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Themes of World War One:
Religion played an enormous role in World War One ranging from the impetus that brought men to hate and fight each other to providing consolation to the dying and their families. It shaped attitudes toward the enemy and guided behavior in battle. Everyone felt that God was on their side and they each waged war against the other believing only they were carrying out God’s will. By allowing themselves to be seen as God’s chosen people, each nation found a rational that allowed them to commit crimes against the next with impunity. This notion also discouraged peace negotiations, for how do you negotiate with the enemy of God? No one nation had a monopoly on religious virtue, and a vast amount of postcards were published by all during the War that capture a full spectrum of views. Their numbers are testament to the importance of religion during the Great War to soldiers and civilians alike, and how strongly they responded to religious iconography. Most religious cards fall within basic themes that rationalize contradictions between religious teachings and the practice of killing fellow Christians, as well as ensuring divine help or protection. As the naive romanticism of the War’s early days faded away in the face of massive destruction, appeals needed to be made through deeper religious convictions that the War required self-sacrifice.
When discussing particular faiths on these pages they are presented in generalities and do not represent all adherents. Individuals tend to look toward religion to find ways to reinforce the course of action they already wish to take; so there is often a pick and choose attitude when it comes to doctrine. There is however doctrinal structure that often lends itself to one idea over another. So while Religions like Lutheranism heavily influenced Germany’s move toward right-wing militarism, it was not the cause of it. Many individuals took it upon themselves to preach a gospel that went far beyond any religious doctrine to support imperialistic desires and they sometimes even incorporated the public’s growing fascination with the supernatural. Those who put religious teachings above desire for conquest and retaliation became suspect. World leaders perceived the Pope as their enemy because he advocated for peace when they wanted to pursue victory. Religious ideals were only advocated on propaganda cards when they could be shaped to coincide with political and military agendas. While both advocates for peace and war felt their positions were backed up by their faith, most religious postcards argue for war because that was the position of their publishers or the viewpoint that they were forced to express.
The most basic type of religiously themed military postcard is one that presents images within the context of traditional religious services. A basic understanding of these rituals was assumed by publishers since they were a regular part of most ordinary lives at this time. Such scenes can be found taking place in church where large groups of uniformed soldiers not only attend but are the focus of our attention. Most seem to capture a moment during mass or a benediction before they head off to war. Troops seem unified in their faith through their praise of God, which gives us hope to believe that this devotion will translate into protection and victory for both soldier and country. This became a popular theme for religious holiday cards.
Benedictions for large numbers of troops heading off to war sometimes took place within public ceremonies held in front of a church or cathedral. This implies that the army is overflowing with pious soldiers, to great in number to fit into the largest of interior spaces. God will surely reward a nation so devout. While these types of cards also promote the idea that one’s Church is behind the War, religious leaders had mixed reactions. While some stood solidly behind military aggression, others opposed involvement and worked hard to find a negotiated solution to the conflict.
Chapels and churches did not always exist where they were badly needed. Some postcards show troops attending mass in improvised bunkers buried deep within large fortifications. These cards probably do not exist in large numbers because they send a mixed message. While they are meant to demonstrate the piety of the defenders who are in turn deserving of victory, it is difficult not to view these as scenes of a desperate defense where only God’s help will ward off defeat. The latter would not be a message that many publishers would want to project from their postcards; piety was fine but desperation was not. Even so, this was a powerful narrative of devotion that could not be completely overlooked. The theme carried on into postwar depictions, only now there are real chapels in forts, erected after the conflict ended as monuments to the dead.
By far the most common type of postcard depicting formal religious services for troops takes place outdoors. Even though the troops taking part in these ceremonies are far from a church, their mood remains serene and solemn. We do not know if these men are ready to march off into battle or if this is nothing more than a typical service on a calm Sunday morning. Sometimes a caption might carry the narrative further along by referring to communion or a final blessing. In any case these cards are meant to demonstrate the piety of the troops. They comfort families by letting them know that even when their loved ones are far from a church they are never far from God. By their devotion to God they can expect God’s help in keeping them safe and finding victory for their cause.
While holding religious services outdoors might entail less comfort than those inside a church, depictions of it still tend to come across as a pleasant experience. Sometimes a publisher will purposely display a harsher environment to show the dedication of one’s army; that even under adverse conditions it is faith that will win out. With such an army how could the War ever be lost?
Most cards depicting outdoor religious services are artist drawn, and they try to maximize propaganda value through evoking patriotism and sentimentality. There are however many real photo and photo-based cards of the same subject, and they tend to look quite different. Many of these cards depict services that are obviously close to the battlefront as solders seem uncomfortably massed in dense forests or deep gullies to keep their activities hidden from the enemy. These images take on a photojournalistic appearance even though there is no guarantee that the image wasn’t staged for the camera. What they lack in good composition is usually made up for by their immediacy and tension. It can be imagined that these men were charging the enemy only minutes later.
