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Themes of World War One:
It has often been said that the contribution of nurses is one of the under told stories of the Great War. While this may be in part due to the general under appreciation of women’s contributions, it is also an expression of more recent bias against postcards by historians. Nurses are by far the most commonly depicted personnel involved in delivering medical services. Since publishers produced cards to meet demand, the great volume depicting nurses shows that they were certainly recognized in their own time. This is not only due to the great number of women involved in this activity, but because it was a long standing accepted female role. These depictions were not one dimensional as the role of nurse carried with it many associations that could satisfy personal demands as well as enhance the propaganda war.
Unrecognized on postcards were the thousands of female doctors who served with the military. Whether they were volunteers or conscripted out of hospitals in emergencies, most had no official designation within the military and their service went unrecorded. Women were not easily seen in the role of doctor because it was a schooled profession, largely thought to be beyond the capabilities of their sex. There was far less trouble viewing women in the role of nurse simply because it mimicked their role as caregivers in the home. Publisher did not often break with public perceptions if they wanted their cards to sell.
Expectations of nurses were not consistent, and their portrayal was diverse to satisfy many needs. Nurses largely fell into three categories, military nurses who were already serving in the army, professional civilian nurses who volunteered to serve in the military, and civilians who volunteered for service but had little to no training. Representations however far exceeded military definitions as many cards include religious and romantic themes. Some were shown in real situations while others were idealized. While many of these cards may have been bought by nurses themselves as reflections of their lives, they generally seem to be honored in a fashion that represents a much broader public view.
The Second Boer War revealed a dangerous flaw in the way the British War Office handled its medical and nursing services. They thought it a waste of funds to maintain these professionals in peacetime, but they could not mobilize them fast enough to fill the Armyís needs when conflict erupted. Solutions were sought through cooperation with voluntary organizations; and by 1909 the War Office began setting up the Organization of Voluntary Aid in England and Wales, which soon afterward was expanded to Scotland. When the Great War broke out, hundreds of Voluntary Aid Detachments were trained, organized and ready to be deployed. While men served in these units, the vast majority of volunteers were women. Despite all efforts to organize them, the Army still preferred to use own trained staff. The unexpected high rate of casualties however not only forced these VADs into service, but new efforts had to be made to recruit additional volunteers.
Even if necessity forced the military to accept untrained volunteers as nurses, these newcomers still often fell into conflict with more experienced staff. Those who saw themselves as lifelong professionals were vying for respect and they did not want to be lumped together with those who were only helping out for the duration. Postcards on the other hand might honor a specific organization, but they did not discriminate between these classes or show any dissension. The primary purpose of depicting nurses on cards was to show that there would be good care for the wounded soldier, which in turn made all equal in publisherís eyes. The only exception might be the attention awarded matrons for their oversight of a nursing staff because respect was always given to rank.
It must be noted that the status of nurses varied greatly between nations. They were given rank in Great Britain but those inducted into the U.S. Army were considered little more than civilians regardless of their skills. By operating without an official designation they were not entitled to any benefits if injured in service or later as veterans.
While the Red Cross is best known for its nurses helping the wounded, its volunteers served the military in many capacities. The responsibilities of female Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain were expanded into general services to include cooking, laundering, driving, the procurement of blankets and clothing, and manufacturing of essential hospital supplies. Women in other also countries performed similar duties. The dispensing of food and drink for soldiers being transported on ambulance trains and at rest stations became a popular subject for postcards. In a time when food was growing scarce, such actions were more than a polite gesture. It was an effective narrative for a postcard because it had immediate impact while stressing a romantic view of the War over its more bloody aspects. While these cards worked as propaganda to show a nation supporting its troops, they were also representative of real services performed.
In Great Britain two divisions of the Women’s Defense Relief Corps were created to serve civil and military functions. The civil portion aimed at filling men’s jobs with women so that the men could be freed for combat service. For the military portion women were actually inducted into the armed forces where they received training for a particular assigned task such as air raid duty or manning censorship offices. After manpower shortages in Germany grew severe, they instituted mandatory community service (Civildienst-Geselz) for all men not directly serving at the front lines as part of the Auxiliary Service Law (the Hindenburg Program). Women were also encouraged to take part in community service but this was left voluntary. It is interesting to note that despite the seriousness of this issue, the illustrator of the German card above could not resist inserting some sexual tension for the sake of sales.
