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Themes of World War One:
Keeping armies properly supplied with the essentials needed to keep up the war effort was an arduous task. Rarely was there enough transport on hand to move as much men, food, and ammunition as generals desired. It would seem that diverting resources away from this task for something as superfluous as mail did not make any military sense, yet untold tons of parcels, letters, and postcards were sent back and forth between soldiers and their families. While many resources were diverted away from the printing industries during the Great War, and mail could not always delivered in a timely manner, correspondence was still recognized as an important factor in keeping morale up within the ranks of an army as well as with their families back on the home front. Soldiers simply fought better when they were not worried about loved ones back home, and in nations dependent on public support for the War, civilian’s concern over those serving at the battlefront also had to be addressed.
The correlation between correspondence and morale had been known for some time. It might be said that the birth of postals was largely inspired as a way of improving morale by providing soldiers with an inexpensive way to write home. Concern over the average soldier’s well being was a revolutionary idea back then, rising from the publicŐs growing interest in matters of social welfare. When armed forces needed to mobilized beyond the size of a standing army, public opinion could no longer be ignored. Though important to men on maneuvers, postals really proved their worth during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 when vast quantities were bought and mailed. By World War One the picture postcard had not only replaced the postal as the preferable means of personal communication, it had become an integral part of people’s daily life. The stress of war only created a greater demand for them, and their production could not be eliminated. At least thirty billions cards were mailed during the war years, which was about half of all correspondence.
While the posting of many traditional greeting and view-cards went on as normal during the Great War, the conflict generated entirely new types of cards as well as new themes. Even though pictorial magazines and newspapers had grown in number as cheaper printing methods became available, most media at this time did not reproduce illustrations. Postcards remained a substantial method of distributing visual imagery, and as such were craved by a public desperate for news of the War. Little in the way of facts came down to the public through postcards or any other means. Censorship severely limited what publishers could present on postcards, and even without this most publishers felt it was their patriotic duty to promote official government positions over the public’s right to know the truth. Despite being fed a steady diet of propaganda, postcards remained popular as a means of communication even when their printed messages created growing distain among the soldiers at the front lines. The types of military themed postcards made available varied greatly between nations, each following the dictates of censors as well as what the public would tolerate seeing.
While self-censorship by publishers was officially encouraged, most governments retained tight control over what could be printed on a postcard. Publishers in Great Britain and the United States placed notices on their military themed cards proclaiming the image displayed was approved by an official censor. Most of the images publishers used were actually supplied by the military either directly or through a stock photo house. On Italian cards the word Stampa appears to denote its official approval. French cards carry the word Vise along with the number of the censor’s office. Despite these notices, few ever realized how much control their government had over what they were allowed to see and read during the War. The extent of censorship was also a subject highly censored.
Since the ability of soldiers to find postage stamps was severely limited during wartime, a method was established by which a soldier could send a card for free. Military personnel only needed to write their name, rank, and unit on the back of a card and the words Free, Soldier’s Mail, or Fieldpost in place of a stamp. In Germany, printed red stickers helped mail sorters to quickly identify Solder’s Mail from correspondence missing a stamp. A letter or postcard sent this way is sometimes referred to as franked mail. The availability and exact requirements of SoldierŐs Mail varied from one nation to the next, but most offered this service in some form. These types of cards usually had a printed image on the front side, but some were blank on which soldiers often drew.
To expedite Solder’s Mail, a number of fieldpost cards began being made specifically for solders with preprinted lines on their backs, and sometimes their fronts to hold all the officially required information. While the term Fieldpost (Feldpostkarte) is most often used to designate cards mailed within the German Empire’s military mail service, it is used here to designate the mail of all nations sent from soldiers at the front. Many nations had official versions of fieldpost cards, though their designs did not always remain consistent through the War.
While the rules for sending Soldier’s Mail seemed very straightforward and strict, there seems to be many cards where the required information was not filled in. The problem is we have no way of knowing today if these cards ever reached their destination. There are however printed cards that also seem to deviate from set rules. It seems that security was the primary concern of officials, and postal regulations that were in flux were sometimes generously interpreted.
The Great War caused many hardships, and many charitable organizations sold privately printed stamps and labels to raise money. Sometimes individual military units did the same for fundraising. These stamps were not meant to be used for postage but usually placed on envelopes and cards as a patriotic gesture. Since Soldier’s Mail went through the postal service for free, these charity stamps were sometimes used in the place of normal postage and even occasionally cancelled by field post offices.
