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Themes of World War One:
Farewells and Homecomings  pt1


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With all the battles and weapons depicted on military postcards it is easy to forget that a great number of them, if not most, were passed between soldiers and their families. Their personal concerns may have been wrapped up in the context of the War, but they tended to outweigh the propaganda that promoted the War. Postcards publishers knew this, and they did their best to produce cards that would fit these needs. Two of the most common postcards in this category were those that depict a soldier leaving home for war, and then returning afterwards. These themes are more complimentary than contradictory; sometimes to the point where their depictions are indistinguishable from each other. They also hold a commonality in that the events portrayed are usually acted out by both the sender and recipient of the card; reinforcing their significance. These types of cards remained very popular throughout the entire War.

One of the most emotional aspects attached to the Great War was the same as in any other war; saying goodbye to oneís family. Despite all the patriotic rhetoric about fulfilling oneís duty and bringing honor to oneís nation, everyone knew deep down that there was always the unwelcome risk of injury or death even in a short war. While danger added to the romance surrounding valor, it was this unspoken aspect that also added anxiety to the pangs of separation. Although many of the postcards that depict these final moments before departure are very similar, there are notable differences as well. A major divide is that between public displays and intimate moments.

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While not exactly farewell cards, those that display the celebratory moments when war was first declared loosely fit into this category. They seem to be consistently portrayed as public events in which large crowds gather. Even though there was strong opposition to declaring war throughout Europe, and great gatherings were held to oppose it; public sentiment quickly shifted to the point where the high spirits shown on cards did not have to be exaggerated. Even though no one is shown heading off to war, this reality is the unspoken backdrop to the scene. Few of these types of cards were made as publishers quickly refocused most of their efforts on picturing action packed battle scenes.

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The typical public farewell card consists of columns of troops marching down a street past enthusiastic well-wishers. Their cheers show the soldier and potential soldiers how much the nation appreciates a man in uniform. These are often long views displaying as many men as possible to imply unstoppable military might. Garlands and wreaths are often shown being thrown at or presented to individual soldiers, which can add confusion to the storyline. The oak wreath, often found on German cards, was a symbol for success, which was usually presented to troops returning home in victory. On these cards they are presented to departing troops as a show of confidence in the victory yet to come. The visual distinction is not always strong, which could have been purposeful on part of the publisher so he could get more use from the card.

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The throwing of objects ranging from candy to fruit and beads has been a long held tradition at parades. Perhaps the most common object to be thrown is flowers or their petals, a custom that dates back to ancient times. Flowers are an almost universal aspect of farewell cards where they basically symbolize good luck. While they are usually shown either raining down on soldiers from windows or littering the street beneath their feet, some artists approached this very common scene in unusual ways. On the French card above by Albert Guillaume, the troops take backstage while women frantically gather flowers to shower then with. This variation allowed women to look as patriotic as the men marching off to war, and no doubt created more customers for postcards in the process.

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Sometimes a small group of solders is singled out to seize a more relatable intimate moment out of a large public event. The soldiers in these compositions are usually decorated with the flowers presented to them, some attached to uniforms and hats, others sticking out of rifle barrels. No other reference is needed to instill the feeling of a good send off. By publishing such scenes on postcards, these types of public displays and the values that surround them are codified into society. These cards also reinforce the notion that the individual soldier is not alone; that he possesses greater strength from the ranks he marches with and from the adoring public that is depending on his service. No one fights alone.

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Publishers always seeking to increase sales often combined themes that had no direct connection to each other like farewells and holiday cards. Military themes added to any card made them seem more relevant in these times; and sending one could be seen as an expression of patriotism as well as holiday spirit. On the German card above, a child hands out traditional flowers to passing soldiers, while the woman offers colored Easter eggs.

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Interactions between marching soldiers and civilians out on the street is another way that farewell cards were often presented. The crowds consist of nothing more than children, old men, and women to imply that every able bodied man is in uniform. Children are often portrayed as the most enthusiastic, some partially dressed in military gear to imply their own desire to run off with the troops. War on these cards is a pure adventure that will only bestow honor on these men when they return. This is a fairly realistic portrayal of attitudes early in the War when the possibility of death was barely a consideration.

