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Themes of World War One:
Europeans led more isolated lives before the Great War when differences in local customs were far more exaggerated and personal experiences with other cultures was rare. These condition helped to create an age that focused in on differences between people more than similarities, which enhanced the popularity of postcards depicting people of various ethnic and cultural differences under the category of types. Production of these cards continued into the War years but for additional reasons peculiar to the conflict. German armies fought on all fronts during the war, often more out of necessity than desire. In doing so their soldiers experienced a number of populations that were unfamiliar to many in dress and in customs. Allied countries were also exposed to new people from foreign lands in the form of colonial soldiers reinforcing the battlefront. While military cards depicting types focus in on specific ethnicities in relation to their army’s exposure to them, they are still not always easy to differentiate from earlier issues, especially since prewar cards were used by soldiers in the field as the one pictured above. Those from Allied nations however might have additional patriotic flourishes, while those from Germany and Austria-Hungary were often issued as fieldpost cards.
While cards displaying types were not necessarily derogatory, they still tended to promote differences that usually implied an inferior status. This could be a problematic when trying to forge alliances dictated by the necessities of war. Allied cards needed to allay fears of strange colonial forces on native soil while German cards had to project the role of liberator onto their soldiers occupying foreign lands. Even though German cards often painted racist depictions of the Russians who they were fighting, they often showed Poles who they were trying to win over in more pleasant terms. The most common way of expressing friendship and acceptance was through depictions of soldiers and local women fraternizing. Any sign of flirtation was a symbol of acceptance that could counter Allied propaganda of the pillaging barbarian. These cards could also be used to prop up the argument for annexation of territory. These cards convey their message through simple narratives even when the politics are complicated.
Muslims who were traditionally seen as the enemies of Europe had to be embraced once the Ottoman Empire aligned itself with the Central Powers. While scores of typical patriotic unity cards were produced, a number of publishers approached this subject on a more personal level. Many Germans soldiers made their first contact with Muslims during their occupation of the Balkans or while serving as advisors to the Turkish army. Even though many real bonds were formed, postcards tend to follow the tradition of Orientalism to project the exotic. Muslim soldiers were depicted in the same manner as their European counterparts to inspire confidence, but civilians became curiosities. This was especially true of women that are usually depicted under a veil.
Most postcards that show interactions between soldiers and female civilians do nothing more than hint at a flirtation. This is even true among French cards that are known for pushing the limits on sexual depictions. In many ways these cards are more political in that they display the professional quality of their troops who are always well mannered. The flirtation acts as a symbol of sincere appreciation for the sacrifice being made. While these cards are rather benign, they are never completely devoid of sexual innuendo. This may be inescapable, but it also added to a card’s salability.
German and Austro-Hungarian cards depicting the Eastern Front also show encounters between soldiers and civilians, but they tend to have a stronger propaganda message. They are meant counter the title of barbarian that the Allies hung over them by showing friendly acts. This was of double importance because they were also an occupying army and needed to show that the populace more than accepted their presence; they had to be seen as liberators. Cavalrymen are often used to convey this message because they can more easily fit into the recognizable narrative of the chivalric knight, who is always respectful of women. Even here some flirtatious moments are thrown in, probably more for the sake of sales than message.
French postcards will sometimes display a gratuitous kiss between a civilian and a soldier, but this is usually done for its symbolism rather than any romantic content. If a French soldier is involved, the kiss represents the successful liberation of territory, most likely Alsace and Loraine. Most of these cards are artist drawn or studio shots since they were issued in anticipation of results not yet actualized. American solders begin to appear on these types of cards as soon as they arrive in France. Some of these are presented as photo-based cards because the kiss is not only a symbolic thank you for their help, they represent real acts of gratitude that were commonly expressed.
Women were also portrayed on a large number of cards as victims of the War. The most common representation was that of refugee fleeing a ruined home or wandering aimlessly down a deserted road. They are often accompanied by their children to illustrate the extra burden of responsibility they were facing. While some of these cards were meant to show the barbarity of the enemy in creating hardships for innocent civilians, most publishers did not want to promote the idea that their people were suffering. Most refugee cards were published by charities in an effort to raise funds to help their plight. These institutions were granted more leeway in their message because some suffering had to be shown to generate enough sympathy to garner donations. Even so, they had to be careful to show that these deprivations were the result of the enemy or war in general, and never the fault of official policies.
