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Themes of World War One:
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.
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.
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.
Not all depictions of mail delivery to the front were presented in a realistic manner. For some publishers correspondence was just another symbolic contrivance that could be used to generate propaganda. In the card above we are not presented with an image of soldiers happily receiving mail; they are too busy marching forward to vanquish the enemy. The mail wagon has brought messages from home to them nevertheless, even though they would never be sharing the same road at the same time. The card is about the conveyance of messages not the accuracy of how it was done.
A common motif on German postcards is that of yellow stage coaches that were traditionally used to convey mail as well as passengers. Many of these same coaches seem to have been appropriated for military use once war broke out, but new vehicles were also made exclusively for fieldpostings. Outside of their inscriptions, these mail wagons were different from earlier models in that they had no passenger doors and the window usually had bars to help keep the contents safe. Though slowly replaced by trucks, horse drawn wagons remained an integral part of mail delivery.
Sending cards to the front was not always an easy task, especially when you did not know exactly where it was going. Mail had to be addressed to a specific military unit, not a location as where a soldier was stationed was considered classified information. Not only did mail have to pass between a civil to a military feildpost collection point, there were a multitude of different services to deal with. The Allies fighting on the Western Front all had their own national services. In some cases, as in Britain, special units of postal workers were set up within the army but they continued to be controlled by the General Post Office rather than the War Ministry.
The German Empire’s mail service was divided up among its Kingdoms such as Bavaria, Saxony, and Prussia, all with different administrative procedures, censorship standards, and their own postage stamps. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire there was a multitude of different languages to deal with that could cause problems as correspondence moved from one district to another. Various foreign legions that published their own cards in their own language could also cause problems. While all these were obstacles to expediting delivery, it must be remembered that postal services dealt with foreign correspondence long before the War, so this was not a task they could not handle. Even so, the added stress to the system caused by the War combined with the need to construct new collection points to handle military mail more secretively all added up to create mail service that was not always efficient.
Only once at a central military collection point did the mail handlers know where the card needed to go. On the Western Front huge facilities were set up in port cities employing thousands of military mail handlers to process the large daily volume of mail. Sorters would receive information every morning as to latest location of every unit or where they were headed so that mail could then be sent further down the line to smaller distribution centers. Changing conditions at the front lines however could always disrupt the system causing mail to get lost or simply delayed. When a battlefront was fluid, regular mail service became impossible.
Postcards making their way through the military postal system were usually stamped with a military feldpost cancellation as well as an official unit seal. By seizing mail from prisoners and the dead, the enemy gained valuable intelligence as they could eventually figure out the order of battle of the troops opposing them. This information was important to deciphering the strength of the enemy and his troop movements to other battle fronts. By 1916 armies began establishing coded fieldpost numbers to designate their units on cancels for greater secrecy.
Mail distribution centers were usually located at the same railheads that most supplies came through. There the mail would be further sorted by regiment and then loaded in sacks onto wagons or trucks destined for delivery further down the line. Most intermediary steps in logistics are never well represented on postcards because it is difficult to assign a narrative to them that can easily be understood. When scenes showing the loading and unloading of mail appear on cards, it is often in some generic form or associated with holidays.
Once mail neared the front line, postal orderlies would then further sort the mail out in the field, sometimes literally, and then place it in carts to be delivered to individual soldiers. While this sorting out process seems like just another step in the long process of delivering mail, it was one widely depicted on postcards. This is probably due to the informality of the process being somewhat unique. Instead of an enclosed facticity, mail at this stage might simply be sorted out on the ground or in a street. Anything out of the ordinary was more likely to find its way onto a postcard as it was more likely to grab a customer’s attention.
Military post offices were set up to the rear of the front line as a collection point for outgoing mail. Some of these might have been in buildings that formally housed a civilian post office. These field offices tended to be organized and equipped in the same manner as a local post office back home. Each station had its own identifying cancel, but while time and date were given, location was never more than a number. It was here that many soldiers were able to purchase commercially made postcards.
Not all troops were stationed near towns, and in these cases field post offices were built from scratch. Despite their often makeshift look, they would function in the same manner as any other facility. Sometimes these stations also became main distribution points for mail as well.