British First Aid Nursing Yeomanry was founded in 1907 by captain Edward Baker so that there would always be readily trained nurses on hand should war break out. Although they were specifically trained to retrieve and treat wounded soldiers on the front lines, the British army had no use for woman in their ranks once the Great War started. The organization did however find support for their skills in Belgium where nursing services were traditionally confined to the Church. Although many postcards show these nurses on the battlefront with Belgian soldiers, these views all seem to be staged. The early fall of Antwerp prevented most from being deployed until 1915 when they began operating out of Calais, an important British transfer point in France. Though not technically in the military, they took orders from British army commanders. Simple need caused them to assume more and more responsibilities that eventually brought them closer to the front lines into harm’s way.
Even though nurses were not supposed to be assigned duties closer to the battlefront than field hospitals, which were typically three to four miles behind the front lines, there are countless postcards depicting nurses helping the wounded in the midst of combat. Deciphering the truth is no easy matter as there is little official documentation of events that run counter to military regulations, though there are many individual accounts. Many of these depictions on cards are obvious allegories or fantasies as nurses seem to suddenly appear even when the fighting takes place out in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, there are known cases of nurses setting up illegal dressing stations at the front lines. As the War progressed many nurses began driving ambulances due to manpower shortages, which often brought them closer to the fighting than allowed. On a fluid battlefront nurses went were they were most needed and became casualties in the process. Most battlefront depictions of nurses however seem to be nothing more than propaganda made to show that there was good care available for the wounded. It was also easier to show off the nurseís courageous dedication to service through drama than through the drudgery of hospital work. It must also be noted that many images of nurses in battle are just symbols for medical aid.
(See the pages on The Wounded in this guide for more information on the duties of nurses.)
It was often through the performance of unofficial duties that nurses were wounded or injured. While authorities did not like this type of information leaking out to the public, they also played up particular situations when it suited propaganda needs. Perhaps the most exploited story of the War concerned the British nurse, Edith Cavell, who was caught behind the German advance through Belgium early in the conflict. She continued to live near Brussels in occupied territory secretly ferrying stray British and French soldiers to the neutral Netherlands. Emboldened by her sense of moral justice her actions were less than discrete, and she was eventually arrested and routinely executed in the fall of 1915. The Germans blind to her propaganda value could only see that she had forfeited her protection under the Geneva Convention by directly taking part in belligerent actions. Once dead she was portrayed by the Allies as an innocent victim of German aggression. Her likeness appears on many postcards that include traditional portraits, recruitment posters, illustrated allegories of her cruel fate, execution scenes stressing her barbaric execution, her decorated grave and later monuments built to honor her sacrifice. She not only became the most famous victim of the War but one of its best known personalities.
There is usually an unspoken message behind every postcard that is based on familiarity and common assumptions. People largely wanted cards that embraced stereotypes for there is comfort in the familiar even when the storyline is known not to be true. While many back service tasks performed by both Red Cross nurses and other volunteers could then be classified as traditional women’s work, it was still generally too unglamorous to be given special recognition on a postcard. When this type of work does appear, it is usually on charity cards to remind the public that even the most common tasks become essential in wartime. Every women sewing, washing or cleaning for the military freed a man from this work so he could fight instead.
Postcard publishers may have covered nearly every aspect of the War, but what they chose and the amount of coverage still depended on customer demand for these subjects. Sometimes the more traditional held sway, sometimes the more adventurous, sometimes publishers divided their efforts among both but they were all designed for sales. Real photo postcards did not so much defy this rule as take a different perspective on it. Since independent photo studios could produce cards in small numbers, they did not have to worry about targeting a mass consumer base; they could satisfy a niche audience and still make a profit if it was large enough. In doing so they captured a unique side of the conflict that would never have been represented on more ordinary cards. No matter what position people served in, they wanted a record of that service and photographers obliged. Many such photographs were also taken by amateurs. While most of these photo cards are seemingly ordinary, they are also some of the rarest cards to be found.
Postcards that showed nurses carrying out their official duties may have been plentiful, but far more were produced to express specific characteristics beyond this. Whether these traits were real or imagined, they can be assigned to any number of common tropes. Some of these are based on the number of different and sometimes conflicting ways that women had already been displayed on cards and in other popular forms of media. Other attributes are reserved solely for nurses. The card above drawn by Raphael Kirchner honors nurses by implying those who serve have a special calling; yet he hasnít completely escaped his tendency to glamorize and eroticize women.