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Women are often portrayed alongside children enthusiastically handing out flowers to passing lines of soldiers. A common variation is the depiction of a proper woman reluctantly exiting her home to send off the troops in person, usually with a token in hand. While seemingly innocent, these scenes betray normal social behavior in which women were expected to be more reserved in the presence of strangers. By behaving in this forward manner, they demonstrate that their patriotism and support for the troops is so great that they overwhelm social norms. This behavior was a big morale booster to young men who may have had limited contact with the opposite sex. In a way these cards were not only meant to represent events but give permission to women to act this way as showing support for the troops was now overriding all other expectations.

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Postcards showing a single women in the street with marching men usually emphasize the personal aspect of the last goodbye. While these cards are often sentimental and sometimes romantic, they tend to be upbeat as each has a duty to fulfill. This idea is sometimes taken further as on the card above, where sentimentality has been purged. Here the wife is not saying goodbye, but is in lockstep with her husband, insinuating that they have different but equal duties to the nation.

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Postcard publishers generally showed their own patriotism by producing cards that promoted the nation’s war effort, and thus most farewell cards were upbeat in their mood. They were however also businesses that could better make a profit by catering to the needs of a wider audience. While depictions of crowds cheering troops leaving for the battlefront were more reality than propaganda, there were also many who were not happy to see their loved ones go off to war. When this mood was captured on cards, publishers were careful not to present them as being antiwar. Women or families still watch the troops march by, but now it is from a distance as if the emotional strain is too much for them. While the anxiety expressed is over separation, the fear of harm always seems to reside in the background even if not spelled out.

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Many soldiers in the Great War were the victim of huge artillery blasts that tore them apart. The bodies of those lost in no man’s land were more likely to churn into the mud than ever be recovered. The nature and scale of this conflict produced many more missing in action than was ever expected. Few postcards tackle this difficult subject, and those that do usually follow a set formula. On the German cards above by Hugo Spindler we are presented with the typical setting of a farewell; only here there is a grieving wife under a portrait of her soldier husband framed in a wreath. Her young son watches troops march off to war but without the usual enthusiasm. Only the cat is oblivious to the folly of men. While such cards acknowledge grief, they are also about the sacrifice that duty to nation requires.

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Farewell cards of all varieties primarily engage emotions through the display of personal encounters. They may be meant to be patriotic displays but they are always aimed at intimate feelings first. Some cards try to overtly insert a patriotic message into them, by showing troops marching past a reviewing stand loaded with dignitaries and generals. While it might seem that such cards would make for better propaganda, the low numbers that exist indicate they were not very popular. Farewells ultimately came down to family dynamics that had little to do with national ambitions.

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Farewell cards used for propaganda often show masses of men gathering to march off to war. These cards are not so much about the sending off of troops with the proper fanfare as they are about displaying the unity of the nation. It is only through the patriotism of the nation’s people that such a massive army can be raised, and it can only result in victory. Flags and banners are usually added to these compositions to help symbolize the nationalistic cause. German publishers were particularly fond of adding Austro-Hungarian flags into these scenes so they could also perform as unity cards. This also broadened the consumer base as these cards could be sold in both nations.

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On the Italian card above we see a typical enthusiastic crowd providing a send off for troops at a rail station.What is unusual about this card is that it is not just about the emotions tied into the farewell; the sign on the side of the train indicates that they are going off to redeem Italian lands. Few Italian soldiers cared about the political goal of seizing territory from Austria-Hungary, but is was a common message on Italian cards. The inclusion of a specific message may at first seem to deny the card the status of a generic, but the argument for redemption was a singular message pressed throughout the War. In this way the card can now serve on both a personal and propaganda level.

Real Photo Postcard

A number of real photo postcards captured troops marching off to war. Not all of these are celebratory as the troops pictured may have just left their camp situated in the middle of nowhere. Those that capture scenes in towns or cities with troops marching past crowds may seem more alive, but they rarely match the enthusiasm found on artist drawn cards. Even though most of these cards were probably produced to act as mementos for those left behind, their focus is to act as propaganda by showing the might the nation can muster.

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Postcards displaying victorious troops marching into a city or town can easily be mistaken for farewell cards because they share much of the same visual language. With crowds and troops in the streets and sometimes flowers, food, and flags as well, it is only the caption that separates the two events. This type of card is usually German and was primarily used on two occasions. The first shows German troops marching into Belgium, particularly Brussels. Even though the local population merely stands in silent curiosity, the card still insinuates that an important victory over Belgium has been won. Far more common are cards that show German troops in Poland where they are enthusiastically greeted as liberators from Russian occupation. While Poles did fight alongside Germans, it was seen as the first step in reconstituting their own state. German publishers produced many propaganda cards showing their armies as welcome or at least benign presence in Poland. This was needed to cover Germany’s own imperialistic ambitions in the region.