Even though to show the suffering of one’s own people might imply a failure to protect, the mistreatment of civilians by German soldiers early in the War was used to great effect on Allied propaganda cards. Under the label of the rape of Belgium there was no atrocity Germans would not commit, especially against women and children. While civilians have always been treated badly in wartime, a new attitude had grown by this time that they should not be specifically targeted. Women were particularly sacrosanct, and so images of them being injured or killed seemed appalling. The success of these propaganda cards in stirring up hatred for the barbarian invaders insured their production throughout the War. The French were especially fond of producing such vitriolic cards both in drawn form and as hand colored real photos that were posed in a studio. They often emphasize the bravery of their citizens as well as the crimes enacted against them to raise their status to martyrs.
War puts all civilians in occupied territory at risk to the whims and abuses of the enemy, which is even true when efforts are made by commanders to protect local populations. When civil order is disrupted, great opportunities are presented for abuse with little recourse for suffering from it. Military authorities rarely dealt with crimes against civilians except for the worst cases. Sometimes this abuse was even encouraged. Generating an atmosphere of fear was often seen as a method of keeping people in their place, and it usually worked. Even when no crime is being perpetrated, women are sometimes presented as victims of intimidation. Unlike men, they could be more readily seen and both innocent and unable to defend themselves.
It seems that there was no set formula for depicting crimes against women on postcards; while some publishers showed gory details others only implied an abusive narrative. Rape was a particularly delicate subject because it not only involved violence but sex. In general, most publishers just shied away from the subject, and those that tackled it did so in very suggestive ways. Violence against women especially with sexual overtones helped justify the war effort; but while the subject is seemingly a perfect match for propaganda cards, its imagery defied good taste. Even though disasters and tragedies had long found their way onto cards, there was often an emotional disconnect between depictions of wreckage and personal tragedy. Publishers that similarly used battle scenes to create drama on their cards, chose images that were tame when compared to real events. Postcards after all had to be purchased, and publishers normally sought out appealing images that would generate the most sales. Unlimited warfare had broken all civilized standards of conducting a war, and this in turn seems to have also changed what was socially acceptable to place on a card. Though there were still limits to what could be shown, cards that only suggested rape marked a huge change in social standards.
In many cases women were portrayed the same way on postcards during the War as they were before it started. Publishers however were always looking for new ways to match them up with military themes believing more topical cards would find more buyers. One of the most popular genres in prewar years was the glamour card that featured elegant women. Now women began to be placed into settings that showed some influence of the War, and they also bore some military dress. Though seemingly issued for propaganda, their primary appeal remained tied to the representation of attractive females. It is interesting to note that the woman in the card above is not looking at a picture of her sweetheart but King Albert of Belgium.
Images of women were often used for allegory on postcards where they traditionally substituted for the concepts of Liberty and Victory. They were also often used in a more contemporaneous manner representing each nation in an alliance. These types of cards were drawn by a variety of artists for many different publishers for they proved to be very popular. This was no doubt due more to their resemblance to glamour cards than any relation to military propaganda. This recipe was most often used in Allied countries because larger sets could be produced. While most of these international sets were produced during the Great War, it mist be noted that some predate the conflict. The presence of a uniform as on the card above by Nanni is not as much an indicator as the exclusion of members to an enemy alliance.
Some card sets that use women as national allegories do not do so in the tradition patriotic way such as those drawn by the Italian artist Veneziahi in 1914. Since Italy was not yet committed to the War, the artist had the freedom to ignore unifying principals and played up stereotypes instead. The message of the waltzing Austrian pictured above may be subtle, but that is why this set stands out from its companions.
Even when artists drawing patriotic sets used women in uniform to represent each nation involved in the conflict, it did not necessarily mean that they were soldiers. Their uniforms act as a form of national identification but also say that the women of these countries are united in supporting the war effort. The card above was drawn by the French artist Emile Dupuis as part of a series entitled, Heroic Women.
It is sometimes difficult to decipher postcards that depict women in uniform. Are they dressed in those handed out to civil employees or is it a uniform of an official women’s auxiliary unit? Sometimes women are placed in men’s uniforms or even generic military costumes just to be topical. While this confusion can often be solved by studying the nuances of real military uniforms, this can require careful research that places expertise out of the hands of the casual postcard collector. It is difficult to believe that anyone contemporaneous customer for these cards was any more well versed in categorizing them. If there is ambiguity, it was a probably a deliberate act by publishers to affect sales.