New post offices were built to handle military mail where the frontline was generally stable, but this was problematic in places where the battlefront was more fluid. In many cases soldiers just did not receive mail until things settled down and the back services caught up with them. In some places the frontline was constantly in flux and doing without mail became intolerable. To handle these situations mobile post offices were often set up that could easily be moved wherever needed. In many ways they functioned like mobile field hospitals that were set up in tents. Note that the tent on the card above holds a mailbox and a postcard rack. The officer at the table seems to be censoring correspondence before it is mailed.
It is only natural to associate mail with correspondence and the posting of gifts, but military post offices also served the important function of transmitting money. Through the use of military mail those back home could send money orders to soldiers at the front lines. Pay for soldiers in a number of armies was poor, and this supplemental income was often welcomed. For the most part soldiers did not have many opportunities to spend money, at least wisely, but for those lucky enough to be given a leave of absence in a local town, these funds were very useful.
Since most armies considered mail an essential service, great effort was put into the mechanisms by which this could best be expedited. Efficient systems of delivery and collection were set up on the home front and in rear areas, but the consistency of procedures could always be disrupted. This was especially true the closer that these services approached the battlefront; and adaptations often had to be made for unique or changing circumstances. Troops manning the front line could not leave their posts to mail letters so in some cases mail boxes or other collection points were set up in the trenches to accommodate this activity.
While mail could not always be delivered in a timely manner, great efforts were made to provide efficient service. It only took two days for a letter mailed in England to reach a soldier fighting in Flanders. Some soldiers became so used to good reliable deliveries that they expected mail every day. While delivery could never be guaranteed, disappointment was not something postcard publishers wanted to depict. They were more likely to show situations like soldiers struggling to get a note finished before the last call for pickup was announced.
Nearly all postcards dealing with the delivery of mail depict some aspect of it at the battlefront. While there are images of women at their local post office, often dropping off a parcel for the front, their are far less cards that show the delivery of mail at home. Most that do seem to come from Germany, which is also the nation whose publishers were most likely to depict women at work. While many women were needed in the labor market to fill the jobs of men as they went off to war, many resented their occupying traditional male roles. Even though many women saw the War as an opportunity to earn real wages, others had to be coaxed away from what they saw as their duty at home. Their presence in the workforce however was essential to keep society running, and propaganda cards were produced not just to make this activity appear more normal but to honor these women as well. Despite these efforts some postcards were still made that poked fun at women in male roles such as postmen.
If near a town, local peddlers might travel with their pushcarts to rear areas where troops were sent to rest. They provided various necessities as well as souvenirs. Postcards were also sold in varieties beyond what was available at the soldier’s field post office. Soldiers might also buy postcards directly from shops and street venders in towns while on leave. Correspondence sent outside of the military postal system was not considered Soldier’s Mail and it required full postage to be sent. Few soldiers were willing to pay the extra postage, but some used this method to circumnavigate military censors. Many of the more graphic letters and cards we have today were mailed in this manner.
Knowing that soldiers far away from home were inclined to send postcards more than the average person inspired a number of venders to set up shop just outside of military posts. Such arrangements were common before the War and even with the new security concerns that arose during the years of conflict, many venders continued to operate relatively close to the front lines. As with many hard to find items in great demand by soldiers, rules were sometimes overlooked to keep up morale. The card above depicts such a postcard stand set up just outside the gate to an Austrian fortification in 1915.
Opposed to soldiers, civilians had many opportunities to purchase postcards. Unlike today nearly every type of shop sold cards along with news stand and booksellers that might carry a wide variety. While local views still sold during the war years, most shops probably carried cards with military and patriotic themes. Even when enthusiasm for the War waned as it dragged on, families members still needed to stay in contact with one another, and so card sales remained high. Postcards for sale are more likely to be found as a matter of fact backdrop to an image.