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The vast majority of farewell cards that deal with public displays show troops marching down city streets or dusty small town roads. The most common variation to this are cards that show troops having already boarded their train while well-wishers crowd the platform to say their last goodbyes. Young women invariably make up the crowd, adding a subdued sexual tension. Flowers are often thrown, food or coffee are handed out, and a few last parting kisses taken. Flowers and wreaths can now decorate trains as well as soldiers, and gifts of food were not uncommon. Most troops were sent to the front lines by rail after being mobilized, equipped and trained. Since most rail stations were in cities, this brought soldiers back in contact with civilians for celebratory encounters.

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There are a limited number of tropes that were used on farewell cards, but these could always be enhanced or expanded upon by linking them to more elaborate references. The most common way to do this was by adding a few lines of a well known song or poem to a card. The British publisher Bamforth & Co. was a master at this. On their card above we se a typical farewell scene at a train station but it is linked to the very popular song written in 1914, Till the Boys Come Home (renamed Keep the Home-Fires Burning in 1915). Not only does the card reinforce the sentiments of soldiers heading for the battlefield, it is now overshadowed by the noble aspirations of helping a friend in need. The complicated political argument for aiding Belgium is shunted aside in favor of the sentimental, which is easier to grasp.

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Although most depictions of troops departing on trains were shown as festive events, some cards eliminate this aspect completely. These types of cards were more likely to be issued later in the War as when the Americans came in. There were little illusions about the hard fighting ahead at this point in the conflict, and its end was nowhere in sight. In the face of this reality, publishers were reluctant to portray men heading off to war in a frivolous way. Instead these cards represent a serious determination to get the job done. The title on the card above, TROOPS ENTRAINING FOR SOMEWHERE, was typical of American cards. Even though a generic could have been without using the term, somewhere, it adds a forbidden mystery to the card that might have been employed to increase sales. It satisfied sensors while giving publishers an excuse to create a profitable generic.

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There are just as many postcards if not more that depict trains carrying troops to the front being greeted by civilians as they pass through the countryside. In most of these, people are just shown waving goodbye with great enthusiasm, though banners can also be present to ensure the message gets across. These cards are always presented through the perspective of civilians.

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On later farewell cards, it is no longer acceptable to just show civilians waving goodbye to soldiers heading off to the front; they must also be shown doing their part for the war effort. There are only so many ways this can be done in an outdoor setting, so the civilians involved are either pictured as farmers in their fields or city folk tending to their new urban gardens. Scenes of raising food were particularly noticeable on German cards because of the British blockade on foodstuffs. Soldiers wanted to feel they were not carrying the burden of war alone, while those back home wanted to show that they were participating as best they could and were not idyll while others fought for them. In this war everyone does their part.

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Even though many postcards display public farewells, they seem to be outnumbered by those that capture more private moments. While public ceremonies might have made soldiers feel appreciated and that they were fighting for a greater cause, it was their separation from loved ones that tended to consume their thoughts. Publishers may provide cards displaying jubilant optimism, but they knew where their market was and supplied sentimental cards to fill emotional needs. There was no one formula for this, and so here to we find a variety of expression. A very typical scenario shows a soldier marching off next to his concerned wife. Either one may be carrying their youngest child in arms to emphasize that his departure is a real sacrifice to the family. There is usually an older child at his side; if a girl she mimics the concern of her mother, if a boy he is shown prepared to join his father in the fight when the time comes.

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While the card above seems to portray a typical farewell, the caption, Urlauber’s abschied seems to make reference to the soldier taking a holiday. For many men who went off to war, leaving the responsibilities of home and a hard monotonous life of labor behind truly felt like a vacation. Under no other circumstances could this routine have been easily broken. While this probably caused many men to enlist before the horrors of war became apparent, the sentiment was not generally considered a proper subject for postcards unless disguised under the pretext of adventure. This card however most likely represents the second farewell of a soldier leaving his family after a few days on home leave, which was a vacation from the battlefront.

