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Themes of World War One:
War has been traditionally viewed as the purveyance of men; its narrative largely expressed through the eyes of male solders and generals. Even when the presence of female nurses is widely acknowledged, their stories have been generally considered irrelevant. Today many new voices paint a much broader inclusive picture, but old habits are hard to break. The postcards that were published during the Great War certainly tell the story of the conflict through the perspective of the combatants, but women also get far more attention than one might first realize. This is most likely due to the fact that publishers were not acting as historians but producing a product that had to appeal to a wide audience. Women were always large consumers of postcards; and if they were not the largest audience before the War, they surely became a much larger share of the market with so many men away at the front. Although their representation on cards was largely skewed to fit social expectations, this was a time when women’s roles were already in flux and placed under new demands dictated by war. Postcard publishers trying to meet consumer demand may have captured a more realistic appraisal of public attitudes than those working in other media. The number of military cards with women on them is enormous. Though women are represented in many different ways ranging from the traditional to revolutionary, their presence is felt largely through symbolic gestures that can be categorized into major themes.
Women had long been characterized as either pure or corrupted, but a grey area began to emerge in the early 19th century with the rise of the middle-class. This was in part due to the growing popularity of burlesque shows that they frequented, and the popularization of the fallen women who performed on stage. These performers quickly embraced the new found art of photography to publicize their services. Combined with the collecting craze of middle-class women, many of these photos in the form of cartes-de-visite wound up in albums gracing the parlors of countless homes. This expanded the presence of actresses well beyond the theater where they began to have a noticeable effect on female expectations. While images of pretty women were always coveted by men, many women also idealized actresses because they had the freedom to live outside of social norms most felt trapped by. By the turn of the 20th century this idea became quite evident in the image of the New Woman. While women’s roles were still highly confined by tradition, popular printed matter including postcards created its own stage from which women could project their ambitions and dreams. This is all evident in the many roles that women played on military cards published during World War One; some fictional some real. The understanding of this framework is pivotal to appreciating the postcards of this era.
Some postcards depicting women were primarily oriented to a male audience while others were meant to please women. Some postcards satisfied both genders for the same or even different reasons. None of these cards would have been made if they did not appeal somehow to a real public need. No matter how clever a propaganda message was formulated, it still could not be rammed down peopleís throats without them willing to hear it. Postcards had to be purchased, and customers only bought what suited their needs and expectations. This is not to say one size fits all, for no society is completely homogeneous; but taken as a whole these cards reflect the collective beliefs that existed during the War.
When World War One began, few among the public thought it would be anything but a short affair. Although massive amounts of men were mobilized, many continued at their jobs at home, especially if the work was considered essential. Woman had no immediate role to play other than give their enthusiastic support to the troops leaving for the front. Countless postcards were produced showing women cheering from balconies or directly from the street in huge public spectacles. Flowers are tossed and handed out as a symbol of certain victory. While these types of cards seem to be little more than pure propaganda, the coming of war was generally met with great enthusiasm. Publishers were reflecting the true spirit of the times, while reinforcing traditional gender roles.
On many farewell cards women and children are pictured matching side by side with troops headed off to the battlefront. The general assumption to be made are that these women are the wives of the marching soldiers. There is no sadness in these partings as the women seem to be as enthusiastic about the War as the men. There may however be another way to read them. Even if the high spirits depicted are meant to display unity, they also seem to show a more personal yearning among women to leave their everyday lives and take part in the adventure ahead, just like the children often pictured beside them.
In addition to the public farewell, many postcards also represented more intimate goodbyes. These scenes were not celebratory in nature, but usually captured the sadness of parting. While the mood of these cards is filled with reluctance to part, they are still predominantly patriotic and not antiwar. Their message is one of sacrifice. Neither man nor woman will let their nation down despite the hardship of parting. Both have a duty to fulfill; the man at the battlefront, the woman at the home front. Even the term home front was coined at this time, which shows a new interpretation of warfare. Without an explicit printed narrative, these cards often allow multiple interpretations. A couple in embrace can represent a farewell or homecoming, and even a return to the front from leave. This was most likely a marketing ploy as cards that could represent more situations could also attract more customers. These types of cards were produced in very large numbers throughout the War.
The amount of romance and sentimentality found on farewell cards varied a great deal between nations and even publishers. Great Britain was rather conservative when it came to such matters, and while emotionally charged cards can be found, most seem to be subdued. This reserve is very evident on the large number of cards issued by Bamforth & Co. who was known for producing card sets with moralistic messages. Although military themed, they functioned in large part like ordinary greetings where a sentimental narrative was used to quickly hook the viewer.
