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Themes of World War One:
One of the largest postcard genres produced during the Great War were those that expressed feelings of unity. In many ways, unity cards are the flip side of postcards promoting hatred. While ostensively made to build confidence by showing there is strength in numbers, they were really necessary to help quell long seated animosities amidst new alliances. If hateful cards were needed to turn people against old friends who were now enemies, then unity cards were needed to soften any hatred felt toward old enemies who were now friends. While political alliances could change overnight as empires jockeyed for power, people’s emotions are not easily guided by political expedience. Stereotypes and hatreds drummed into people for decades or even centuries were hard to suddenly eliminate, and so the political message of the day had to be constantly pounded into the public.
If cards promoting hatred defined the other, then unity cards transformed the former other into a friend. These cards may show everyone standing together in a united front, but in reality, political differences continued to work against cooperation throughout the War. While this was largely due to competing agendas, old animosities made it even more difficult to find compromise. It was individual soldiers who were most likely to put old hatreds aside once they manned the trench lines because they often saw themselves as brothers in arms bound by the horrors of war. Even after the War, many who served at the frontline felt closer bonds with the enemy they faced than those back home.
UNITY BETWEEN THE ALLIES
Allied publishers produced unity cards of both the entire alliance and the relationship between individual nations in large numbers. As the number of Allied nations grew, it posed increasing strains on illustrators to incorporate them all. Not all nations are always represented on these unity cards, which tells us a great deal about how the alliance was perceived. The story told is sometimes biased because it is presented on postcards largely through those empires with a strong printing industry.
Perhaps the oddest alliance of the Great War was that between Great Britain and France. Although they had fought together in the Crimean War on behalf of the current Ottoman enemy and against their current ally Russia, they had centuries of shared conflict between them ranging from Medieval times to the coalitions against Napoleon. Many Englishmen hated the French more than Germans. The British card above pays tribute to the Auld Alliance between the kingdoms of Scotland and France. While it is indeed a symbol of a long standing friendship, there is no hint here that it was formed to combat invasions from England. Inconvenient history was constantly ignored in the propaganda war.
This card reproduces a patriotic painting entitled Promise of Victory. In it we see a French and British soldier standing united under the watchful gaze of Joan du Arc. While Saint Joan now offers these allies the prospect of a victory sanctioned by God, it is a very ironic scene considering her place in French history. In prewar years she was honored on many French postcards for her invaluable help in defeating the English during the Hundred Year War. This conflict may have been seen as ancient history, but its significance was engrained in the National myths of both nations.
Above is another postcard of an unlikely pairing that depicts the friendship between a British and French sailor as the spirit of Admiral Horatio Nelson gazes down upon them. While this image might represent a reconciliation between former foes now joined together to fight a common enemy, Nelsonís destruction of the French fleet at Trafalgar is a battle widely remembered and honored in English society. The victory not only propelled him to heroic status, he came to seen in mythic terms as a figure that saved Britain from French aggression. He may now be shown approving of this new union, but a myth cannot change allegiance. While the narrative make sense in the context in which it was made, it is hard to believe that this image had much sway against the tide of history.
This British card portrays the Anglo-French alliance in more lighthearted terms. While reducing the meaning behind political agreements to the personal level of a romance may have reached more common people, its effectiveness is questionable. Such casual infusion of propaganda can often lead to results over time because it makes its message seem an ordinary part of everyday life. There is however a problem in that overexposure to a single message can turn it into a trope. This gives Illustrators looking for a new way to present an old message a larger framework to work in, but it can also lead to images that have less power to invoke. What was good for sales was not always good for the propaganda war.
The French produced far more unity cards than the British, though many of these are fairly generic. Studio produced hand colored real photo cards were very common in France throughout the war. They were usually issued in sets so that patriotic or emotional narratives could be stretched out. Even so, their message was simple; despite past differences, these soldiers were now brothers in arms. Most unity cards were produced in this manner, pairing French soldiers with the other Allies though most often with British soldiers. Whether these were combat scenes or quiet moments in the trenches, they all share the same unreal quality from being staged in a studio with a painted backdrop. Ironically it is this aura of falsehood that proved to be the most real. Cooperation between England and France was never good, and by Warís end their generals were barely speaking to one another.