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Although the coming of the Great War created a tremendous demand for farewell cards, it was a traditional genre previously illustrated by artists for some time. While topical elements related to the War now had to be added to compositions, the basic troupes associated with this narrative could continued to be relied on. The image of the lone soldier waving goodbye to his sweetheart in an window at dawn is very similar to the parting scenes found on numerous cards of the wanderer, popularized in verse and song. Even though the wanderer being true to his roving spirit seems to embrace the behavior of an individualist, he is a protector of the homeland and thus acts are collective in spirit. Similarly soldiers must fulfill their rightful duty to protect the country even if this takes them far from home.

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Most of these private farewell cards can be split into two categories, the first being a soldier saying goodbye to his family. Not all cards in this category are private moments as they sometimes bridge the gap with those showing public celebrations. While the entire family might be present, the setting is typically the home doorstep where there is a swell of conflicted emotions. There is longing to stay with the family he loves while he must join his new military family for love of his country.

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Children often play a very important role on farewell cards because the emotionality attached to them could easily support both personal and patriotic themes. They may supply hugs and kisses, but they are just as often pictured helping to gather military gear, for as much as they will miss their father they know he has an important job to do. While the sentimentality of parting is nearly always displayed, the message to these cards is that the soldier has something back home worth fighting for so he needs to do his duty. To create an even stronger patriotic flavor, many of these types of cards sacrifice the feeling of authenticity.

Real Photo Postcard

There are farewell postcards that show the relationship between a father and his children in seemingly more realistic ways. While they rarely seemed forced, they don’t always completely ring true either since the written captions that are usually added to these cards can obliterate the subtler visual narrative. Publishers always walked a fine line in expressing what people actually felt and what they should feel as patriotic citizens. When trying to satisfy customers and support the War at the same time, the power inherent in the sentimental was employed to project patriotic messages.

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Propaganda efforts vilified the enemy as an aggressor, making most people in all nations feel that it was they who were being threatened. By this reasoning a soldier protecting the nation is also protecting his family. A number of cards presented the typical family goodbye within a symbolic setting rather than a realistic one to more easily get this message across. In this way the soldier is shown to be serving both nation and family equally because they are one.

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Most postcards that use symbolism to show a soldier’s duty to family and country are highly patriotic in their tone. Any emotion displayed is subdued as the message is meant to express higher ideals that go beyond personal desire. These types of cards might make great propaganda but they did not suit everyone’s needs. Many cards that contain symbolic nationalistic elements also display emotionally charged scenes as the pull between family and duty was not so clear cut a choice when actually confronted with it. Even women who might miss their husbands were under social pressure to send them off. No one wanted to look selfish or be married to a coward. These are not antiwar cards; we know the soldier will fulfill his obligations, but they probably come very close to expressing the real ambivalence that existed toward the supporting the cause.

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Military service was compulsory in a number of nations during peacetime, and afterwards these same men would remain in the reserves to be called upon if needed. In Germany this tradition dated back to the Napoleonic era when it was used to help break French rule. In 1914 the German army not only consisted of active troops and reservists, but a home guard (Landstrum), made up of men who had already served in the reserve for eleven years. By this time most had settled into family life so they were normally excused from their light duties upon reaching the age of 45. With the coming of the War they were placed unto active service, which caused quite a hardship to their families. German publishers produced many cards specifically focused on these older men, which included farewell cards. The beards they wore became the signature of their status, and postcards always depict them this way. On the card above the soldier not only leaves his family behind but his duties to his farm as well. Here symbolism substitutes for emotional content.

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The card above depicts a bearded soldier in the Landstrum saying goodbye to his family in a heartfelt scene. The couple obviously does not want to part, but there are greater concerns at play that override personal desires. In the background a portrait of the Kaiser as a ship’s captain reminds us that he is obliged to do his duty steering the empire, and the soldier must do his duty and serve the nation as well. The wife already wears the household keys on her waist to show that she has taken over all household responsibilities. Even those left behind on the home front have duties to fulfill. This type of symbolic style was in widespread use in the arts since the 19th century.

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Farewell cards were not just produced in warring nations; many neutrals had to call up their reserves just in case fighting spilled over their borders. While these troops did not fight, they still had to spend long periods away from their families, which caused great economic hardships. Although the threat of death was light, it was still there and added to the strain of separation. Swiss publishers probably produced more of these types of cards than any other neutral nation. When the risk of invasion was low, many reservists were allowed to go home and rejoin their families; but the risk of having to return to the front always hung over them. This sentiment is found on a number of Swiss cards, turning the happy moments depicted bittersweet.