Glamour cards were a very popular genre before the Great War, and they continued to be made during the conflict; only now many of the same illustrators adjusted their output to accommodate military themes. Portraying women in nurse uniforms was an easy enough change to make to increase sales. Although in uniform, these women are divorced from all other aspects of War. They are after all expected to exude an air of glamour and not stir up any unpleasant associations with the maimed and dying. While purchased by men, these cards were probably more popular with women to whom they represented an idealized form of freedom.
The public’s respect for the service of nurses in the War was so high that one would think that embellishments were unnecessary in their portrayals. The tendency to idealize however led many publishers to push the image of nurses further; not necessarily as propaganda, but to meet the growing expectations of the society at large. Ordinary renderings of the great just would not do. This was especially true of many French studios that produced monochrome and hand colored real photo cards that present nurses in highly staged narratives. They are set on the battlefield as well as the hospital, but all are posed studio shots that look like stills from a play. This feeling is often enhanced when they are issued in sets with text or montage to help the narrative along.
Despite the tendency to idealize nurses, quite a number of publishers just tried to portray them as a cut above ordinary women without going to great lengths to do so. On these there is often some hint of their actual duties for which they are being praised. Though subdued, they still borrow enough from glamour cards to attract a wide audience.
The British card above by J. Salmon seems to honor the woman of the year or at least the type is typical of many produced in prewar years. The printed year and Red Cross emblem however give it special significance. While the nurse depicted is attractive, the cards puts her service to the nation above typical references to beauty. It is a message to all men and women alike that real beauty comes from within, and in this case how you serve others. It may break with a stereotype, but the card still uses a stereotype to do so. Considering the times it was produced in, this card is a clever compromise that delivers a propaganda message while appealing to a large audience.
Publishers had such a habit of only choosing attractive young women to grace their postcards that it is easy to forget that older women exist. Though this choice in fact did represent the many young women volunteers who answered the call to service, women of all ages did what they could to help. The experience of older nurses might have been highly regarded at field hospitals, but the first concern of publishers were sales, and pictures of pretty women sold well. As with almost anything related to postcards there are exceptions. The German card above honors an older nurse who answered the Kaiserís call, which is supplemented by a long compilation of praise. There were many different types of customers for postcards, and if the market was large enough, cards were produced for them. While a sound marketing strategy, it is easy to see how this can distort historical perspective.
The wives of notables rising all the way up to Queen sometimes assumed the role of nurses. If many ordinary women felt they must rise to the occasion and volunteer, it is not difficult to assume that some who were better off were gripped with the same passion. A public figure in this role was suitable to be depicted on postcards because it was generally assumed that such women need not put themselves through the hardships associated with service or would even want to. While there is no way to know true motivations, such depictions had high propaganda value. They showed that no one was above helping the nation, and that all were making sacrifices. Queen Elisabeth of Belgium was sometimes referred to as Queen Nurse because of her regular visits to wounded soldiers in hospitals. While the nurse uniform she wore was only for propaganda, she sometimes assisted doctors treat minor wounds. She was also instrumental in organizing ambulance services and even set up a special hospital for amputees. Despite her Bavarian ancestry, her generosity of spirit gained her many followers, which is reflected in the numerous postcards that depict her as a nurse.
Images of nurses as care givers falls within their expected duties so even when staged these cards strike us as real. Some cards however go beyond this common depiction to give us nurses as protectors, defending wounded soldiers from the barbarous enemy moving in for the kill. Not only do they superimpose themselves between combatants, they sometimes pick up the fallen soldier’s weapon for defense. These types of cards do not represent real events but function as propaganda. Nearly all cards of this type are French. This trope not only displays the unrelenting bravery of French women, and by doing so it derides the enemy’s behavior at the same time. Propaganda however often has the effect of obscuring the reality of similar events. Many nurses did in fact use their bodies to cover their patients while under fire.
Even though all sorts of women served as nurses, many had strong connections to religious based organizations and orders. In a number of countries being a nurse was not an occupation at all but a vocation entirely filled by nuns. This is often made obvious through there elaborate head gear that separated them from uniformed army nurses. In places like France where there was a long history of antagonism between the secular government and the Church, it was difficult to form a working relationship between nuns and the military. When the Great War came, French armies were woefully unprepared for the medical needs they would face. These shortages were only made up by the influx of volunteer nurses from the United States. Nuns often appear on charity cards issued by their own organizations as on the Russian example above.
