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Themes of World War One:
Although many postcards produced during the War revolved around the theme of romance, at their heart was the strong traditions of family life. Depictions of mothers and wives both represent the strength of family and home, and even girlfriends represent the prospect of this future. These women are what give a soldier strength on the battlefield because they are the treasure he fights to protect. This may only be directly expressed on a few cards, but understanding that this backdrop was accepted as part of the social fabric of the day is essential to understanding many military cards dealing with women.
The notion that the women back home were propping up the men fighting at the front may be the foundation of many postcards, but it was rarely explicitly expressed. This was especially true in scenes of combat, perhaps because it seemed in bad taste to connect the gentleness of women with violence. While these cards may try to associate bravery with satisfying the expectations of the girl back home, the reality was more complex. Though aggression comes naturally to our species, there is nothing natural about large scale long term warfare. Most men have to be given good reason to fight in it and then stay in the fight. Whether soldiers felt they were protecting their families or if they just felt a loved one back home expected their sacrifice, it was often enough to keep them from walking away from the battlefront.
Many romance cards produced during the War were little different from the countless romance cards produced in prewar years. The general sentiments expressed were exactly the same, but publishers went to great lengths to make these cards more topical to generate more sales. Competition was fierce, and ignoring the public’s interest in anything war related might lead to bankruptcy in these troubled times. Little was required initially except for a soldier in uniform accompanied by some clever wordplay using military jargon. Many of these cards had a humorous edge, possibly to give the buyer some cover from conservative eyes.
When it came to romance, not all men in uniform were treated equally. The public’s great fascination with flying translated into stardom for pilots. The unique dangers of aerial warfare only added to their romantic appeal. Quite a number of farewell cards specifically single out pilots for representation; and they are nearly all engaged in a passionate embrace. This was not just hype to sell cards; women also seemed to single out pilots for sexual liaisons, perhaps because they seemed a cut above the ordinary. Though the use of such images continued in postwar years until they became cliché, they must have looked fresh and exciting during the Great War.
A common trope on romance cards is to show a soldier in uniform surrounded by admiring young women. If there is any background story to these cards at all, they usually represent a soldier home on leave, though their real purpose is to show how interested women are in men that serve their nation. Even though these cards appear to be rather innocent, displaying nothing more than a flirtatious moment, they imply the possibility of a deeper romantic involvement. While the narrative may seem to be honoring the soldier’s service, it serves as a backhanded enticement for men to enlist.
One of the main uses for propaganda during the War was to entice men to volunteer for the armed services or to get them to stop evading service once conscription was enacted. Most of this was done through patriotic appeals, but it was also accomplished through shame. Many cards put women and even girls in uniform or had them headed off to war to show that even the fair sex that was exempt from service was willing to fight. Those who refused to fulfill their duty to the nation were obviously less than a woman. What man could stand such an insult?
The old English proverb, only the brave deserve the fair had already been appropriated in books, poetry, song and even on postcards before World War one broke out. It continued to be used during the war years on both American and British cards, but less to imply that fortune goes to those that are bold enough to seek it, than in favor of the more obvious interpretation. These cards did not only show women admiring men in uniform, it implied that women should only be attracted to men in uniform. This was another backhanded way to encourage enlistment through shame.
Early in the War, British Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald organized a small group of women into the Order of the White Feather to shame men into volunteering for military service. These women would hand out white feathers to any man not wearing a uniform to insinuate cowardice. It was believed that the accusation by women would give this form of public humiliation extra potency. Suffragists greatly expanded White Feather Brigades all over Britain for their own agenda. By making efforts to expose unpatriotic men, they hoped the gesture would surround them with an air of moral superiority and raise their status in the public’s eye.
Allusions to masculinity was a powerful tool on the propaganda effort to boost enlistments but is was also used to besmirch the enemy. The card above by the French artist Guilaume supposedly shows German officers in their leisure moments. Not only are they ransacking a French home for their petty amusement, one has put on a dress. While scenes of cross-dressing were not uncommon on cards picturing scenes from military theater, it was widely understood that this was done out of necessity in a male dominated environment and perhaps for a bit of fun. When the enemy is depicted in such roles the innocence of it disappears. There is an obvious implication that the soldiers being fought are not true men. Such insults however are not easily found on cards. Soldiers resented images that made the enemy look week because it also implied that their job to fight them was easy.
(See Cross-Dressing in Military Theater, dated February 8, 2012, in the archive of the website’s
Romantic passion is not always the predominant conveyer of emotion on cards as it is sometimes toned down in favor of promoting a more patriotic spirit. While many romance cards contain more than one message, these hybrids, full of national and military symbols, are less than subtle when it comes to expressing their intent. These are not complex cards for they employ the same simple formulas that were long used on greetings. Their message conveyed through sentimentality does not need to be carefully deciphered.