Italian farewell cards are almost unique in the manner that they employ romance. Although the narrative is typically left very vague, there is usually a clear undercurrent of sexual tension. There visual message is far more difficult to put into words, and these cards rarely have captions outside of some generic patriotic cheer. It is not always clear who the women on these cards represent. Despite the passion displayed and lack of patriotic emblems, many cards seem to be allegories for the passion for war. Italy was not fighting a defensive war but one in which they saw themselves redeeming territory they were owed. This patriotic attitude was expressed many different ways on many different cards.
(See the pages on Farewells and Homecomings in this guide for a wider examination of all the variations to this theme.)
Efforts were also made by postcard publishers early in the War to portray the situation on the home front as normal as possible. References would be made to the ongoing conflict but they barely seemed to cause a ripple in everyday affairs. The outward appearance of these cards would seem to say that despite enemy efforts, they are not powerful enough to have an effect on civilian life. Conversely they also imply that victory can be achieved without any serious sacrifice. Such cards were obviously more popular in countries like Germany that the ground war rarely touched. It would seem that this formula would have grown problematic as the discrepancies between life in the trenches and life at home grew greater. The lack of factual information being passed down from the front caused misperceptions and eventually resentment. The cards by the artist Brynoff Wennerberg, a true and prolific master of this genre, still became very popular in this environment. While there is no definitive explanation for this discrepancy, it is plausible that their appeal was based on a longing for the good life depicted, even if it were only an illusion.
A number of Wennerberg’s cards of the home front deal more directly with the War. From the set, In the Homeland, we find women sending off troops, waiting for mail from the front, flirtatious or romantic encounters with soldiers at home on leave, reading war news of recent victories and looking over situation maps. Though distantly related to combat, these romanticized cards remain upbeat without any expression of any anxiety. This probably added greatly to their great popularity along with their attractive female characters that were modeled after his daughters.
Early in the conflict postcards needed to show soldiers at the front that the women they left behind were faring well while also reassuring women that their lives would not change too much. While such cards tended to be light hearted to keep spirits high and also be more attractive to potential customers, they often included obvious patriotic gestures related directly to the War to show a united country. With the role of women still primarily oriented toward family life, word games became a popular way for postcards to add a military reference. This could make these cards topical without being too overbearing with propaganda. In many ways these cards are almost indistinguishable from those produced in prewar years; only now the long standing tradition of dressing boys in military uniforms is not just meant to define gender roles, it takes on extra significance as a patriotic gesture.
With every passing year of the War, hardships on civilians grew greater. While there were barely any changes at first, food slowly became expensive, and then hard to find until it was finally rationed. Fuel for cooking and heating also became scarce and worn clothing and shoes were difficult to replace. Since most men were off fighting, most of these deprivations fell on women. Postcards depicting the suffering of civilians were discouraged in some nations and prohibited in others. In an environment where keeping up morale through propaganda was preeminent, such images of hardship could be considered defeatist and even outright treasonous. Some leeway was given to charities attempting to raise money, but it was a dangerous line to navigate. The best of these cards only give a hint of what life was truly like on the home front.
The hardships created by the War were not shared equally among all classes. The poor who were barely making ends meet were especially hit by the continual rising inflation on food prices. Even though King Edward of England tried to set a good example by following rationing restrictions himself, many in the upper class refused to adjust their habits and found ways to get whatever they wanted. The belief that the burdens of the War were not being shared equally generated much resentment. The reaction of postcard publishers to this varied greatly between nations and sometimes within nations. German artists were the most likely to condemn the hoarding of food while they also produced cards showing their officers on leave dining in the company of elegant women as if nothing had changed.
Parisians were notorious for ignoring imposed wartime dietary restrictions, so while the countryside rationed, the high life in the city went on as before. Visitors to Paris often commented that it seemed as if the War surrounding them was not taking place. Postcards tended to reflect the same romantic idealizations of life in Paris that traditionally found an audience in peacetime. Paris remained the center of fashion, exporting new designs to neutral nations. Some slight updates might be noted like the growing tendency of fashionable women to own dogs. Toward the end of the conflict life began changing even here. Theaters and museums closed, and new postcards more often than not depicted the damage caused by German long range guns. Even though food and fuel grew scarce, many restaurants continued to disregard rationing as best they could.
The absence of men from the home front grew more extreme as the war went on. Even though many postcards began to show women taking up the work of men, this issue was primarily addressed on a more personal level. Many cards deal with the pangs of separation by displaying a solitary woman to enhance the spirit of loneliness, but the problems this created were twofold. There was already a tradition of rendering sad pensive women on cards to support this trope, and it was not easy to make a distinction between those produced during and before the War without an explicit caption. Even when such cards hit the mark, they were still basically depressing, which limited customers. A number of variations on this theme exist but they are not plentiful.
