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Themes of World War One:
A common variation on farewell cards are those that depict an ambiguous parting where we are left unsure of the relationship between the parties involved. They are always devoid of the patriotic rhetoric that often accompany such scenes. While they might present a husband leaving his wife behind, the soldier is always outside the home to make his connection with it tenuous. Most of these scenarios involve cavalrymen; a possible reference to troops that only stay in place long enough for a quick romance. Narratives expressing such improper behavior would not be overtly shown by most publishers, though hinting at it was another matter. There was obviously an audience for these types of cards by the sheer number produced. The morality that governed what was acceptable to show in public did not always mirror a society’s behavior, and guidelines were often disrupted further by extreme circumstances such as war. While romantic or sexual liaisons were formed near the front lines, the appeal of these cards is probably related to fantasy. Although their ambiguity may hide what is not to be spoken of in public, the same vagueness is also food for the imagination.
Farewell postcards that display passion in the parting were not very common, but still numerous enough to be noted. Sometimes the scene is accompanied by enough symbolic clues to indicate the woman involved is the spouse, but at other times the interpretation is completely left open. Generic cards not only had the ability to attract a wider audience, they could also help deflect accusations of depicting indecency. Postcards published in the years before the Great War reflect women’s desire for more freedom, but this captured aspirations to redefine their role in society more than they captured reality. The additional strain that war placed on society made many niceties seem foolish in the face of real life and death concerns, and restraints began to be loosened at a faster pace. Women searching for role models sometimes found them on postcards, which were usually ahead of their time as edginess increased sales. It is difficult to say that woman began to mimic the behavior found on postcards, but public displays of emotion became more common. On the card above, we still find a reluctance to be too public.
The German card above id definitely a farewell card because of the column of soldiers marching down the street. Its focus however is on the kissing couple dominating the card, which is a rare public display. While such images were apparently craved, it did not show good character to purchase displays of bad manners. When such intimacies were presented on postcards, publishers often searched for ways to make them more acceptable to their customers. Common solutions were to show kissing with as little passion as possible or to present those involved in a cartoonish way. The less real the rendering, the weaker the association with reality and thus less objectionable. It should also be remembered that postcards as a whole often pushed the limits of socially acceptable behavior.
There are also postcards that express farewells in a more melancholy spirit. Here the last goodbye has already passed, and a pensive woman is depicted watching her loved one disappear toward the horizon. Sometimes only clues are presented such as a filled ashtray, a small memento or an open gate as on the card above. The sadness of farewells was an emotion repeated a million times over, yet those individuals who experiencing it can feel very isolated unless reminded of its universality. Pain shared often brings some relief, and these types of postcards were a reminder to all those on the home front that they were not alone in their suffering.
Separation from one’s family may always generate loneliness, but in times of war worry over the well being of absent family members could also create much anxiety. Many cards hid this underlying reality even when juxtaposing the farewell with scenes of warfare. War on these cards is nothing more than duty and adventure. Accompanying captions often play up the romance of the sad goodbye or the patriotic call to serve. They basically acknowledge the pangs of separation without causing undue worry. These types of cards were plentiful even though the emotions displayed were little more than clichés.
There are a number of cards that depict those at home thinking of their loved ones at the battlefront. These cards often involve letter writing or some form of romantic yearning. Others however seem to depict more troubling emotions as on the card above. Here a mother distracted from her reading by daydreams of her son fighting holds a handkerchief to wipe away her tears. Is she just missing her son or is she worried for his safety? Does a publisher ignore the unpatriotic self indulgence of pain or does he cater to his card buying customers? Ultimately the card is only a symbol onto which we project our own questions and answers. Through a certain amount of vagueness a publisher can address the concerns of his audience without seeming unduly unpatriotic.
Postcards are limited in their ability to convey written messages due to their size, but the pictures printed on them are not always constrained by this small format. Imagery can act as a language in its own right, and its power can be enhanced by its visual symbolism. Postcards were entities that depended on known traditions so that their familiar messages could be easily evoked. If the right associations are made, an image of any size can cause a powerful reaction. The English card above by Bamforth may not be a great work of art, but it is still a potent image made even stronger by the sentimental words attached to it. Leaving a candle in a window to act as a beacon is a tradition so old its specific origins may never be known. By the time of the Great War it had a long history, popularized in poem, song, and hymn that secured its symbolic meaning. By this time the candle had no practical value as a way to guide the soldier away at war back home; it was only meant to show that his family was anxiously awaiting his return, and that setting a beacon was an act of faith in this reunion for it was all that they could do.