On most glamour postcards that picture women in uniform, the emphasis is on the glamour not the uniform. Even with their military attributes, they would not seem out of place in the prewar years. There are however other cards that picture attractive women in full military gear that are unique to the War years. These cards seem rather benign in intent for they do not outwardly promote recruitment or any other propaganda. They also often lack the humorous wordplay found on many comic cards. They seem to be just an offshoot of the glamour card to be used as a general greeting; the uniform acting as a patriotic flare. Similar cards to the one above from Germany were generic enough to be printed with holiday greetings.
Another problem in discerning the meaning of women in uniform comes from popular fashion trends of the day. The War inspired many designers to add the epaulets and bright lashings normally found on military uniforms to fashionable dress ware. Military styled hats, jackets and tunics became all the rage. Even bright colors gave way to hospital blue and field khaki. In some cases, these changes were just simple embellishments but in others the results looked closer to a full uniform. While the wearing of jewelry was downplayed, efforts to get women to wear more makeup were intensified to counter the drabness of the times. Looking good radiated optimism and so it was marketed as a patriotic duty. These new trends are well displayed on numerous glamour cards.
There are also many glamour cards in which the woman in uniform is obviously not in the military nor is she making a fashion statement. Her mode of dress is only used to turn an ordinary glamour card into one more topical to increase sales. Such cards are usually accompanied by word play that is often used to turn a familiar military phrase into something more suggestive. Such devices were considered high humor at the time, even when creating sexual innuendo. Despite the apparent simplicity of message, these cards possessed a real undercurrent of social change. Many feminists of this time tended to be represented as ugly suffragists in cartoons, while suffragists themselves usually chose attractive young women to speak for their cause. Even though much of the movement was made up of young women, these choices had more to do with knowing how to play public opinion. Even though pinup-like, these glamour cards often represented the modern New Woman. The wearing of a uniform insinuates power, and in this case, growing independence.
The French artist Xavier Sager was very fond of producing international sets of women in uniform. These women however are pure fantasy, and would be difficult to confuse with actual women serving their country. Much of Sager’s output before the War had centered on risqué and erotic themes, which were only slightly toned down on his military themed cards. Even though the card above by Sager takes a typical humorous jab at the uniforms of Scott soldiers, it is still somewhat indicative of fashion trends that most publishers were reluctant to represent outside of the risqué.
There is a history of placing women in uniforms to play on sexual fantasies rather than serving any sort of propaganda purpose. Those wearing uniforms confront us with the presence of an enhanced sense of authority, which can also be viewed as heightened masculinity. While such depictions are usually associated with sexual fetishes, its appeal seems to be broader. Depictions of woman were one of the most popular themes on postcards before the War, and it should come as no surprise that the war years provided greater opportunity to play up fantasies with uniforms.
On the French card above, women in the form of national personifications take their revenge out on the Kaiser for killing their sons. Spanking was a punishment often used on postcards to infantilize an enemy, but here the scenario that would normally be presented as a generic political cartoon takes on sexual overtones. The women on this card are not just national allegories, they carry out a sadistic act often associated with prostitutes. The political message almost seems like an afterthought. While a number of publishers might tackle the risqué, few but the French would dare go this far.
Postcards of women in uniform are often presented in the form of patriotic allegories, but in some cases they seem to be more of a cover for creating risqué images. A uniform can be used to identify a particular nation, but the uniforms on these cards rarely adhere to strict military code as they are made skimpier or more form fitting to enhance sexual overtones. They project the image of an actress in the burlesque theater more than a woman serving the military but this was not only for the sake of men. Actresses were often viewed as fallen women because of the theater’s long association with prostitution, but for many women this sexual freedom provided a real model for their own liberation.
Many of the women who posed in uniforms for postcards were actresses, which transforms the uniform into a theatrical costume. While this may seem to place the image into the realm of fantasy, it also grounds the narrative into reality because actresses were real people. This is why they were largely purchased by women, even though these cards seem to fit into the stereotype of pinup. For many stuck in traditional female roles, actresses who were generally considered to be self-aware self-made women, had more power to inspire than pure fantasy cards. Those in uniform not only showed they were strong, it showed they were willing to discard tradition to make their life their own.
There are many early real photo postcards that depict women dressed as men, though not always in military uniform. It is often difficult to assertion the meaning of such images as there is no single meaning behind cross-dressing. While this could be a personal inclination, or a disguise to assume a role in a male-dominated professions, most depictions on postcards seem to be capturing some form of play. Humorous photo studio portraits of all kinds were very common in these years and those dealing with social taboos only made them more exciting. Adding to this was the general upheaval of traditional women’s roles, which brought many issues into question. While there is a tendency today to read lesbian content into such images, there is simply no telling in an atmosphere where many women expressed a rebellious spirit.