While Germany was not privy to the problems between Great Britain and France, they did find ways to mock their alliance as seen in the card above from 1915. While the two empires stand together in a show of defiance, the colonial troops they have come to rely on flee the battlefield. It is an insult to the enemy; while they publicly present a strong unshakable front, this is only a facade for they are propped up by inferior Africans and Indians. It says don’t worry, the enemy is not as powerful as they appear to be and will soon meet with defeat.
The most typical type of unity card from the Allies shows all of them standing together, each represented by a uniformed soldier of each nation. These types of cards were not meant to help overcome past animosities, though that is implied; they are primarily aimed at providing comfort. It says we are not alone in our struggle, and with all this help, victory is assured. As more nations joined the Allies, these larger numbers furthered the idea that the cause they were fighting for was just.
There were many variations of French unity cards as they often had supplemental messages to get across. Some of these carried familiar tropes often found on other propaganda cards. On the card above the personification of Alsace and Lorraine happily display the flags of all the Allies. The implication is more than the assurance of their liberation. It says this cause they fight for is beyond the sole interest of France, it is a struggle for good.
On another French unity card, we find the personification of each Allied nation, not standing boldly in defiance of the enemy but in casual conversation. What binds them together is the dead German that each holds up on the point of their bayonets. Their commonality resides in their hatred of Germany and in their victory over a shared enemy. None of the other Allies, with the exception of Italy, would mimic this sort of violence on their postcards.
The French card above is another that combines hateful and unifying themes. It is not enough to show than the Allies stand together, the focus is on what this strength in unity will accomplish in no uncertain terms. Victory here is represented by nothing less than the death of the Kaiser. Marianne, the symbol of the Third French Republic, is playing an untypical bloodthirsty role. If she were the figure of Germania, this would be considered an atrocity card. It is also interesting to note the optimistic attitude expressed here, which can be found on many other cards. Many had no doubt that the Allied offensives of 1915 would end the conflict and postcards were produced as if they were souvenirs. This seems hard to conceive of since the first few months of the War alone resulted in tremendous casualties. It might be assumed that the true cost of the War at this time had not yet filtered down to the public because of censorship and propaganda efforts.
When the Great War broke out, many in France feared that political differences would prevent the Republic from rallying the support it needed to wage war. The most direct threat to unity was posed by the Socialist movement under the leadership of Jean Jaurès who held a strong pacifist stance. After his assignation in July 1914 by a French nationalist who was afraid he would keep the Republic out of war, the Socialists abandoned their antiwar position. The German threat proved too strong, and Prime Minister Rene Viviani was able to quiet political and religious differences if only temporarily in his union sacrée. This would be the rallying cry behind many propaganda postcards. Since abstract concepts are often difficult to illustrate, the term was largely employed on images of soldiers unified in the face of hardship.
While the creation of a sacred union to stand up against Germany basically belonged to France, it came to extend beyond fractional parties. On the French postcard above we find all the Allies with their flags saluting a statue of victory. Many unity cards such as this were published at the Warís end to honor the unity that allowed victory to be achieved. By using the words, “L’Union Sacrée,” its meaning is expanded beyond military power to imply that all were united by a sacred cause to fight evil.
Flags are designed to represent nations, so it was easy to substitute national colors for the widespread use soldiers on unity cards. Their basic abstract quality and varied colors made them easy to incorporate into very creative appealing designs. While cards solely containing flags can be seen as patriotic, their abstract quality also diluted the message of unity. They work to present the comfort of a large united front, but do less to encourage feelings of solidarity. Such choices may have less to do with propaganda than commerce. These were still consumer goods that needed to appeal to an audience.