By far the most common use of duel frames or creative photo montage work was to illustrate couples dreaming of the eventual homecoming. While a reunion with the entire family might be pictured, most of these cards were more romantic in their expressions of longing. The focus is on the couple, the backdrop little more than a symbolic stage setting, which on some studio shots is nothing more that a painted panel. The presence of war on these cards is the inconvenience that separates lovers, but it is never a real danger.
Even though the card above contains no caption the narrative is pretty clear; a soldier is saying what may be his last goodbyes to family before going into battle. The family of course is not present but is shown in dreamlike fashion; a flashback to the actual farewell. While the intention of this card was probably to send the comforting message that a soldiers last thoughts is of his family, there is a morbidity of impending death hanging over this narrative that is quite disturbing. Split image cards were often used to depict dying soldiers thinking of their families, but very rarely able bodied men before battle. While of good intension its lack of optimism sends a message that neither governments or families wanted to see. Rarely do propaganda cards get it so wrong.
In 1914, all soldiers dreamt of returning home after a quick victory but as the War dragged on home became more of a distant dream. By 1915 both France and Germany had instituted the policy of leave, where a soldier might be given permission to visit home. Even though these visits only lasted for a very short period, they were greatly anticipated. Morale was greatly improved by allowing soldiers to visit home, but leave eventually became more difficult to obtain as manpower shortages grew. Distance often proved an obstacle to leave. It was granted to American soldiers but it had to be taken locally as they could not make a quick round trip over the Atlantic and back. Russia’s vast space and poor railroads insured that leave would only be granted to wounded soldiers so they could convalesce. Portugal simply did not want to pay to ship soldiers home so they spent their entire enlistment in the frontline, which had disastrous effect on their morale and discipline. Postcards were used as a way to quickly notify family of an impending arrival, and leave became the subject matter of many cards.
Word games were very popular in the years leading up to the War, and they were applied to many types of cards. While it is used comically on the card above to announce the upcoming home leave of a soldier, it is an aberration in other ways. War dogs played a serious role for the military in most armies, and many were maimed or killed in the process. Despite this, images of injured dogs are practically nonexistent except for a possible token bandage on a leg to imply valiant service. The close relationship people had with dogs precluded them from being displayed seriously maimed if a sale was to be made. While this card is not of a war dog but a stand in for a soldier, it still pretty much goes against public taste. The extensive bandaging is also severe enough to give the card’s receiver some concern over the condition of the soldier who sent it.
The English Channel proved an obstacle to sending British troops home on leave, and so a system was set up so that soldiers could at least be rotated in and out of the trench lines to give them some rest. When no end to the War was in sight, a system of home leave was finally instituted. This much anticipated event was often celebrated on postcards in conjunction with the term Blighty, which seems to have originated in India as affectionate slang for Great Britain. By 1915 Blighty came into widespread use among soldiers in the trenches after being popularized in song and print.
For most soldiers, a trip home involved traveling aboard a train, and many postcards capture this moment. The troops depicted are usually wounded returning home from the field hospital for convalescence. By this portrayal their high spirits can easily be conveyed to those back home without it seeming too much like a happy vacation when the nation was gripped by the hardships of war. In reality the desire to go home even temporarily was so great that that soldiers wished for a slight wound that would get them there. Many times these injuries were self-inflicted, and thousands were sent to prison after being caught.
Counterbalancing farewell cards are just as many showing the returning soldier being reunited with family back home. These were not cards that necessarily boasted of a great victory won, only of the joys of reunification. Some of these cards displaying wives and children embracing their long missed loved one look little different from those that showed the soldier leaving for war. They usually lack clarifying captions or symbols, and when they do appear they are most likely to be just as ambiguous. As we have seen with similar cards, the ability to invoke a duel meaning created a larger audience for publishers, and so this was no doubt a marketing ploy. In general, more intimate moments were meant to represent homecomings.
While we now think of a passionate kiss at a train station as a classic cliché, such emotional displays in public were frowned upon a hundred years ago. Even though such scenes were presented on postcards, most reserve this activity to more quiet moments when there was at least a hint of privacy. By making the scene a little less public, the bad manners displayed could be more easily overlooked. On the other hand, even a hint of voyeurism made these cards more exciting. The proliferation of such cards might have actually changed people’s behavior by indirectly giving approval to break with tradition, though they were probably met with mixed reactions.