Despite the difficulties in providing essential supplies to vast armies out in the field, untold tons of parcels, letters, and postcards were sent back and forth between soldiers and their families. Correspondence was recognized as a vital factor in keeping morale up within the ranks of an army as well as with their families back home. Soldiers simply fought better when they were not worried about their loved ones, and since all nations depended on public support for the War, the concern civilians had over those serving on the battlefront also had to be addressed. Publishers understood this and not only supplied postcards, they turned correspondence into a major theme to be illustrated on cards. Since this type of approach dealt with connecting people rather than emphasizing loneliness, it proved a reliable method to make sales. Correspondence was one of the most popular themes to be found postcards produced during the Great War.
The most popular way of dealing with the subject of absence on postcards was through the use of two montaged scenes; one representing the battlefront, the other the home front. This was not a new idea; it had been used for many years on cards for soldiers away from home on maneuvers. Whether these cards told the story from the male or female point of view it was all the same; my thoughts are always with you, and I dream of the day we will be reunited. While soldiers are never shown neglecting their duty, these cards indicate how important the women left behind means to them even while fulfilling their commitment to the nation. The two most common tropes within this theme was to show lone sentries dreaming of home, and thoughts going to the other party while reading or writing a letter.
The question of whether a loved one remains in the partnerís thoughts when a couple is separated is age old. The War that separated men from home for long periods only added to these anxieties while the emotional need to feel supported only grew under the stress of danger. There are a limited number of postcards that address this issue outright, but it is their distressful mood that probably limited sales. It was fine to express the pain of longing to reunite, but this had to be mutually expressed. While more upbeat cards are far more common, correspondence itself was the best morale booster.
It may seem that depictions of women missing their sweethearts at the front lines was a very popular subject to place on postcards, not all variations on this theme worked equally. Women had to be portrayed just right, showing sincere longing without too much angst. The inadequate news from the front left many at home unaware of the difficult position solders found themselves in, which often led to an over emphasis of their own hardships. This disconnect only grew as the War dragged on, and this in turn led to much bitterness among soldiers. They did not want to see the hardships people were facing back home, they wanted their own acknowledged. A satisfactory trope that became very common was to show a woman thinking of her husband engaged in the dangers of combat and praying for his safety.
Even though there was an audience for upbeat cards, they did not fulfill everyone’s needs especially as the War dragged on and casualties mounted. Publishers were afraid of issuing cards that could be construed as defeatist for there could be serious consequences, but sales were also important if they were to stay in business. Subjects that were often chosen did not refer to specific events, nor did they call for peace. They only recognized the horrors inherent in war that had already touched many. If there was blame to be cast, it was directed toward the enemy. If peace was desired, it would only come with victory. On the card above, a woman sadly searches for her husband’s name on a recently posted list of battle casualties. The presence of a child only increases the drama.
Many soldiers in the Great War were the victim of huge artillery blasts that tore their bodies apart. The bodies of those lost in no man’s land were more likely to churn into the mud than ever be recovered. The nature and scale of this conflict produced many more missing in action than was ever expected. Few postcards tackle this difficult subject, and those that do usually follow a set formula. On the German cards above we are presented with the typical setting of a farewell; only here a wife grieves by a portrait of her soldier husband , accompanied by an iron cross. Her young son ready to throw flowers at the cheering troops outside their window turns his attention from the civic drama to the personal one. While such cards acknowledge grief, they are also about the sacrifice that duty to nation requires. The medal shows the nationís appreciation for heroic service. While the focus of this card is on the Woman, an allegory of victory rides the tide of troops headed for the battlefront.
One of the largest roles women played in the War was the one they least wanted, that of widow. While death consumed the imagination of 19th century Europe, the strict rituals surrounding mourning were already waning by the eve of the Great War as individuals were given much more discretion over how to handle a death in the family. During the conflict many women eventually gave up wearing black mourning dresses because it seemed too self-indulgent; a cry for attention when those around them had to stoically face hardship. Even though many cards were designed to honor the self-sacrifice of soldiers, this became much more difficult to accomplish when depicting grieving wives and mothers. Emotions in these cases were hard to sidetrack towards patriotism or hatred of the enemy because the intensity of personal sorrow always surpassed them. The difficulty in spinning a positive message caused few publishers to tackle this issue outside of trying to console through religious and spiritual beliefs.
Even if censorship is disregarded as a factor in output, many artists could not tackle the pain and loss the War brought as subjects because they were too emotionally wrapped up in current events. Some of the best images capturing the spirit of the conflict were produced in the years that followed when there was time to truly assess what had happened. The German artist, Katie Kolwitz, who lost her son in the War created her strongest work dealing with the fears and anxiety created by the conflict in the postwar years. These are not heroic visions of battles or depictions of horrors, but a very personal response to what it meant to live through these difficult times as a mother.