets; it was the written context it was put into. Words like Holocaust appear, referring to a sacrifice made to God that is completely burnt to ash. It is difficult to separate such images from the large outbreak of messianic fears that gripped Europe at this time.

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Charities often walked a fine line when it came to reproducing images of destruction. Sorrowful depictions of need stirred emotions that helped raise money, but the complicity of one’s own nation in these events had to be carefully circumnavigated. It is difficult not to read many of these cards as anything but antiwar, but perhaps it was these organizations public stance in promoting the war effort that saved them from censors. Since most antiwar sentiment was suppressed, it is charity cards that are responsible for most of the imagery depicting the darker side of war.

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Sometimes scenes of devastation that imparted an antiwar message were officially encouraged when produced in neutral nations. Though a stance of neutrality kept some nations out of the fight, they still suffered hardships when normal routines of trade collapsed. The need for reservists to leave their jobs for border defense put further strains on the economy and family life. This was particularly true in Switzerland, who in turn produced many cards that contrasted their peaceful nation with the destructive maelstrom across their border. These cards reminded soldier and civilian alike of why the hardship of defending their borders must be endured.

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Most postcards depict scenes of destruction as a negative consequence of war while others take a more neutral stance and show it as an expected outcome. There was however postcards that called for devastation as an act of justifiable revenge. Most of these are French propaganda cards directed against Germany. The promotion of such ideas made it impossible to come to terms when opportunities for a negotiate peace arose. Despite the uncompromising terms offered in the final November armistice, many were still unsatisfied wishing to see Germany dismembered into small states if not totally erased from Europe’s map. These attitudes are reflected on postcards.

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Though many towns were either destroyed as a consequence of long range artillery fire or through purposeful acts by retreating armies, the worst destruction took place where armies fought. This was especially true on battlefronts that remained static over years of trench warfare. Years of bombardment turned these landscapes into pot marked moonscapes where barely a recognizable feature was left intact. During the War it largely fell to artists to capture such places.

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The stereotype of the war torn battlefield was no man’s land, the strip of contested territory between two trench lines. Typically it was pot marked with shell holes, and devoid of vegetation except for the splintered remnants of a few trees from incessant combat. During lulls in fighting, some plants did grow back but this is rarely represented on postcards because the image does not fit into public expectations. No man’s land quickly grew into a mythical place where any spun tale of horror seemed possible. The American card above states it is “one of the best pictures of no man’s land . . .” when it is little different from countless other real photo cards. The tendency to use superlatives is common on postcards from the United States, especially when trying to attract buyers to images portraying nothing in particular.

Real Photo Postcard

Many war torn landscapes were captured on film once the conflict ended and photographers were once again free to roam. The desolation captured was often haunting, and in some ways almost unbelievable. Though artists have the liberty to create expressive works that are not bound by reality, many photographs are still difficult to beat when expressing devastation. The idea that photographs don’t lie is a basic visual premise regardless of the truth behind it, rendering many of these images more poignant. While they may just be matter of fact compositions without any propaganda intent, they remain some of the most haunting reminders of the true cost and sadness of war.

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Beginning in the last months of the War, there were official efforts by some like the committee established by the British Ministry of Information under Lord Beaverbrook to collect art that illustrated all parts of the war effort for a National War Museum. An emphasis was put on the types of expressive pieces that usually failed to find their way onto postcards due to propaganda efforts and censorship. After the Imperial War Museum opened in June 1920, they began publishing postcard art reproductions that captured much of the corporal and human destruction caused by the conflict. It is through these expressive postwar images that the Great War is largely remembered.

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Some artists found that they were unable to portray the horrors of this war through ordinary rendering and looked for other means. The art world at this time was already in the midst of its own revolution with the expansive growth of modernism. There was no one new style to chose from and artists expressed themselves in a variety of ways ranging from symbolism to abstraction. Most of this work was not appreciated during the War years by the public at large or by official censors. Even though most of this work only received acclaim in postwar years, some of these works found themselves on postcards toward the end of the conflict.

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While some postcards seam to randomly capture ruins, others are carefully composed to give a greater sense of tragedy. In these the destruction that befell towns and villages was turned into the vastness of devastation. We do not just see tumbled walls and splintered wood, but entire communities destroyed. While cleanup efforts made in postwar years allowed many surviving residents to return and rebuild their communities, some areas were so full of decaying flesh and unexploded ordinance that they proved impossible to rehabilitate. The French government declared these areas Red Zones and forbid anyone to enter. They still remain fenced off toxic filled ghost towns.

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On some cards it is not the presence of ruins but their emptiness that becomes their most expressive feature. It is as if the War left nothing in the world intact. Even if it was not the intention of the photographer or publisher to convey a greater antiwar message, it is difficult to read such images as only an indictment of the enemy. These cards seem to say that there are no winners when this is what we are left with.

Real Photo Postcard

Not all postcards picturing destruction are of towns. Many heavily forested areas like the Argonne or the Vosges Mountains saw continuous fighting throughout the War, which took a heavy toll on the landscape as well as on men. Trees that once grew so dense that they severely limited vision and changed the nature of warfare were continually turned into spindly broken poles or completely blasted into oblivion. This progression was inadvertently captured by real photo postcards as they were produced over years of war.

Real Photo Postcard

Sometimes it is single trees that have fallen victim to the War that are highlighted. This was a popular subject though it was probably meant to demonstrate the power of artillery fire more that depict a ravaged landscape. Even so there is no getting around the destructive nature of the modern battlefield.