Sometimes the homecoming card is focused on the anticipation of those waiting at home and not the soldier. While the soldier’s presence is always implied by the celebratory preparations, these cards say that he is not the only hero to be recognized. Women who work at creating a proper reception also need to be applauded even if their labor is done with joy. These cards recognize everyone’s efforts in the War while clearly reinforcing gender roles and the social expectations of women. Despite their War related content, these cards also try to say that life on the home front remains fairly normal, which shows the enemy as to impotent to harm them.
On some cards the wife is startled at the unexpected arrival of her husband. He is usually depicted crossing the field to his farmhouse or entering through the front door. The card gives hope that no matter how long the wait has been one’s former family life could return in a flash. Cards depicting such reunions had universal appeal; we can see this same scenario often played out on television today with American soldiers returning from Afghanistan. The card above is a hybrid of sorts, as the returning soldier is about to surprise his wife even though he is obviously expected. The flags of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria are all incorporated into the welcoming wreath to appeal to provide the card with an even wider audience.
Many soldiers made unscheduled returns home after receiving wounds in battle. Their bandaged depictions were not meant to generate a sense of horror but to allay fears. They ensure both sides of a relationship that their love will overcome any potential injuries. The welcome home is never diluted because of wounds received, though those depicted are never so severe so to disturb potential customers for these cards. They acknowledge the realities of war that are on everyone’s mind but generally left unspoken. This of course is one of the attractions of postcards.
French publishers were not only unafraid of expressing passion on their homecoming cards, many went so far as to be risqu’ or erotic. Imbuing such cards with humor or presenting them as fantasies was very common as it made them more easy to accept. While the intention behind most of these cards may have been nothing more than light amusement, some seem to be indirectly promoting sex. Couples often put off having children during troubled times, but the absence of so many men from their wives for so long created problems that propaganda alone could not cure. After a few years national birth rates decreased dramatically creating an impending crisis. While governments wanted to encourage women to have children, there were not many socially acceptable ways to do this outright in popular media.
Before the Great War, a large percentage of postcards served as general greetings. The sentimental formulas that guided their creation were meant to aid the speedy comprehension of their simple message, which was essential to their purpose. While this strategy did not lead to great art, it proved very successful for mass marketing, and greetings became the most widely sold cards of their time. Homecoming cards, which carried a similar simple message relied heavily on these time proven formulas for they guarantied sales. These types of illustrations continued to be created in postwar years, often used on the covers of cheap romance novels.
While many homecoming cards only featured a reunited couple, others had a wider scope that included children, parents, and even the family dog. By showing that everyone missed the returning soldier, these cards went beyond the sentimental to create a patriotic narrative as well. By serving the nation the soldier had also served his family, and these cards represented their appreciation. These types of cards were very common in Germany.
If a joyous enthusiastic greeting was the most typical version of homecoming cards, the family doting on the newly arrived soldier was the second most popular narrative to be depicted. Children usually play an pivotal role on these cards, though the wife and dog are all typically present to share the moment. While the accouterments of war are laid aside, they remain close at hand as a reminder of a job unfinished. These are special moments, untypical of daily life for most families; so was this narrative also being used to insinuate a better home life for those who return a hero?
A popular variation of the doting family on homecoming cards includes a very young child, most likely conceived before the War or on the last home leave. The father’s attention is focused on him because they are meeting for the very first time. The infant child is typically a boy, not solely out of popular preference but to represent the father’s replacement. Eventually his turn will come to fulfill his duty to the nation. An intermediary child is usually included in the narrative to reinforce this idea. The boy is already dressed in a military uniform anxiously awaiting the time when he will be called from play to join in the real war. Military service was generally viewed as something that built character, so these types of cards reinforce common social values.
Though not very common, there are postcards that show a soldier at home while on leave engaged in more normal household activities. While lacking the passion found in other cards, they are still often flirtatious and full of joy. They are meant to allay any fears that the soldier’s time at the battlefront might change him. Stories of men hardened by the War must have been passed about for we know how hard it still is today for returning troops to reintegrate back into society. These cards imply that the soldiers depicted on them are no different from the day they left, which was a story line that many wished to hear. If changes are insinuated, it is only to show that absence from home has made him appreciate it more, making him a better husband.
Not all reunions were able to be held at home. Many times the returning soldier was too badly injured, and had to be placed at a facility where he could receive proper medical care. These places of convalescence are always depicted as a relaxed setting, usually outdoors, which helps to diminish the implications of serious wounds. Since this is a public setting, the mood found on these postcards is usually formal and subdued. Despite this these cards still function as a reminder that no matter where a wounded soldier winds up, a visit from family is not only possible but will occur. What is interesting to note on the card above is that even though the young sons are dressed in sailor suits in anticipation of serving, they seem to recoil from their father whose long absence has made him a stranger.