Romance cards are not always what they first seem to be. While the card above, illustrated by Xavier Sager shows a couple engaged in a passionate kiss, it is really a political cartoon. The American soldier kissing the woman dressed in the French tricolor represents the military alliance between the two nations. There is even a reference to the historical relationship between the United States and France by placing the names of Washington and Lafayette on the Parisian hatbox. After years of desperate fighting, many in France saw the arriving Americans as their savior. To be united in war meant to be united in love. Many other French illustrators picked up on this theme.
Although romance cards sometimes include a hint of allegory to promote a propaganda message, there are other cards in which a political agenda is boldly expressed. The most common of these are French cards that show a woman displaying some sort of affection toward a French soldier in gratitude for her liberation. These are not just any women; by their native dress we can tell they are inhabitants of the contested provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. It is also important to understand that these provinces were often personified in political cartoons by female figures in native costume. These cards do not present us with a real encounter but are a symbol of imminent liberation. This became a major French goal, and images referring to it were used to stir up support for the War. French soldiers did fight in this region, but both Alsace and Loraine remained largely under German control for most of the conflict.
Some pairings of the opposite sex on postcards are less than romantic. A common theme on comic cards was to show a soldier decorated for bravery in battle being too scared to approach an attractive woman when back home. While the irony is essential to the humor, such awkward encounters were probably very common, which added to the popularity of these cards. Many young men raised under strict Victorian values were shipped off to the battlefront with little to no experience interacting with women outside of their family. While the disruption of family life created many opportunities for encounters with women, experience in combat did nothing to overcome years of social conditioning.
As the War progressed there was a great shift sexual mores. Young women who were already seeking more freedom before the War now began to find some after moving to cities to take up industrial jobs. Out from under the supervision of their families they were more likely to engage in brief sexual encounters. So many men were absent from the home front that opportunities for more casual social interaction dwindled away. Postcards that had long depicted sailors trying to pick up women in foreign ports now brought these narratives closer to home. Proper European women might fall in love, but the insinuation of anything sexual had previously been strictly forbidden by good manners. If the concept of the fallen women did not completely disappear, the boundaries of its definition were being blurred. Postcards depicting this behavior are not as rare as might be supposed. Like other uncomfortable subjects, they are usually tempered with humor.
The danger and uncertainty created by the War brought in a malaise, and made many traditional values seem trite. Many felt they must live for the day for the future did not look bright. This led to greater promiscuity that was only enhanced by the general strain of the conflict and broken family life. Romantic postcards that might have seemed innocent enough just a little earlier took on new meaning under these new conditions. Illegitimate births that were considered scandalous before the War increased tremendously; and by War’s end, little fuss was made over them.
Many troops were billeted in civilian homes where the man of the house was not present. While this did not encourage prostitution, it did set up a situation that promoted illicit sex. Postcards that deal with billeting tend to show a minimum of interaction between civilians and soldiers. There may be a few flirtatious gestures, but the ambiguity of these cards can send duel messages. Even though these cards might have been made to reinforce the notion that these arrangements are quite innocent, they can easily promote fantasies of potential sexual relations. Women were already under suspicion of falling into moral decay from the lack of proper male supervision, and growing sexual delinquency among unsupervised young girls was a real problem; yet few postcards offer cautionary tales.
While the live while you can attitude created by the mounting war dead led to a loosening of moral standards and short term sexual encounters, tens of thousands of soldiers created stronger bonds through liaisons that ended in matrimony. While much of this was probable due to the stress of war, this behavior was inadvertently encouraged by various organizations in England and France that only wanted to provide support to soldiers who were far from home. Women, nicknamed Godmothers, were asked to correspond with anonymous soldiers in the field to keep up morale, but this often led to close bonds being formed, and proposals of marriage once the soldier returned home on leave. There were many of these hasty marriages, but it is not easy to judge their character. While decried by religious leaders as a short sighted route to unhappiness, it seems similar to online dating today. Young soldiers however were susceptible to scheming women who were looking to receive an easy paycheck. Very aware of their mortality rate, numbers of women engaged in bigamy to collect hefty sums through multiple widows’ benefits. While this subject often made the news, it was rarely broached on postcards except occasionally in satire.
While romance cards were used for general correspondence to and from the front lines, they were primarily designed to appeal toward women. To balance out sales, publishers also produced risqué cards that would catch the eye of men. These were especially appealing to single soldiers as they were unlikely to be mailed back to wives. When it comes to glamour cards, they all look reasonably the same no matter where they were made. There were however noticeable cultural differences when it came to presenting the risqué. France who had the greatest tolerance for the risqué had always produced the most cards, and this trend continued through the War years. This subject may have seemed too trivial and light in the dark years of the conflict to justify its production, but popular artists such as Xavier Sager and Albert Guilaume adapted and began designing suggestive cards with military themes that proved very popular.