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When soldiers hastily retreat they often left heavy weapons behind as they were too time consuming to move. Enemy soldiers that capture this abandoned equipment were usually in a worse position to move them in the short run, but they were quickly moved to the rear if possible to prevent recapture in a counterattack. The many guns damaged in counter battery fire or just through excessive wear usually turned into forgotten relics. They became popular subjects for photographers who followed an advancing army. While there were many such sights to be found and many cards were made, really good compositions were not that easy to come by. Some of the same destroyed equipment was reproduced over and over on postcards.

Real Photo Postcard

The battlefront around Ypres and Passchandale was romanticized after the War into Flanders Fields. While this muddy crater filled wasteland was not typical of the entire Western Front, personal accounts of the horrendous fighting here, often in terrible conditions, has come to stereotype the Great War. This is not the typical war story of great victories or heroism but of the endurance of men. Most images of this place seem to be on unauthorized real photo cards, which is understandable since they tend to evoke a very negative side of the War. While it is not possible to attribute motivation to these images with any certainty, it is known that some soldiers desperately wanted to counter official propaganda describing their battlefield conditions. Most of these images were probably never published until the War’s end.

Real Photo Postcard

Early in the War, many postcards were published to give those back home some reassurance that if a loved one was killed in battle, his body would be properly handled and buried with the respect it deserved. Those who spent some time on the battlefront knew better. While soldiers did indeed go out of their way to bury dead comrades as best they could, this was not always practical. Bodies that were not blown to pieces were often left behind enemy lines or in no-mans-land where they could not be retrieved. Sometimes armies were simply on the move and could not bother with the dead. On the real photo postcard above dating from 1918, we see hundreds of bodies piled into a roadside ditch. Were these men killed on a firing line or were bodies just dumped here out of convenience? Just like all other forms of destruction depicted on cards, soldiers march past the dead as if they held no more value than ruble from a destroyed home. While these cards seem to express an indifference towards death, the photograph would never had been taken had not the photographer been appalled by this morbid scene.

Real Photo Postcard

While postcard publishers primarily concentrated on picturing damage to property and the land, there were many unofficial real photo cards that captured the destruction of bodies as well. These are not the typical images of the fallen left behind at the end of a battle but the scattered remains and bone fragments of long forgotten soldiers. Some of these were taken by soldiers at the front lines, but they were probably more often made after the Armistice but before there was a concerted effort to gather up what remained of the dead. Some areas were so contaminated with decaying remains that no effort was ever made to reclaim them. Though fenced off out of health concerns, this did not stop every roaming photographer. The meaning behind these images may be left open, but regardless of the photographer’s intentions they express the true cost of war.

Real Photo Postcard

There are many cards of ruined towns but few capture the toll of the War beyond the destruction of property. A number may show people walking down cleared streets or posing next to the shells of buildings but there is rarely anything to indicate if they are former inhabitants or curiosity seekers. Less common are scenes containing people that do not just express the tragedy of devastated homes but the desperation of the survivors who are now clearly refugees. While these cards may say that life goes on, they leave open the question, for how long?

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View-cards depicting destruction in cities and towns can be divided into two groups, those that show the immediate aftermath and those taken after cleanup. Both types tend to look exactly alike since buildings usually held little to no military significance and were left alone. What was important was the roads that passed through them. Rubble from collapsing buildings that poured into the street had to be cleaned up as soon as possible so that a steady flow of men and supplies could reach the front lines. A few rare cards show this rubble in the process of being removed.

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Trench lines were built through towns as well as fields. While some in obscure areas were left alone to erode at their own pace and still exist to some extent, those in more built up areas became a major hazard to safety and movement once the battle lines shifted and the native population returned. Most of these trenches were just quickly filled with debris and rubble to bring back some functionality to the community. Cards that depict these activities are not common.

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Regardless of intentions to purely document the conflict, many photographers could not give up on their peacetime aesthetics. While it is now impossible to assign motivation, it is not a stretch to say that matters of balance and light are never far from a photographer’s eye whether conscious or not. This resulted in many images whose abstract beauty seems unaffected by the disturbing nature of the subject matter. This of course was also true for photographers who shot disasters long before the Great War, only now it distracted from the propaganda message.

Real Photo Postcard

Although most examples of destruction involve the ruins of buildings or whole towns, there are also many examples of destroyed trucks along a roadside, destroyed artillery pieces, and mangled downed planes. While most of these convey the spirit of destruction, they can also be rendered abstractly to the point of great visual appeal. The horror of the subject is subverted by its artistic sensibilities as long as there is no human element to jar us back to the War.

Real Photo Postcard

Public interest in disasters and human tragedy not only predates the Great War, it is directly tied to the growth and popularity of visual imagery. Some researchers believe that these voyeuristic tendencies into suffering are an inherent human trait passed down through our genes. Today this hunger for disaster is largely satiated by television where we can consume a countless number of fires and car crashes when larger tragedies are not at hand. A hundred years ago most people’s lives were devoid of such images. While there were pictorial papers and magazines at the time, most images were acquired through the exchange of picture postcards. These cards provided a safe clean alternative to reality while still feeding our desire to consume destructive imagery. Their editing protects our wandering eyes from what is most disturbing in real life. The appeal of such cards does not seem to be a symptom of destructive tendencies as much as a desire to feel more alive, and perhaps more real. Perhaps this can also be said of many who were drawn into participating in the Great War?

(See Disaster Postcards: A Voyage into Voyeurism, dated December 28, 2012, in this website’s Blog archives for more information on this subject.)




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