Most homecoming cards focus on the family man, but many soldiers who served in the War were single. While they are sometimes portrayed returning to their parents, the more common narrative was to show them beset by admirers. This can just be an ordinary crowd waiting to hear their stories from the front, but they were more likely to be shown surrounded by flirtations young women. There was probably some truth to such scenes since most eligible young men were serving the nation far from home. There is however more than supply and demand at work here. Such images of women flocking to men in uniform must have been great recruiting tools among those who had little romantic experience with women.
In the nations defeated by war, there were few resources and little public demand for publishers to create homecoming cards. The propaganda war had also ended and there was no need to keep up morale. Nearly all their homecoming cards deal with soldiers returning home on leave. While it is not always easy to determine the exact circumstances the narrative of these cards express, some cards provide additional symbolism to make sure we know that they depict the final homecoming at War’s end. Most of these cards seem to have been made in anticipation of the War ending and do not represent the actual event.
Some publishers had their artists draw both farewell and homecoming cards to be issued as sets. While the families depicted are usually not the same, the symbolism, style and decorative elements used are all similar enough to tie the two together. The mirroring of the narrative makes sense as a story line, but the differing circumstances would seem to make it unlikely that these cards were sold together. When we consider the homecoming to be nothing more than a wishful fantasy, a duel sale seems rational.
American solders returning to the United States were not only victorious, their homeland was not ravaged by the War. Publishers here not only had the luxury of portraying joyous homecomings but scenes where the veteran can now enjoy the peace with his family in the comfort of his own home that he so long yearned for while away at the front. These cards tend to be over sentimental and cliché; often carrying familiar symbolic elements such as the lit hearth, the loyal dog, and the young child who the veteran is possibly meeting for the first time. It is not always easy to determine who the primary audience for these cards were. While they may have been directed towards veterans and their families at the end of the War, it is more likely that they were published to sooth soldier and family alike in anticipation of a better future before the War ended.
In addition to the familiar symbols, there is a blue star flag hanging in the window of the American card above. The design was patented by Captain Robert Queissner during the Great War to represent his two sons serving in France. It was quickly mass produced and became an unofficial symbol of a child serving in the military. This tradition would be expanded upon during World War Two.
The governments of belligerent nations wanted their soldiers to concentrate on winning the War, and those back home to support this effort in spirit as well as by their labor. While officials might have been happy if all postcards focused on this singular message, postcard publishers were in business for a profit and could not completely ignore public demands. Whether out of patriotism or fear, most did not stray far from official guidelines, but they still produced cards that catered to the strong emotional needs that arose from the conflict. While the timeline on some homecoming cards is rather ambiguous, others clearly present reunions as a dream to come. Such cards must have grown more popular as the War dragged on. On the British card above by Bamforth the returning soldier is wounded to show that although he dreams of home, he won’t return until his duty is fulfilled. The wounds presented never looks serious enough to be permanently debilitating; family life must continue as it once was. This is a typical formula for homecoming cards.
Most homecoming cards produced in Allied nations stress public aspects of the event over the private. By focusing on the final victory, not the soldier’s reunion with family, these cards retain highly patriotic overtones. This narrative becomes essential if we consider that many if not most of these cards were during the conflict and not at the War’s end. The card above is undated but the marching French troops only wore these uniforms early in the War. By presenting fictitious victory celebrations, a sense of inevitable optimism is created. While such cards probably expressed the true views of the publisher, newly enacted laws and edicts eliminated the concept of free speech where it existed. Optimism was considered patriotic, and those publicly expressing pessimism were sometimes jailed as defeatists.
True homecoming parades were mostly captured on real photo postcards, and their authenticity is never in doubt. They can however if unlabeled be easily confused with the myriad of other real photo cards picturing troops leaving for the War, celebrations at the signing of the November Armistice, and the victory parades held in France for the soldiers of many nations. Postcard production was already slackening by this time due to material and labor shortages suffered by printers. Real photo postcards were not only able to fill in the gap now that there was a sudden demand for victory cards, they were able to be made quickly while the market for them was at its height.
While most publishers and photo studios concentrated on capturing massive victory parades in large cities, it is in the nature of real photo cards to be made anywhere and in any quantity by anyone with a camera. It wasn’t just small towns parades that were captured by local people; many of these cards are very subtle showing no more than a welcoming banner stretched across a dirt road or a flag draped over the front porch of a house in anticipation of a loved ones return.