Church doctrine has not been consistent over the centuries in regard to the way the Virgin Mary was to be viewed. In many ways Christians have defined her for themselves based on the archetype of the mother that presided over pagan goddesses. By medieval times these beliefs grew into the cult of Mary where she assumed a role larger than the mother of Jesus Christ. These beliefs were not only firmly in place by 1914, they saw a resurgence during the Great War. While many postcards depict Mary as the supreme comforter, a number of artists reassigned these attributes to nurses until the saint-like portrayal became a common trope. Though she is not always so easy to define, her portrait is always flattering but more than just idealized; she seems spiritually removed from the bloody wounds and death associated with her service to the point where we would not associate her portrait with nursing if not for the cross of red she bears. There is an insinuation here that those who selflessly help the wounded are more than mere volunteers, they have a special generosity of heart. While these cards are meant to honor women, it is always dangerous to create a presence that exceeds reality.
Many Roman Catholics also came to view the Virgin Mary as a protector to whom they directed their devotion. The beginnings of this are evident in prayers (Sub tuum praesidium) dating back to the 3rd century. During the Great War many soldiers carried rosary beads with them as protective talismans, and many visions of Mary on the battlefield were noted. Even Pope Benedict XV encouraged followers to look upon the Queen of Peace as the world’s savior. This mystical role was often personified on postcards in the form of the nurse. She stands arms outstretched to receive the wounded lying before her; her presence more than human. The red cross she boldly wears cannot be divorced from the sacrificial cross of Christ.
There is an obvious association between a mother caring for a helpless young child and a nurse caring for her patient. While these can be described as two different things, there seems to be a human tendency to project motherly ideals onto anyone serving as a primary nurturer. This easily allows nurses to be portrayed in the form of the archetypal mother. This connection can draw in other associations as with the Virgin Mary or Mother Earth. The nurse on the card above also serves in the role of teacher, instructing the innocent on the evil to be found in this world.
No effort by propagandists matched the way that some soldiers idealized nurses. For many their lives literally depended on the dedication and caring hands of these women. Allegories may harness archetypal images of women for symbolic purposes, but many larger than life depictions of nurses were based on something more simple; they truly represented the emotions of soldiers. To someone who felt their life was saved by a nurse, they were true angels. Since sentiment was the mainstay of the postcard industry, many such illustrious depictions appear on cards.
As much as they were idealized, enemy nurses were sometimes portrayed as villainous on propaganda cards. This is especially true on French cards depicting German nurses. Unlike French nurses who provide kind treatment to wounded German soldiers, German nurses routinely murder any wounded Frenchman they come across. This type of vitriolic propaganda did not have to be based on actual incidents or even seem plausible; their only purpose was to enrage. Just like other female personifications of Germany that commit atrocities, these cards play against traditional social norms by saying German women are not like us; they do not possess the natural nurturing qualities of our women but are barbarians just like Germany’s soldiers.
Considering that most nurses were women, it should be of no surprise that they were sexualized on postcards. There was however no one formula to accomplish this, and portrayals ran the gamut from subtle innuendo to outright passionate romance. Some cards only display a natural interaction between a nurse and her patient, but the soldiers here tend not to be severely wounded. Unlike cards that enhance the status of nurses by showing how desperately they are needed by fallen soldiers, these cards require the soldier to be fit enough for romantic duty. Even when the hint of romance is barely implied, these cards still carry a very different feeling than those depicting the actual dressing of wounds.
Other cards pair soldiers and nurses together during convalescence. While most of these cards do nothing more than imply that a wounded soldier would not be forgotten and could look forward to good care, there is often some sexual undercurrent present. This might only extend to the promise of being cared for by a pretty young woman, but many cards also express a rivalry for a nurse’s attention between soldiers. These mimic rivalries for affection found on romance cards produced before the War, only now the participants are in uniform and their captions might make military references.
Quite a number of cards depicting soldiers in convalescent exaggerate the attention they received at the hands of nurses. Some of these seem real enough to show off petty jealousies or imply a real romance is possible, but others approach the topic through humor and may even extended into pure fantasy. In either case they are primarily meant to lessen the anxiety about receiving a wound by offering the promise of female companionship.
