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Themes of World War One:
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.
The postcard above depicts the interior of a German military post office behind the front lines. While a substantial structure, the sorting of hundreds of postcards is being performed in a rather makeshift manner. While the military made use of former postal employees within its ranks, many in this role probably had little experience with the job now assigned to them.
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.
Even the most rudimentary of field post offices usually had postcards for sale for it might be the only means by which a soldier could write to his family. This facility for German soldiers stationed in Poland seems to consist of little more than a table where the clerk receives and cancels mail, wagons onto which the mailbags are placed once full, and a very makeshift postcard rack.
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.
Many people may have had trouble accepting females in the new occupation of postwoman, but this reluctance was most likely overshadowed by the importance of receiving correspondence from the front. While there are numerous cards the play off of the issue of women taking over traditional male roles, some illustrators push this aside to make the issue about receiving mail. These cards can be more glamorous than realistic simply because of the joyous message they present.
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.
The art supply store founded by Carl Hornemann of Hannover was a substantial business, but it grew much larger after Gunther Wagner became partner and latter bought him out. He expanded sales into office supplies and made the fateful decision to start manufacturing fountain pens. In 1878, Wagner took the name Pelikan from his family crest to create a brand name for his pens and writing inks, which were becoming world famous. During World War One, the firm Gunter Wagner, Hannover & Wien produced fieldpost cards that featured soldiers buying or using their Pelikan products. On one of their cards above, a postcard rack is also featured.
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. Even so, enforcement of censorship was uneven because rules were ill defined giving too much discretion to individuals. The illustrator Jean Coulon produced a large satirical postcard set for S. Farges through the characters of the Guignol puppet theater. While he was highly critical of many aspects of the War, much of this was overlooked because it was hidden within the irreverent tone of the puppets that was so familiar to many. This did not always work as a card issued in 1914 that criticized the government for sending troops into winter campaigning with summer uniforms was banned from publication. A few day later, Coulon issued a new card that questions the punishments that might befall those who dare speak the truth about governmental incompetence, and he depicts Anastasie, symbol of censorship, attacking his original message with an oversized pair of scissors. Censorship in France grew more strict in the summer of 1917 to help curtail mutinies in the army that posed great risk to the war effort. 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.