On some cards there is no doubt to the timing or intention of the religious service. Troops can be seen rushing off into battle while a few laggards receive a last minute blessing right in the front line. These cards demonstrate to those back home the continuing devotion of soldiers and the insurance that even under difficult conditions they would receive God’s blessing.
To help keep up morale, the military of many nations sought to address the spiritual needs of its members by allowing clergy into their ranks. The status they were given and the way they were organized varied greatly, but they were all generally referred to as ministers or chaplains regardless of faith and considered non-combatants. At first these men tended to only represent the dominant religion of the country but it soon became apparent that the needs of all faiths had to be attended to for no other reason than keeping up morale. Their presence was uneven because some ministers just volunteered their services while catholic priests first needed the permission of the church. This meant that many clergy crossed religious boundaries in times of need.
Efforts to unify all faiths around the War seemed to be particularly strong in France, perhaps due to its strong political and religious divisions. Unlike many other nations where the dividing line was there chosen religion; France had a long tradition of conflict between all religious denominations and the secular government since the first French Revolution. This came to a head in the 1890’s with the Dreyfus affair, which helped to bring a more secular government into power. With many more turning toward religion in the war years, the two sides worked more closely together for their own advantage. The government wanted a unified front to face the Germans, and religious groups cooperated in hopes of regaining their former influence over national affairs. For the most part French postcard publishers stressed that all faiths were doing their part in the war effort so there should be no fighting between them.
In other parts of Europe divisions of faith tested loyalties to the extreme. This became acute in Russia where the institutionalized mistreatment of Russian Jews led to suspicions that they might aid the approaching enemy, which in turn led to even greater mistreatment. Many Jews were not only exiled, great numbers died in pogroms designed to rid them from the front lines.
Even without clergy to guide them, soldiers are often shown praying where and when they can. A number of postcards depict individual soldiers or small bands that find their way into a church seemingly by serendipity. The church usually shows damage to indicate this narrative is being played out close to the front lines, and that the prayer is not part of a regular service but spontaneous and heartfelt. Individual or small groups of soldiers are also shown praying on the battlefield, often giving thanks to God for surviving a battle. All these cards told family members that although soldiers might have become battle hardened, they remain devoted to their faith, and will go out of their way to practice it. This was a very popular theme on postcards.
Some cards present praying solders in more generic terms. They are usually seen giving thanks to God rather than seeking his blessing, but no specific event is evoked. While generics can have wide appeal because consumers can read their own message into them, some cards evoke a more spiritual message through their own vagueness.
Soldiers are also to be found on cards praying for others. This is usually in the presence of a wounded, dying or dead comrade, and sometimes even takes place besides a makeshift grave. The relationship between these soldiers is not always apparent as some look like close friends while others could easily be strangers. The point of these cards is to show that all soldiers are brothers, and that they look out for one another with prayer as well as with arms. These types of cards were primarily made to reassure those on the home front and not the soldier in the field.
Another common form of spontaneous prayer can be found with soldiers praying before wayside shrines. They show that when given the opportunity, every good soldier will take time to give thanks to God. Many shrines were originally erected to commemorate deaths or aid pilgrims on a long journey, but they all offer a brief moment of rest and contemplation. Their tradition may predate the construction of churches though most date to the 18th century when they were widely used by travelers and agrarian workers who did not have access to a church. By World War One they were mostly to be found in Eastern Europe.
Shrines were often standalone structures placed alongside a road on poles, but they were also attached to trees where they can assume additional meaning. This was particularly true on German cards where artists made sure that you could tell that the shrine was attached to an oak. Oak trees were not just national symbols of Germany; they symbolized a connection with the empire’s pagan past that so much of the national character was now built upon. In this way the War could be contained within the national myth of German exceptionalism without losing the broader connection to a Christian cause. It is interesting to note how it is the tree that often dominates some illustrations; perhaps to denote which is the nation’s dominant driving force?
A good number of postcards show roadside shrines being approached by Uhlans, which is no accident. They are not just another branch of service but are presented within this theme to evoke the chivalric relationship between God and the mounted knight. This relationship becomes more obvious when employing cavalrymen in illustrations because it more closely resembles the myth carried by society. In this way a cavalry man is no longer a mere soldier, he embodies all the virtues of a medieval knight, including piety. These types of cards were popular in Germany and especially Austria-Hungary.
Not all prayers emanate from the battlefield as many cards show families, particularly children, praying at home. Some of these cards are so imbued with patriotic messages that they lose all sentiment. More realistic are those cards where prayers are not for victory or the success of generals, but go out to family members. Even these cards however are carefully worded so as to not insinuate defeatism in a families reunification. The request is not for the soldier to return home, but usually to keep him safe until the day his duty to the nation is complete.