Hand embroidered silk cards first made their appearance during the Paris exposition of 1900 and they became very popular in 1914 when soldiers began to buy them in large numbers. Most of these cards only held simple greetings, but many came to be military themed. One very common theme found on embroidered cards was that of unity. While the message was appropriate for the times, these were not propaganda cards. They were primarily a way for women to earn some money in hard times. Unity was represented by flags, which could be strung together in creative and colorful ways to attract customers. There was also a pairing between a symbolic image and a common phrase or slogan, which were usually in English so they could be sold to British and American soldiers that could afford their high price.
For a public largely unfamiliar with military uniforms, personifying nations with images of their soldiers could easily lead to confusion. This situation grew even more problematic as more nations joined the Allied cause. The obvious solution was to add national flags to the mix. Even if these were not immediately recognizable, they are not ambiguous. Many cards that combine the two are more attractive because they can present more eye catching colors than found on drab uniforms. This need grew over time as uniforms grew less distinctive to make troops less obvious targets on the battlefield.
A common substitute for soldiers on unity cards was to represent each nation by its symbolic female personification. These figures would have been highly recognizable to the public at this time because they had already appeared in illustrations for decades. Most people generally had a much larger symbolic vocabulary than we have today because high culture was associated with Classicism. Since all these personifications all derive from the single mother figure Roma, they tend to look too alike and often had to be paired with national flags when pictured in a group.
A number of illustrators found unconventional substitutes for standard patriotic symbols on unity cards, no doubt to increase sales. Of these, animals became one of the most popular motifs, possibly because they were susceptible to ethnic stereotyping. While many of these are clever, their message of military strength tends to be diluted, and they function more as ordinary patriotic cards. As the War dragged on, people probably cared less about the message and were more than willing to buy more light-hearted cards.
Children and even babies were also used as national symbols on unity cards, though it should be remembered that they were also used in conjunction with many military themes. Ever since the 1880’s, Symbolist painters began creating compositions that included renditions of multiple babies in unrealistic situations. While this type of work remained very limited within the fine arts, it seems to have found a niche in commercial illustration where it was often used in very kitschy ways. This trend continued into World War One where children were inserted into all types of patriotic fantasies that seem to go beyond the needs of propaganda.
The large scale production of unity cards eventually oversaturated the public and the concept turned into a trope. While the idea of a united front remained an important patriotic message, its use eventually expanded beyond the propaganda war. The card above was produced in the United States before it entered the War. It was not made to show unity but function as an attractive card to raise money for the Allies. In this case charity is now the focus.
On this French card we find a typical scene of the Allies all rejoicing in victory. Is it the end of a battle or the War? It hardly matters because it is only used here as a generic representation. This is an advertising card for a tailor of custom made clothing in Paris. The card is not meant to promote unity as much as tell the shopkeeper’s customers that he is a patriotic man worthy of buying goods from.
Unity was also promoted through postcard sets in which each nation was represented by a woman. These draw on the appeal of prewar glamour cards, and many were created by well known illustrators. While some have more patriotic symbolism than others, they provided the consumer with a break from the more heavy handed military and propaganda cards that abounded. An Italian set by Nanni is exceptional in the scope of Allies represented as can be seen in the card for China above. The number of cards in a unity set were often limited by what conveniently fit into an envelope at a fair price, not the number of nations in the alliance. Those considered minor players were usually left out.
Even when portraying glamorous women on unity cards, their portrayals were usually respectful and stayed. Perhaps the most obvious exception to this were the cards of Xavier Sager who was well known for his flirtatious to risqué illustrations. French censors were more likely to pass such images, especially when the artist’s popularity was already of a known quantity. Sager produced a number of unity sets using women, which speaks to their high demand.
While even most risqué cards were produced with patriotic messages, there are some suggestive images that seem to use a military or patriotic theme just as a marketing ploy. In most nations, this type of highly sexualized image would have been considered in bad taste. Restrictions however grew more liberal as the War progressed because such matters became to be seen as trivial. Even so, publishers could rarely get away with sexualized imagery unless it was tempered with humor. Cards as the one above are almost guaranteed to have their origin in France for few other nations would tolerate them.