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Themes of World War One:
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.
Publishers long knew that mail was just as important to soldiers stationed far away from home for long periods in peacetime as it was when at war. This idea was picked up as a theme on postcards where split scene bubbles or ghostly figures were used to suggest that a soldier writing a letter was thinking of his family. Most of these cards were oriented toward soldiers out on maneuvers or serving on garrison duty. The American card above titled, Soldiers Dream, dates from 1906 and was mailed from a coastal fortification.
By World War One the trope of splitting a composition between home and battlefield was firmly set in place to convey thoughts of loved ones. It was often employed in scenes of soldiers in trenches, on sentry duty or dying on a battlefield to show their thoughts were of home. Very often these scenes are combined with letter writing.
Not all cards dealing with correspondence come from the soldier’s point of view; there are almost just as many cards that depict women writing a letter at home. The soldier, be him son or spouse, is usually represented by a vignette in the background. A variation on this theme is a woman reading a letter from the battlefront, often with a young infant peacefully sleeping nearby. These cards can vary in temperament. Sometimes the presence of a child can represent anxiety over the safety of his father, especially if an infant is presented. While postcards were not meant to promote harsh realities, these types of undercurrents were easily projected. As casualties mounted, such fears became much more realistic.
Other postcards read by women stress good news from the front. Wives happily read letters from their husbands while young children or elderly fathers gather ’round and listen intently. The audience seems as if they as eager to hear about the latest news from the battle front as they are about their loved one’s safety. Censorship insured that most messages coming from solders remanded bland and nondescript, but this mattered little as families primarily needed mail to be an acknowledgment that their soldier was still alive and well. The artist Brynoff Wennerberg was a master of these types of lighthearted images, and many appear on German charity cards.
Children appear on correspondence themed cards by themselves but not very often. They also write to their fathers serving at the front but not in the same way as women. When wives think of husbands they are usually depicted in safe benign situations, while the thoughts of children seem to place them engaged in battle. This shows that the burden of worry over a soldier’s safety was not being placed on children who still had enough innocence to think of war in exciting romantic terms despite their exposure to death. Children’s letters flooded the mail early in the War as a way to cope with the unprecedented separation. This emotional need only began to subside when soldiers were able to return home on leave.
Many postcards depicting children in uniform were made during the Great War. While some are actual children posing for a portrait, most carry some sort of propaganda message. They are usually shown carrying out the expected duties of a soldier, but some more unusual activities are also depicted like the writing of letters or the receiving of mail. This is just another reflection of how important correspondence loomed in the minds of everyone at this time.
Although many attempts at depicting thoughts through the use of bubbles look amateurish, many photo studios perfected this trope through careful montage work in their darkrooms. Carefully composed real photo studio shots, many of them hand colored, were a popular way of addressing the correspondence theme. While these cards were produced in many nations, they are by far most common from France.
French cards were also the most likely to expand on the theme of correspondence by creating more elaborate narratives. Sometimes these cards were comic or risqué, and often both. Romance was a popular theme on French cards, and romantic desires could easily be integrated with scenes of soldiers desiring mail. Many such themes were printed in sets.
Another way of presenting a long narrative without the expense of producing a set was to present a storyline through a multiple frame cartoon; a format particularly common on French cards. While multi-frame cards covered a variety of topics, they were naturally suited to depict letter writing. The narratives on these cards were typically humorous.
A very popular expression of the correspondence theme was the arrival of mail at the front. In these compositions solders are gathered around a postal orderly or officer as mail is passed out one by one. Some are already intently reading their letters while others wait in anticipation. Though sometimes represented in a rather matter of fact way, such scenes are more likely to be depicted as joyous occasions. While the British had a policy of handing out cards and letters from home with the evening meal, mail sometimes had to be delivered whenever circumstances made it possible due to the vagrancies of warfare.
Some cards go out of their way to depict mail delivery in remote areas. While an exotic location can add visual appeal to a card and boost its salability, they also send the message that no matter where a soldier is deployed, he will receive mail from home. This was a gratifying message to many, especially when correspondence was delayed. While it is true that soldiers everywhere had access to mail, shifting priorities and general confusion meant that it was often delivered late or not at all. Many ships carrying mail over the English Channel as well as the Atlantic were intercepted and sunk by German U-boats.ought the could generate more sales by tying the name of the card to the war effort.
The arrival of parcels from home is another variation of the correspondence theme. There are quite a number of cards depicting troops gathering around an incoming truck or wagon piled high with mail, and of soldiers relishing their newly arrived booty. Foodstuffs were a very popular commodity at the front lines; it not only supplemented a very bland diet, not all soldiers received as much rations as they needed through the army alone. The War created vast shortages of food, and for a hungry family at home to supplement a soldiers diet was a real sacrifice and testament to love. Medicines and clothing were also important items that troops looked forward to getting, and they were often essential to keeping them healthy.
Some shortages of of essentials were nationwide and since they were caused by outside factors, little could be done to resolve them. Despite this not all governments made an genuine effort to keep their armies adequately supplied, which is testament to their lack of concern for the average soldier. Postcards may show the receipt of a parcel as an act of love from home, but some armies came to view these as a supply source. The problem was that distribution was uneven, which when combined with general shortages, it contributed to low morale and sometimes had significant consequences as grievances mounted. Without the mail service the War might have been over far more quickly.
Postcards depicting parcels basically come in two varieties, there are those that show them arriving in great quantity and those that show overjoyed soldiers receiving them. Both cases however are meant to demonstrate that solders are not in need, that mountains of supplies are arriving from those who care about them to keep them happy and well. Their exuberant reception, though somewhat counterintuitive, is to give incentive to families and charities to keep these parcels coming. Those not sending parcels to the front are needed to feel left out, not unneeded.
Parcels were greatly appreciated by soldiers not only because they often contained foodstuffs but books. While the War is often characterized by its immense long battles, troops spent most of their time in trenches or in camps with little to occupy their time. Reading became an important pastime because it not only relieved boredom; it provided a temporary escape into a more pleasant world. Postcards were even published to encourage donations so that books could be purchased and sent to the front.
Just as with postcards that depicted children sending letters, there were those that showed them posting parcels to the battlefront. Very often the focus of these cards was in the gathering of needed food or clothing rather than their mailing. Even when this led to the injection of some humor, their main theme was that of children concerned over the well being of their fathers far away from home. Many of these types of cards served as Christmas cards.
The arrival of mail was always appreciated, but it was never greeted with as much fanfare as at Christmas. While some soldiers received a constant flow of letters and cards, a holiday present might be the only package they would receive for the year. When mail did not arrive, it wasnÕt just a matter of it going astray; Christmas was a time of year where family ties were traditionally reinforced through ritual, and those separated by war were especially missed. Holiday themes and the arrival of presents in the mail were often combined on postcards. Sometimes Santa even provided troops with holiday mail.