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Themes of World War One:
While all the belligerents in the Great War celebrated holidays, the one that inspired the largest amount of cards to be produced was Christmas. Even though its recognition was nearly universal, different nations had different customs when it came to card giving. Most seem to have been created by publishers from Austria-Hungary and Germany. Even though Christmas is a religious holiday, it is celebrated more than any other as a family event. The divorce from normal family life due to war thus grew especially evident toward the end of the year for soldiers stationed at the front lines and their loved ones back home. Communication at least, if only in the form of a postcard became critical in mending this social divide and keeping up morale on both sides. Many cards were produced with duel panels to illustrate soldiers thinking of their families safe at home while they fight in the field.
Military Christmas cards take on various forms but the one thing that most have in common, at least from Germany, is that all activities are revolved around the Christmas tree. The evergreen as a symbol of eternal life has a long tradition in many cultures, but its association to Christmas was especially strong among Germanic peoples. This is due to its pagan origins, an association that grew in importance with the increase in German nationalism during the late 19th century. Such connections with a pre-Christian past were meant to help create a unique identity that Germans could rally around. By World War One the tradition of celebrating the season with a tree had grown so strong that it seems as if Christmas trees were dispersed among all German troops.
Troops stationed in more settled positions such as trenches were likely to set up such trees as best they could. These are not the elaborate trees they were used to back home, but usually small spindly remnants possibly decorated with a few candles. A skimpy tree can convey a stronger message, one that states that no matter what, soldiers will do their best to put one up. The significance of this it not the tree’s relation to Christmas or the changing year, it signifies an attempt to be close to family back home. Many of these cards show troops gathered around a campfire, sometimes in celebratory moods, sometimes not. They say that home is missed but do not worry; one’s comrades in arms is another sort of family that can prevent a soldier from feeling alone.
During wartime the Christmas tree came to garner meaning beyond its traditional associations with Christ or even its pagan origins. It had become such an important part of the family home during this holiday that it came to represent family life itself. The stronger this connection was, the more important it was for a soldier to have a tree, for it served as a surrogate for a life left behind. It was a way for family members to connect, by reenacting a common shared ritual even when separated.
The desire for troops to have Christmas trees was one shared by soldiers and family members alike. While many German soldiers made great efforts to acquire trees, it was not always possible for many to get them. This want inspired fantasies, and cards were published that show evergreens being dutifully delivered by Santa or even angels. Sometimes the tree depicted on a postcard is so grand that it goes beyond anything that could be real to present a mystical moment.
Many Christmas postcards present the exchange of correspondence as an important aspect of the holiday, but gift giving was an important exchange as well. While underfed troops were always grateful to receive food parcels from home, this was especially true at Christmas when the need to reinforce family bonds was at its peak. If family could not be together on this occasion, they could at least share a common ritual that is important to them. Many cards display the joyous arrival of parcels either through the mail wagon or a soldier returning from leave. A small Xmas tree can often be found among the gifts as well, which everyone can share in. The tree’s inclusion also helps to differentiate the holiday card from the many other cards that depict soldiers receiving ordinary mail.
Military Christmas cards had a fine line to walk. They were meant to reassure the receiver that all was okay on the front lines despite the separation, and that a holiday would still be had. While this message ensures a bit of normalcy in lives that have been turned upside down, it cannot ignore the need to show solders still being diligent in keeping family and the homeland safe. In most depictions of joyful gatherings there is usually a single distant sentry keeping a watchful eye on the enemy. Rifles, cannon and machine guns often invade these peaceful scenes to remind us that this celebration is taking place in a war zone.
Some cards go further than merely pairing military equipment with Christmas trappings, they contrast the peace inherent in the holiday season at home with the violence of the battlefield. While the combat depicted is never too gory to dissuade sales, violence is an essential part of these cards needed to convey their propaganda message. They say that the peace enjoyed at home is only made possible because of the sacrifice of soldiers and their blood spilled in battle. The traditional Christmas message of charity, reconciliation, and peace on earth has been subverted in that peace can now only be insured through violence.