Some women took to wearing uniforms in a real effort to take part in the fighting at the front, but it was not easy to pass all the layers of scrutiny. One of the best known examples was that of Dorothy Lawrence, a journalist who just wanted to report on the War firsthand but was unable to gain access to the front lines. With the help of some soldiers she acquired a uniform and posed as a sapper. When her health quickly deteriorated she was forced to turn herself in. This led to her arrested as a spy, but she was eventually allowed to return to England. She was however prevented from writing of her experiences by strict censorship laws. The military tended to treat such occurrences harshly so to discourage copycats.
During the War many French studios produced hand colored real photo postcards that used women to represent a wide variety of allegories. Many of these posed shots incorporated women in uniform to express general patriotic themes. Real photos often went beyond the mere female personification of a nation to become more personal as they could more easily be read into. It was just easier for a photo portrait to become a substitute for one’s own family. In this way the nation became more than an abstract idea, it was transformed into a collection of real people that was worth sacrificing for.
Women are not a monolithic group whose behavior can be reduced to a simple cliché. Many were inspired to take on factory work solely because of high wages while others put on a uniform out of an unselfish desire to help their nation in a time of great need. For many others the War provided an opportunity to escape their ordinary lives. Many men no doubt enlisted for this very same reason early in the war, and the attraction must have even been much greater for women who normally had a more prescribed life with even less opportunity. It mustn’t be assumed that cards depicting women in uniform were all oriented toward the amusement of men. They also spoke to a potential freedom that many women craved. The uniform represented strength and the possibility of freedom and respect. Many of these unladylike women can be found smoking to demonstrate that they felt free to ignore common taboos. Before the War these types of cards largely represented women’s fantasies; but now with many earning wages, they were no longer confined by the strict mores that once defined their behavior.
A number of large organizations sprang up in the latter half of the 19th century that sought more rights for women. Foremost among these were the suffragists who had not only turned very vocal but even violent in their pursuit of the vote. When war came in 1914 the suffragists were divided. Many leaders such as Emmeline Pankhurst came to support Britain’s entry into the War, and then stood behind the government they had long fought. Many hoped that as women took up positions that broke with traditional gender roles their political position would also be strengthened. Postcards promoting suffrage all but disappeared during the War, but images of strong women persisted as a constant reminder of their political effort. German atrocities in Belgium caused them to be classified as the new oppressors of women, and the propaganda struggle against them paralleled the struggle for liberation by women.
Even though large women’s groups like the National Council of Women of Germany supported voting rights, there was no organized effort pushing for suffrage in Germany. German women led largely domesticated lives and suffragists tended to be viewed as dangerous English radicals, a notion used in their political cartoons and comic cards. Numerous unflattering postcards were printed in many nations before the War that made light of women struggling for suffrage. The German card above represents their ferocity as England’s secret weapon. Despite these attitudes, women received the right to vote in Germany right after the Armistice was signed in November 1918. Great Britain only enacted partial suffrage that same year.
As opposed to cards depicting women as victims and martyrs, a number of patriotic cards display them as defenders of their homeland under direct threat of the enemy. While some women no doubt put up a stanch defense of their homes, there was no official policy in most nations for using women in combat roles. These spontaneous outbursts of individual bravery were only meant to inspire. Even when invented they still serve to illustrated the resolve of the county in which everyone was prepared to defend. These cards were also instructive to men who were trying to avoid their military obligations. If women were willing to fight, what were they who were not?
Although most scenes of women ready to fight for their homeland were placed on propaganda cards to shame men into joining the armed forces, some cards were meant to demonstrate the strength of the women left behind. While most soldiers worried about deserting their family in a time of danger, it was of particular concern in areas that feared the threat of invasion, real or not. These types of cards say to men, go off to war, your woman can readily defend themselves. Such propaganda messages were not only vital early on in the conflict to encourage recruitment but to quell unrest. Before the great patriotic upsurge that swept many into the British Army, Ireland was on the brink of civil war. Many of these new Irish recruits though they were only joining to defend their island home, not serve the British fighting in Flanders. Tensions remained high throughout the War; and when Great Britain finally instituted a policy of conscription, Ireland was exempted.