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Some farewell cards lack a romantic perspective but are not devoid of caring. Many of the young men who went off to war were too young to be married or have sweethearts. They were also represented on many cards, only here it is their mother who provides the farewell. While there is plenty of room here for these types of cards to get excessively sentimental, the narrative is usually kept rather stoic. Whatever sadness the mother might feel is repressed in order to show how proud she is while she bestows her blessings. While the family moment depicted is intimate, the overall context is patriotic. It is a reminder that as painful as parting may be, a mother also has a duty to give her sons to the nation; and on postcards at least she always does so willingly. Even though loyalty to oneís nation was expected by everyone, the idea of fulfilling oneís duty seems to be most strongly expressed on cards from Germany and Great Britain.

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The least common farewell cards seem to be those of soldiers saying goodbye to their fathers. They tend to lack the emotionality of many other cards, which probably lowered their appeal. Publishers however were only being sensitive to prevalent social norms. The soldier on the German card above is decked out with flowers from admiring children, while the father only offers his hand. Going off to war is a serious matter, and the father who wears an iron cross passes down the responsibility of serving the nation to his son as a solemn time honored tradition.

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Perhaps the most common of all farewell cards produced during the Great War are those that depict a soldier leaving his sweetheart behind. Sometimes this is a wife, sometimes a girlfriend, but often the distinction is unclear so that the card can find more customers. While the theme may seem simple enough, it was depicted with much variation. Some of these differences were due to marketing practices, so all tastes could be satisfied. There were however also social differences between nations in that they did not all agree as to what was proper to be expresses in public and thus on card. These cards can be generally divided into two groups, one that displays strong personal emotions to hook the customer, and the more subdued that relies on patriotic rhetoric.

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Most British cards tend to be emotionally subdued, for while it was okay to express feelings towards one’s family, there were stricter boundaries to be adhered to when it came to romance. These farewell cards were often accompanied by a written narrative announcing a pledge of love and fidelity, but they are ultimately patriotic in their flavor. Duty to the empire always comes first on postcards, though this might express the mood of the publisher more than the nation. Firms like Bamforth & Co., who produced many such cards as the one above, had a long history of incorporating religious or moral themes in their work before the War.

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Publishers in the United States were often as conservative as those in Great Britain when it came to romance, though not all cards follow this model. Those that manage to show more romantic moments are usually tempered by captions that were identical to their British cousins in spirit. Rarely did they stray from simple expressions of love that were also tied to a pledge toward duty.

Many men served as pilots but their numbers were proportionately small when compared to those in the infantry. Despite this the number of postcards depicting farewells with pilots seems proportionally high. There was a great amount of romance attached to flying at this time, so it is possible that this disproportion is a result of marketing efforts. If the presence of a pilot does not personally relate to the buyer of the card, does this mean these cards had appeal beyond the personal connection? It is possible that farewell cards were also purchased by those who were attracted to romantic themes.

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German farewell cards displayed a gamut of expression ranging from the platonic to the passionate. Some farewell cards are so lacking in emotion that the couple involved barely seem to know one another. This type of presentation may seem to defeat the purpose of the card, but it could easily be an example of a publisher catering to a more conservative audience that expects a stoic response to hardship. Many cards at this time were also issued in series, so a single card viewed by itself can give a confusing or distorted narrative.

Woodblock Postcard

Occasionally there is the odd card that combines the public farewell with the private goodbye. The parting soldier is just one of many marching down the street but the cheering crowds are pushed aside so that the composition is focused on a single woman. While her gesturing toward a single soldier shows this is not a casual encounter, the public arena gives the artist an excuse to keep the personal side of separation subdued.

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On the French postcard above we see an internal conflict between two loyalties; that of a son to his family and a soldier to his country. Such feelings must have been common but this card’s message is decisive. Despite the general lack of emotion expressed, the Republic is presented as a second and much larger mother who the son must first serve. The redistribution of personal bonds between family members to that of abstract ideas is a primary goal of propaganda.

Real Photo Postcard

Whenever a particular topic is represented on a postcard through an unusual medium such as woodblock or in sculpture, it is often a sign of the topicís popularity. There were so many cards printed on this theme that artists and publishers sought out new ways to make their cards stand out. Unusual cards did not necessarily attract customers because of their uniqueness. People generally wanted the types of cards they were used to; if not in the printing, at least in the theme. Postcards that dealt with basic human emotions always seem to find an audience regardless of how they are presented.




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