The idea that a strong defense is the best insurance for peace is an old one, but now in a war where the offense was seen as the best defense, the goal of peace was used to rationalize the endless violence. In this way those with strong Christian morals that spoke against killing could find rationals for acting against their own core beliefs. Conveying this message was especially important around Christmas when people at large were more likely to contemplate their religious faith and contrast it to the rhetoric surrounding the need for war. Many cards were published for the Christmas holiday that were nothing more than pure political propaganda. Killing the enemy was effortlessly associated with Christmas cheer. While many still clung to their moral values, they did not feel the need to extend them toward the vilified other.
As the war dragged on, many Christmas cards began showing the holiday in the trenches in new ways. They took on a more contemplative tone as large gatherings were replaced by a couple or even solitary soldier. They are often found closely huddled around a small lit tree as if it were a campfire to create the same sense of intimacy found in a family gathering. Could this be a reflection of war weariness in an atmosphere where over jubilant demonstrations came to feel out of place considering the growing number of dead? While these cards never express antiwar sentiments, they were some of the few that portrayed a spirit of melancholy.
One might reasonably question the preponderance of Christmas trees shown in German quarters on cards. The practice would seem to have been far less common than postcards suggest. While the truth behind artist drawn cards can always be called into question, there are numerous real photo postcards showing soldiers posing with their tree. These do not all look like frontline troops, but the tradition was obviously strong enough for soldiers to scrounge up a tree whenever they could. There are just as many real photo cards of hospital wards showing patients and staff posing with their Christmas tree. Not even serious wounds can dampen the Christmas spirit, so there is no need for loved ones at home to worry.
Depictions of Christmas Trees on French cards are almost nonexistent because of their close association with Germany. Even if a popular seasonal ornament, to display a tree during this war would seem treasonous. In nations like France and Italy with vitriolic attitudes toward the enemy, anything that might be construed as pro-German sentiment might land the practitioner in prison. This did not prevent French publishers from depicting Christmas in the trenches; they only focused on the more religious aspects such as prayer and mass. Even so, these cards are few because of the long standing political rivalry between Church and State. When soldiers are shown praying on French cards, it is usually for victory.
French publishers were known for displaying their vitriolic attitudes toward Germans on a variety of postcards, and this extended to their holiday cards as well. While the image of the Kaiser roasting on a spit for the Allies’ Christmas dinner is an obvious allegory framed in black humor, it seems oddly out of place with the generosity of spirit usually associated with Christmas. Such cards even went too far for censors who thought they portrayed the French character in a bad light. While most of these types of cards were forbidden by 1915, little effort was ever placed in enforcing this policy.
Great Britain had been the birthplace of the Christmas card industry in the mid-19th century, but they never came to represent religious themes in any noticeable numbers, possibly due to their strong anti-papist sentiments. In earlier centuries the Puritans had actually outlawed the recognition of Christmas outside of engaging in simple prayer. On early British Christmas cards we find overly sentimental motifs that often emphasize family or encourage thoughts of the oncoming spring. This tradition was carried into the production of holiday postcards, and can be seen on military cards from the Great War as well. While there are many written references to Christmas to be found, there is rarely any Christmas related imagery connected to them. The most common theme to be found is humor, which was generally a very popular subject on British made cards.
A number of military units, especially from Germany, published their own fieldpost cards to give them a sense of uniqueness in a very generic world. This tradition was often carried to Christmas cards, with many units only producing cards for this one holiday. While these German cards are usually ripe with seasonal symbolism, those produced in Britain usually lack these traditional trappings. John Beadle was a British war artist who designed a number of Christmas cards specifically for the 7th Division. On one of his cards pictured above, emphasis is placed on the campaigns this unit fought in, not on Christmas. Though these holiday cards were oversized and printed with blank backs, a number of them found their way through the mail as postcards.