There was always a fear that a soldier serving at the front lines would inadvertently reveal sensitive military information, so all letters and postcards were scrutinized before delivery. This was usually done by a junior officer who blackened out all text he thought others should not read. It wasn’t always sensitive military information that was eradicated; those expressing pessimism or what might be deemed antiwar sentiment often had these parts removed as well. Mail from colonial troops expressing nationalistic urges were never delivered. Much of censorship was designed to prevent bad news that might contradict propaganda efforts from ever reaching home.
Objectionable language was not just blackened out of postcards; cards approved by censors were also marked in some way to show that the letter or card was officially examined. The most common method was to mark this correspondence with a hand stamp. Though each nation had its own procedures, these markings usually contained the words, Passed by Censor or some variation along with the individual identification number of the censor or facility. There is some question as to why there are so many mailed cards that were not stamped by a censor. Was this not a universal procedure or was enforcement of rules lax due to the sheer volume of mail? The answer is probably both so efforts were also made to intimidate soldiers. Officers in the Italian army would sometimes shoot solders if they deemed their letters too unpatriotic. Some soldiers circumnavigated censorship by mailing correspondence with regular civilian mail when back home on leave. Such behavior however was severely punished if caught. In any case unauthorized messages rarely got through, so most solders did not even try to say anything beyond acknowledging a letter and letting those back home know they were still alive. Censorship caused almost all the mail sent by soldiers of all nations to read the same.
Many officers did not feel comfortable reading soldier’s private mail and would pass the duty up the line to a commanding officer. Authorities fearful that field commanders might be negligent or too lax on what they thought should not be read set up secondary censorship offices back home so that all mail could be re-examined a second time. Much of this work was done by women. The British established a system by which a soldier could bypass the reading of his mail by officers he served with by signing a declaration that no sensitive information was disclosed. These honour envelopes would then only be scrutinized by the eyes of censors back home. Even though most censors in France were civilians, their actions were also scrutinized out of fear they may be to lax. Severe punishments could be handed out for failure to recognize inappropriate messages. Although the U.S. Army did not censor soldiers mail at the front, it was still examined by French authorities whose mail service it passed through.
Despite all the efforts placed on censorship, millions of soldiers fought in the Great War and they produced a tremendous amount of mail that was not all carefully scrutinized. While cameras were generally forbidden at the front lines, it is obvious that these regulations were often not obeyed from the great amount of real photo postcards that exist. The Eastman Kodak Company even advertised their small vest pocket camera at an item soldiers should carry with them. In 1915 the German army eased restrictions on soldiers using cameras as long as they did photograph the battlefront. Although many unofficial photographs were taken, mailing them was another matter. Nothing that might compromise security or lower morale back home could be mailed. The real photo postcard above depicting the dead on a battlefield seems to defy these rules. It was postmarked from a German military field post office in November 1915. While such cards are rare, it also illustrates the uneven criteria by which German censors judged postcards.
In general soldiers knew what they shouldn’t say, but some always tested boundaries that were not always well defined. Others unhappy with the way the War was covered in the press also tried to get some real news through. Some German artists were known to disguise their messages in hand drawn pictures as censors only tended to concentrate on the text. Some cards promoted secret codes inspired by floriography, which allowed for the expression of thoughts or feelings that were socially unacceptable to be verbally spoken or written. Many cards were published with this theme in prewar years under the title The Language of Flowers. Instead of using flowers as symbols, postage could be applied to letters in different ways to convey secret meanings under The Language of Stamps. These simple playful messages were nothing that sensors needed to worry over, so these cards should have passed through the mail.
To prevent solders from saying too much, British authorities devised the cross out postcard. A variety of pre-printed messages were placed on it, and the soldier just needed to cross out statements that did not apply. This severely limited what soldiers could communicate to a few basic statements, which was of course their purpose. No additional message was allowed to be written these cards but it seems that some soldiers managed to get away with some added notes if it seemed harmless. These types of cards evolved into the check off card in which checks were placed in a small box next to applicable phrases. They became more common during World War Two and were later used as novelties for tourists.
By the time many letters and cards reached the front lines, the intended recipients were dead. This correspondence had to be sent back to the sender but there were usually instructions to hold it up at the originating post office until they were sure that an official notification of death had been made to family. On some days tens of thousands of letters were returned unopened.