When mail service was restored in areas of foreign occupation, it was the stamps of the occupying nation that were placed on all mail. These stamps were usually overprinted to designate their new role within a specific territory. Some nations like Austria-Hungary also issued new military stamps for the territories they occupied. While many of these military stamps contain the words K.u.K. Feldpost, they were primarily issued to be used by civilians, not soldiers.
Some official fieldpost cards were brightened up with small patriotic vignettes. Their designs are very reminiscent of early cards and even illustrated covers from the 19th century.
Eventually more elaborate illustrations were added to official fieldpost cards to provide them with more visual appeal. These cards were not designed in many variations. The German card above is one of the most common to be found.
In places like Austria-Hungary where the population within their empire spoke many different languages, the issuing of generic cards that could be used by all became problematic. While private publishers often catered to the predominant ethnic group within their market, the government had to produced standard fieldpost cards for all. While words in German or Hungarian dominate, a number of different languages are usually printed on them as well.
A number of publishers, as on the fieldpost card printed for the Red Cross above, depicted both German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers within the same composition. While this was common among unity cards that strove to strengthen the bonds between allied empires, this trope also served a practical purpose beyond propaganda. By depicting troops from both armies, the same card could be easily used by soldiers from both. This meant more sales for publishers, and easier distribution for charities.
Not all fieldpost cards came with an official preprinted back even when they were specifically produced to be sold to soldiers. Germany was one of the largest manufactures of such cards. They pictured a wide variety of subjects and were usually printed in high quality. They are easy to identify by the word Feldpostkarte or some variation printed on their backs. Most often it is only this simple word that is printed, though some publishers produced more elaborate military themed designs. While these cards were made for soldiers, they could be used by anyone. There are many such stamped cards without fieldpost cancels.
There are quite a number of military themed postcards with variations of the term fieldpost printed on their backs. Since these were privately manufactured, they could say whatever they liked though the motive is not totally obvious. The primary reason was apparently publicity for the publisher, at least when they incorporated their own name onto the card. Was this a true patriotic gesture or just a marketing ploy? It is impossible to know if these were produced specifically for soldiers as fieldpost cards or if they thought the could generate more sales by tying the name of the card to the war effort.
A wide variety of subjects were reproduced on fieldpost cards. One of the most popular themes on German cards was the reproduction of sketches made by soldiers out in the field. Subjects could range from trenches under bombardment to soldiers sitting around in repose. Soldiers probably sold their sketches to publishers while back home on leave. While some sketches were made by professional artists who had prewar connections to the publishing trade, others were made by armatures who found this a way to make some quick money. In either case the immediacy of these images are usually very engaging.
Another popular subject on German fieldpost cards is that of ruins. These images rarely express extensive damage and never any suffering. Sometimes the war damage is not even noticeable at first glance because the eye is distracted by attractive graphics. They seem to say in a very ordinary way, this is where I am and this is what I’ve done. While they seem to be accepting of destruction as the natural outcome of war that brings a army closer to victory, they also seem to want to avoid presenting a feeling of wanton cruelty.
Many fieldpost cards deal with themes that depict situations in which a soldier would have more time or desire to write home. Common among these are troops in convalescence from wounds, awaiting to return to the front lines. These cards are always upbeat as they were meant to erasure those at home that everything was okay.
Germans publishers in particular printed fieldpost cards that were unique to specific army units. In the very generic world of army life, having a units name on a card provided it with some sense of individuality. Men were often very loyal to their unit, which provided them with élan. Such cards reinforced this spirit and helped to keep up morale. Since the audience for these cards was limited to a specific unit, fewer of them seem to have been printed than ordinary generic cards, making them more difficult to find today.
The major exception to the limited numbers of unit designated fieldpost cards are found on those printed for the Christmas holiday. Not only would nearly every soldier in the unit want to use them, they were often sent out to multiple recipients. Most units could not afford to publish their own fieldpost cards, but they could sometimes scrape the funds together for a yearly Christmas card. On this special occasion an entire division might be represented by the card to help defray the cost.
Charities were a major producer of postcards, and few produced as many cards as the Red Cross, which operated in every nation. While most of these cards were sold to raise money for their work, they sometimes provided soldiers with postcards for free. This was especially true of many other American charities such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA that provided a number of different services to make life easier for soldiers serving in the Expeditionary Force. One of their missions was to make postcards easily available for distribution and encourage correspondence. Cards were usually available at the various facilities these organizations ran. Free cards were not always well printed, and they tended to promote the work of the organization in hope of attracting donations down the line; but for some soldiers, they could be the only cards available to them.