There were also generic Christmas cards specifically designed for use by British soldiers. The Home Words series was a popular set that was printed postcard standard size but with a blank back. While the message on these cards tended to be patriotic, the imagery was often imbued with religious overtones. In general these cards espouse the official theme of peace through victory.
Many Holiday cards were provided to American troops for free Soldier’s Mail. While most of these reflect on soldiers missing home, some have very strong religious themes. They do however tend to depict troops on the home front and not out in the trenches or in other combat related situations. Unlike other nations fearful of evoking a pro-German reference through the depiction of Christmas trees, the tradition of celebrating the holiday with evergreens had grown so strong in the United States that the Germanic reference was lost on most. Many German sounding products were forced to change their name, but there was no assault on the Christmas tree and they are generously pictured on American cards.
Santa Claus was another popular motif on military Christmas cards just as he was on more traditional cards produced before the War. In a fine set of light hearted Christmas cards published by Gerhard Stalling in 1917, Santa is depicted facing various obstacles such as getting lost and being confronted by a vigilant sentry before eventually surprising soldiers in the midst of holiday celebration. These cards seem to have been printed in large numbers, which attests to their quality and popularity.
The popularity of images of Santa Claus bringing gifts to the battlefront mimics soldiers desires for real gifts. Military life deprived most soldiers from the comforts of home, without any means of rectifying the situation. Even essential items like clothing and food were sometimes in short supply. A gift was a way of obtaining things that they could no longer obtain for themselves. The War itself was also something that soldiers had no immediate control over, so the greatest gift Santa could bring was peace. The French card above portrays this scenario in a manner acceptable to military sensors. Peace arrives, but it does so through victory.
German publishers also transformed military objectives into holiday presents. This was not just a mater of adapting traditional Christmas tropes to a new wartime environment, it was a way of using the power inherent in tradition to make the act of waging war feel normal. It is easy to understand how abstract notions such as peace on earth can be configured into a Christmas gift, but peace through victory no mater how beautifully illustrated still implies the killing of men. The act of killing in antithetical to the holiday, and so it must be dressed up so that the season can be met with cheer. On the card above, the occupation of Belgium is presented as nothing more than a sweet candy treat.
Many Christmas cards did not just use the front lines as a setting for their traditional narrative; some publishers went out of their way to produce creative images that made use of the new conditions caused by the War. These cover a full spectrum of attitudes ranging from light hearted jests to bittersweet scenes of gift giving being thwarted by tangles of barbed wire. Some cards are downright vicious with snipers using decorated food parcels as bait. Even children hang dolls dressed like the enemy by the neck from their trees for use as holiday ornaments.
Krampus was a mythical figure who acted as a foil to Saint Nick; they often traveled together, but while one brought presents, Krampus punished the naughty by whipping them and then carrying off children in his basket. Both Austrian and German publishers had a long tradition of portraying Krampus on their holiday cards and this scenario was updated to fit into military themes during the war years. Krampus could be used in contrary ways; portrayed as a cultural icon scaring away the enemy or as an allegory for the might of an enemy whose power was nothing more than a fairy tale. This demonstrates how every local tradition was sort out and contorted to satisfy propaganda needs.
Snowmen and snowball fights had been a common motif on Christmas cards before the first postcard was ever published. This theme was also employed on military cards issued during the Great War to depict a playful aspect to the lives of soldiers. These themes not only showed that soldiers had fun in their spare time, but that these men who were assigned the role to kill still maintained a childlike innocence. Snowmen that mimic soldiers or leaders are a variation on this theme, though even when their message is political, their presentation is usually comical. Snowmen were so representative of the season that they were often used on New Year’s cards and general winter greetings as well.