Prayers can be answered by a divine presence who accompanies a soldier into danger. These guardians are most often presented on cards in the form of angels that walk alongside troops or watch over them from above. These types of cards come in many forms, one of the most common being montaged or double exposed real photos cards composed in a studio. While this theme was popular on Christmas cards, there are just as many cards that are just accompanied by some patriotic saying or pious remarks. Cards of this nature were marketed much more to those back home than to the troops.
If medics, friends, and even enemies were not present to carry a soldier to safety, some cards suggested that help may come from angels. Although these types of cards seem to be presented as allegories of salvation through faith, there were many sightings of angels during the War years and rumors of divine intervention were generally accepted as real.
Sometimes individual angels protect individual soldiers on the battlefield. These men are usually wounded, so they are in extra need of help in their defenseless state. This implies that there is special protection available to the faithful, though the way by which this is summoned is up for interpretation. There is a problem of interpretation with these cards in that the angel can be read as deflecting an enemy’s blow or taking a dying soldier to heaven beyond further harm? The ambiguity could easily be purposeful.
A common story among British soldiers was of a spectral figure that appeared to aid wounded and dying in battle. Though it came to be named the Comrade in White, the specter evolved into the semblance of Christ as this story was continually retold. This is a good example of how widespread beliefs in supernatural events were at this time, and how they can easily be absorbed into more traditional narratives. Whether an unfathomable spirit or Christ, they both provide the same comforting message when pictured on cards that soldiers won’t be abandoned if injured. It is a reminder to every good Christian soldier and his family that Christ will be there when he is needed the most. Part of the popularity of these types of cards may stem from official military policies that often dictated that wounded soldiers be left behind during an attack.
The most commonly evoked religious figure is Jesus Christ; he can be found on religious and propaganda cards from all Christian nations fighting in the Great War. He is most often depicted on the battlefield acting as a guardian. What is there to fear when God has your back? While some soldiers no doubt believed that their faith would carry them safely through the War, it is hard to believe that this position was sustained after losing many friends. Difficulties of coping with the War made many turn toward religion for help. While the aphorism, there are no atheists in foxholes, dates from World War Two, it is similar to some statements dating from the First World War as well. The trouble is that perhaps just as many men lost their faith due to their horrific experiences in the War. Experiences in the conflict would greatly transform the way religion was looked at in postwar Europe.
Even though many postcards supposedly represent real visions or at least leave the situation ambiguous, some are clearly meant to be read as allegories. Besides protecting soldiers, religious faith was also portrayed as a means of protecting a soldier’s family. A soldier can go off to war feeling secure that his children will remain safe because Christ protects them just as a trusted family member would. Through their combined faith Christ becomes something real that can be counted on. This type of card is a good example of how even less obvious aspects of people’s real concerns were addressed by publishers during the War. While not an overtly political message, it was still meant to make it easier for men to go off to war.
Although the Virgin Mary is often evoked for the same reasons as Jesus Christ, her significance as the archetypal mother adds to her ability to comfort and protect. Such associations are so strong that many soldiers reported seeing the presence of Mary on the battlefield. Many postcards show her standing over troops marching off to war, where she does not offer victory but a promise of safety.
Female nurses who were in the role of providing help and comfort were naturally associated with the Virgin Mary. While some postcards hint at this relationship by presenting nurses in a pious pose, others go further to make this connection directly. On some postcards the nurse and the Virgin Mary become interchangeable. Even though the work of nurses may have received little notice by historians, there are enough of these types of postcards to indicate how valuable the public viewed their service.
The Virgin Mary is depicted on many postcards in different roles. She too can be found on cards comforting the wounded or lamenting the dead on the battlefield just like Christ; but perhaps her most common attribute was her ability to console the living suffering through the hardships of War. This type of depiction is especially true when a loved one is lost. She expresses empathy to the grieving; reminding them that she too knows this suffering due to her own loss, but that there is solace to be found in faith.
It is not only soldiers who can be found praying on postcards; children pray for their fathers, and wives for their husbands. This personal ritual is most often depicted within the confines of a home, but this theme can be expanded for propaganda. On these cards realism is put aside in favor of showing a strong devoutness in the face of real fears. The problem with solely conveying a message through symbolism is that there can be more than one interpretation regardless of the artist’s intentions. While dualities of meaning can be an important part of great art, it is rarely good for propaganda. It is not always clear if those before Christ are asking for his help or are grieving a loss.
On some cards Christ is clearly in the process of helping the dead by directing them toward heaven. While the Christian Church teaches killing is a sin, it has compromised this position over the centuries by creating a chivalric tradition that has long reconciled violent actions with Christian beliefs. Soldiers of God that have sacrificed their lives like Christ are guaranteed a place in heaven for this unselfish act. This centuries old covenant made the hardships of war bearable for many believers.