The Red Cross handled most of the relief entering prisoner of war camps including mail. If packages arriving at the front were desperately need, the poor conditions of camp life made them even more essential. Agreements were made between belligerents that foodstuffs sent to prisoners would not be pilfered despite food shortages. There was also a desperate need for soldiers to communicate with home to let family know they were okay but writing materials were not always available. The Red Cross and other organizations often provided prisoners with free postcards for this purpose. Not all of the cards designed for prisoners carried pictures since traditional patriotic messages and propaganda were not tolerated by the enemy. Postcards from prisoners of war were very highly censored. Examination of prisoners mail were the only acts of censorship allowed to be represented by artists since they expressed vigilance rather than oppression.
Though it may seem obvious that belligerent nations broke off relations with each other during the War, this was not completely the case. Channels of communication were kept open through Switzerland, whose geography as well as neutrality played a huge role. While some of this involved the exchange of essential goods and prisoners, it also provided a way of exchanging mail without dealing directly with the enemy. Since so much of this contradicted official policies, the practice received little to no publicity on postcards. The only exception is the large amount of prisoner of war mail handled by the Red Cross.
When the first elements of the American Expeditionary Force were paraded through the streets of Paris in 1917, they were met by gigantic crowds who were exuberant to see their saviors arrive. This event proved a boon to French publishers who captured the parade on cards for a huge new market. They soon came to realize that not only were French citizens intensely interested in images of Americans; American soldiers, who had even more money in their pockets than the British, were also very interested in cards depicting themselves. Many cards were then printed with both French and English titles so they could cater to either audience. Some of these were issued as regular postcards, and some had French fieldpost backs.
Postcards and the writing of letters played a very important role in the life of the ordinary soldier during the War, which can be seen through the numbers sent. This was especially true wherever trench warfare set in, for in between fighting and a regimented schedule of daily duties, there were few distractions to be found. Military mail itself became one of the most popular themes found on postcards during the War. There are numerous depictions of soldiers reading or writing letters, sometimes out of crowded trenches, and sometimes in the quiet confines of a cramped shelter.
Many postcards were made with messages aimed at soldiers encouraging them to write home. This does not seem to have been a huge problem as correspondence was very important to most soldiers. Perhaps too many soldiers were sending cards instead of letters, which was a problem evoked on Why Don’t You Write postcards issued in prewar years. The convenience of writing cards disturbed the habit of writing letters, which disturbed many traditionalists. This new trend of modern life was viewed as a corrupting values. Other cards however romanticize the act of writing home as the activity was already recognized as a staple of army life.
The writing of letters by soldiers was often depicted on postcards but usually shown in casual ways. Letter writing often takes place in a solder’s quarters or in trenches to relieve moments of boredom. While these cards can range from poignant to quite ordinary, there are some that go beyond this to capture a soldiers desperate need to connect with home. This attitude is often conveyed by having solders writing in places that are not conducive to this activity. While these images may be meant to evoke love of family; they also remind us, perhaps unintentionally, that a soldier never knows if the letter he is writing home is his last.
Some postcards even show soldiers reading letters from home or looking at cards while those around them are engaged in battle. At first glance these cards are almost comical until you realize they probably picture situations that were not far from reality. It was when under the stress of battle that some soldiers fearing death needed to connect to their family the most, and their letters and cards were the closest thing to being with them. These types of cards a meant to illustrate how important family ties were, even in and especially in the midst of battle.
Even though many postcards depict the reading and writing of letters or the distribution of mail, the undercurrent of all cards dealing with mail was a soldier’s connection to home and the importance of family. Despite all the patriotic and political propaganda promoting a great historic and moral struggle, most soldiers seem to have felt they were primarily fighting to protect their family back home. Postcards often demonstrate that the thoughts of soldiers never stray far from this reality. When these family bonds are expressed solely through allegory, it is easy to also see these scenes as symbolically representing the mail.
Receiving news that a family member has been wounded is never good news, but it was often preferred, especially after a great battle to not having any news at all. Soldiers were not allowed to say much but they could at least inform their loved ones that they were alive. It was while in a hospital that solders often had the greatest need to write, and often lacked the ability to so so. Nurses and other volunteers greatly helped out with this; sometimes supplying the soldier with writing material, sometimes putting their words to paper. The practice was common and meaningful enough to become a postcard theme.