There were also many cards produced depicting the Christmas holiday from the perspective of the home front. These cards can be quite lively, especially when they show soldiers returning home on leave. They are usually multigenerational get-to-gathers, which of course includes the family dog. They are similar to other depictions of solders on leave in that all seem engrossed by the war tales being told. These cards not only reinforce family bonds, they let the soldier know that he will have the status of hero on his return home and be the focus of attention. It is a reward for his sacrifice to duty.
Many more Christmas cards from the home front perspective were subdued and intimate in tone. They often capture the feeling of absence, sometimes to the point of expressing anxiety over a husband and father no longer present. The format of many of these cards is similar to those that represent dreams or correspondence in that the object of the subject’s thoughts appear in a ghost like bubble. If not for the presence of a Christmas tree, there would be little to distinguish these two genres from one another.
There is an implicit yearning for home in any Christmas postcard showing soldiers sitting around their tree whether it be in a trench or in a lonely field. Sometimes this is displayed with a vignette vision of family, sometimes not. A less common but more explicit version of this theme shoes solders on active duty getting a glimpse into normal family life as the pass through a town or near a farm. Their desire to stay represents the longing for their own family, but they always move on as duty to one’s nation must come first.
Soldiers rarely needed prompting to communicate with home, but a letter or card at Christmas was considered a social obligation. It is at this time that the number of handmade cards seem the most prevalent. Was this because solders corresponded by any means they could when commercially made holiday cards were not available or did many feel the need to create something more personal for the occasion? While there is never any way to tell what was in the mind or heart of the sender, it seems that postcards were common enough almost everywhere that no one just had to make do. Christmas cards were not originally seen as a method of correspondence but as a gift in themselves. This spirit was probably still alive to some extent during the War, which might account for the preponderance of hand made cards. These hand drawn cards vary greatly in quality as few felt restricted by their talent from creating them.
The presence of angels on Christmas cards is also traditional, but on military cards they are often used for a message that strays from the birth of Christ. Here they do not announce the birth but are agents of peace. While peace is a theme traditionally associated with Christmas, it is presented here with noticeable differences. These cards tend not to call for an end to fighting but instead give respite to troops as guardian angels.
After years of fighting with nothing to show for it except mountains of dead, many soldiers lost faith in their generals and statesmen&rsquos abilities to bring the War to a close. There was overall resignation to the idea that there would be no victory that they would just fight on until all were dead. As many in the trenches looked toward divine intervention as the only hope to end their ordeal, the allegories of victory leading men to victory on the battlefield that were so plentiful on postcards early in the war gave way to angels of peace. These types of cards were tolerated by officials because they only spoke to a goal and not the means. The leaders of all nations wanted peace, but only by vanquishing the enemy through military victory.
While Christmas was celebrated as an important holiday in the United States, America’s late entry into the War combined with a November Armistice insured that only a minimum of their holiday cards would be designed with military themes. Front line situations are not shown during Christmas 1917 because American troops were not yet actively engaged in combat, and by Christmas 1918 the War was already over. While most soldiers would then head back home, a large occupation force remained to celebrate many Christmases to come. Without the threats that came with war, occupying troops could publicly celebrate the holiday wherever they were stationed. These events were captured by a number of real photo postcards.
American publishers continued to produce Christmas cards in postwar years specifically designed for use by troops occupying Germany. Most of these seem to have been provided by the same charitable institutions that supplied soldiers with cards, some of them free, during the War. While these cards were made for soldiers, they were now less likely to carry military themes as their designs reverted to that found on more traditional cards.
(See Christmas in the Trenches, dated December 25, 2014, in the Blog archives for a more detailed account of Christmas cards from World War One)
In 1915, the French Parliament set aside December 25th and 26th to honor the common French soldier. Medallions and postcards were issued, not so much as a commemoration but to raise funds for the fighting men. It was no doubt placed near Christmas so that the traditional spirit of holiday giving could be extended to these days in secular France. Nearly all these cards are inscribed, Journée du Poilu. The word Poilu (Hairy One) was a common term of endearment extended to French soldiers.