Even in France not all appreciated the risqué. The French artist Chéri Herouard who provided illustrations for the weekly satirical magazine, La Vie Parisienne stirred up trouble by including American soldiers in his suggestive drawings. These types of depictions caught the Puritanical eye of General Pershing who warned his soldiers not to buy this magazine least they be corrupted by its erotic leanings. Risqué images were published for a reason, they were popular and sold in large numbers. Pershing’s warnings only created publicity that increased sales. Many of Herouard’s images were reproduced on postcards by I. Lapina.
The term pinup was not yet coined during World War One, but soldiers had been taking pictures of women with them to the front as soon as printed images and photographs became available. By 1914 this included a wide range of material that included portraits of actresses, bathing beauties, the risqué, and actual nudes. While the artist Raphael Kirchner seemed to focus more on replacing his suggestive scenes with those depicting more nudity once the War started, it seems unlikely that any one artist would have dominated this subject as he is often credited. Many other illustrators were consistently producing this type of work, and was just as available. The collecting of erotic cards was a very personal habit, and like most things related to sexual inclinations they were not well documented at the time. Most of these cards that routinely decorated soldier’s quarters did not come home with them at War’s end.
French cards in particular seem to treat the interactions between men and women very lightly. There are countless multi-paneled cards whose elaborate narratives display the various interactions between women to the down to earth poilu, which usually imply romantic or sexual prowess. Many of these cards deal with sexual relations with wives, prostitutes and sometimes both on a single card. While the content of these cards can be erotic, it is always tamed by humor. The women on these cards however are one dimensional since they only exist through the eyes of the soldier.
Glamour and romance cards produced during the War both often used wordplay to add a humorous element to them. While this was no doubt added to temper untraditional ways of depicting women within a polite society, it also functioned as an additional element that might attract a buyer to a card. This same formula of using military terms in wordplay was also applied to risqué cards, but here it seems that creating sexual innuendo is its primary goal.
If French cards dealt with the risqué more than publishers from other nations, this was also true when presenting nudity. Many French cards went far beyond the risqué to show their soldiers involved with partially dressed or nude women. Though erotically themed, these cards were also primarily designed to deliver the same types of humorous messages found on less explicit cards, they are often a reaction to the loosening of morals. While these types of cards were banned from the mail in most nations, quite a number can be found with French postmarks. Even so, postcards dealing with infidelity were officially discouraged because they might lower the morale of suspicious troops away from home for extended periods.
There was always a demand for pictures of nude women, though they were not so easy to come by. Desire created the product, but the morality of the times hindered their sale. While respectable shops tended not to carry them, there were obviously other outlets for their dispersal. This varied from nation to nation with France being the most liberal when it came to production and sales. Differing social mores also limited exposure to such items. Many British and later American soldiers were exposed to erotic cards for the first time only after being stationed overseas. One might speculate that this added to demand, which put many older cards back into circulation but there are few ways to verify this. Erotic cards were largely kept as possessions and not used for correspondence so they are rarely dated. All this makes it very difficult to know if a card picturing a nude was made during the War. Soldier’s quarters at the front lines was one of the few places where such cards could be displayed, and these cards often have pinholes in them from being tacked to a wall.
Many acquisitions of nude pictures were also destroyed on the eve of battle fearing they might fall among other possessions returned to a family if killed in action. This fear was largely unfounded as officers responsible for returning belongings usually edited out anything that might tarnish the memory of the fallen soldier, but the ultimate fate of these cards remains uncertain. It seems unlikely that enough accurate information concerning nude postcards will ever be available to paint a complete picture of their use in the Great War.
Most cards of nudes were created in photo studios equipped with suitable props and backdrops that could create an artistic setting. Pieces of classical architecture were often employed in compositions so that the photograph could be associated with the acceptable nudes of ancient Greek sculpture. While such rationalizationss were very common before the Great War, cards displaying explicit sex were also made with no attempt to soften what they were. These are usually homemade real photo postcards that were not distributed from even normal underground channels. Most might have only been made for personal use. Other hard to find nudes are those made as a result of opportunistic encounters. The postcard above was one of many produced by a German officer deployed in the Balkans, though it is the only one with any nudity. Was the bare breasted woman just caught nursing her child or was she asked to pose in this manner? Like so many real photo cards there is no backstory from which to draw a definitive meaning. Knowing how many women took up prostitution just to survive; it is not difficult to read this image as some sort of exploitive exchange.