While many romantic liaisons were formed between soldiers and civilians during the War, contact was always limited and sporadic. Men serving in the military might have many more opportunities to meet up other females serving the military. Considering both sexes led rather segregated lives, chance meetings no doubt led to more flirtation than would be found under more normal circumstances but the way this is portrayed on postcards is skewed. Woman might have served in a wide range of capacities, but few matched the glamour of nursing in the publicís eye. Publishers needing to match postcard production with their customer’s expectations largely focused on images of nurses. It is also the nurse who is usually shown in pursuit even though men were just as active pursuing nurses if not more so. This probably came down to acceptable manners; it was just too rude to show a soldier hitting on a woman. It might seem that this behavior was even more outrageous for a woman to engage in, but that might be where the attraction lies. These cards may not be playing with romance as much as they are illustrating the new liberties that women were interested in taking.
Although the uncertainties of war made the forming of romantic relationships with nurses unwise, these same stressful conditions fostered their formation at the same time. There were military regulations in most armies that forbid this type of fraternization, but acts of passion could only be punished not prevented. While not outright condoning this behavior, many publishers recognized its reality and dealt with it in a positive manner on their cards. Many postcards may have played up the possibilities of a romantic relationship with a nurse but this was more fantasy than reality. Opportunities while there, were not as great as they might seem. Nurses were usually overwhelmed with work, and many of the wounded were in no condition to exploit the situation even if desired.
As with many subjects, publishers were confronted with a delema when it came to romance between solders and nurses. While they did not want to loose out on sales by ignoring a popular subject, they did not want to be seen encouraging fraternization, which military authorities looked down upon. Artists such as Wennerberg often made this choice easier by approaching this subject through light hearted or even symbolic means. Many of his illustrations depict outright flirtations, but we can read what we want to in the chess game pictured on the card above. It is interesting to note however that the nurse seems to have the experienced military officer in check.
The details of the relationships depicted on postcards might vary, but they all tend to fall into a few simple to understand clichés. In many ways the War made things simple by providing an excuse to not look into the future. While this fostered much promiscuity, human relationships can also be very complex and difficult if not impossible to pigeonhole. Postcard publishers love sentimental clichés because customers are more likely to buy a card that does not cause them to think, only feel. The industry however was so large at this time, and postcards so popular that the more unusual sometimes slips through. The German card above by artist Paul Rieth may perform as a simple allegory, but it also seems to capture an undercurrent of melancholy that is usually present when trying to forge a relationship under difficult conditions. Rieth was a master as creating the ambiguous.
Most encounters between nurses and soldiers probably began and ended with nothing more than a passing flirtation. Others though brief may have also involved sex. It was one thing for publishers to depict romance on cards for they sold and raised morale, but sex was another matter entirely. They did not want to be seen promoting moral decay in a time when many were deeply worried over the sharp decline in traditional mores. Real relationships however were forged between nurses and soldiers that were more than fleeting. This could at least be expressed in moral terms on cards by indicating the nurse’s devotion to caring would eventually be rewarded through marriage. While these cards only seem to be promoting a hopeful fantasy, the conflict produced large numbers of war brides.
Of all the images of nurses, the most common are the simple real photo postcard portraits of actual nurses. As soon as photography studios were established, soldiers began to have portraits made of themselves in uniform before going off to war. If lucky, these might be made locally in a soldierís home town. For others this would have to be a serendipitous encounter, though the chances increased dramatically as photographers set up shop near military camps knowing the tremendous market to be tapped. Over the years, formal poses grew more casual and even playful but on a whole they were composed to look respectful. They were created to be a proud record of service, and they were also distributed to family and friends as a memento. This limited use also meant that individual images were only made in small numbers. Women began taking part in this custom during World War One. Whether in the military or auxiliary services, they too were proud to wear any type of uniform and made this known through a photograph. The sheer number of nurses that served in these years ensured that they would be well represented.
While many of these portraits were produced on plain photo paper, it is far more common to find them in the postcard format. This does not mean they were meant to be mailed, only that real photo cards were so popular that photo paper with a preprinted postcard back was the least expensive and most readily available. Most of these were also printing out papers, which means they could easily be made by amateurs outside a darkroom. The poorer the quality the print, the more likely the card is homemade.