Military authorities normally kept civilians away from the front lines for security as well as their own safety. Steps rarely needed to be taken as most civilians fled areas being fought over on their own accord. Not all battle lines however were rigid, and civilians sometimes got caught up in the fighting as their massive casualty numbers indicate. While the natural tendency in these cases is to hide or flee, some did what they could to help, and some of these brave souls were women. Since there are no social expectations for women to play an active role on the battlefield, any such acts are viewed in heroic terms. Even though the heroic is food for propaganda, few incidents seem to be honored on postcards. Women tend to be treated much more abstractly on postcards when it comes to fighting though specific incidents are more likely to be presented. The card above features the twelve year old Ukrainian girl Rosa Zenoch who earned the Austrian Red Cross Merit Award for her bravery under fire.
As in previous wars woman sometimes passed for men and joined the armed forces but it was often much more difficult to carry off during World War One as induction centers usually inspected for venereal disease. Even those women inducted into military service were not always instructed in the use of weapons. In many cases however there was a blurring between front line troops and back of the line services. Many nurses supposedly placed out of harm’s way found themselves working on battlefields and became casualties as a result. These types of situations were rarely displayed on postcards for they were contrary to official policies and public expectations. No government official attempting to recruit the help of women wanted to let them know of the actual dangers they might face. Many women who disregarded danger to help soldiers were not usually treated as heroes but were rebuked for it if their actions were exposed.
Great Britain made substantial use of women in its armed forces during World War one, though it was late in coming. Early resistance to using women in the military gave way as the shortage of men available to fight at the front grew acute. Still their roles were limited, not just because of sexual bias but international law. Rules regarding the services women could perform for the military and where they could perform was regulated by the Geneva Convention, but many clauses were less than clear. Arguments over legalities held up recruitment, and most women ended up in traditional female roles as cleaners, cooks, waitresses, secretaries, and telephone operators all under the newly established rank of Worker. Duties however were expanded into more male roles as necessity dictated. The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was the first to form in July 1917, followed by the Women's Royal Naval Service established in November 1917. After the Royal Air Force was formed in April 1918, a special branch for women was formed at the same time. While most of these women served at home offices, thousands were also deployed to France. Once the War ended, the military saw no need for their services. Some continued to work with occupation forces, but all female units were disbanded by 1920. Few postcards outside of real photos capture these women despite their importance. They are most likely to appear on recruitment posters that are still reproduced on postcards to this day.
While the US Navy allowed thousands of women to enlist as Yeomanettes in the service, the US Army only went as far as to hire women, even though most were only used as secretaries, clerks, and telephone operators. Proposals to create an official women’s auxiliary and medical corps were met with too much resistance to get off the ground. Images of sexually appealing women however were often used on recruiting posters and the postcards that followed. There use implies two common messages. One is that women are attracted to men who enlist, so they are a form of unspoken reward that a soldier can expect upon entering the military. They also imply that those who are reluctant to fight are less than effeminate. Many women were hired as recruiters because of their enhanced ability to shame men into fighting.
In order to free more men for wire laying service on the battlefront, General Pershing made an emergency appeal for bilingual telephone switchboard operators among the women working for the Bell system in late 1917. When first deployed as part of the Signal Corps, these Hello Girls found themselves working will behind the front lines at the headquarters for the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Many were eventually moved closer to the fighting and even came under fire once the offensive on St. Mihiel began. Although these women were inducted into the army, they were denied veteran status at the War’s end because they had no official position for women. It was not until the 60th anniversary of the Armistice in 1978 that Congress passed a bill recognizing the surviving women as veterans. Postcards of these women in service are practically non-existent except for more modern cards reproducing period posters.
Many American women found ways of contributing to the war effort outside of military service. Though most woman’s organizations had opposed the War and America’s military buildup, many sent volunteers to France to help distribute medicine or provide nursing care once American troops were stationed overseas. Many women followed to make soldier’s lives there more comfortable through services provided by the Salvation Army and YMCA. Canteens known as hutments were set up where they gave concerts, held bible classes, and sold food from which their dispensing of doughnuts became famous. It is difficult to tell whether the doughnut or the young women serving them turned the most heads of homesick soldiers, but both were represented on postcards published by the Salvation Army. These organizations published many free postcards for soldiers to write home.
The only women to be officially recruited into combat roles were by the Russian provisional government that was set up after the February Revolution in 1917. About 5,000 women served in fifteen units though only two, including the 1st Russian Women's Battalion of Death saw combat. The motivation for women to join varied; some sincerely wanted to fight, others had nowhere else to go. These woman’s battalions were created more for their propaganda value than out of military need. The new provisional government wanted to continue the war despite the disintegrating Russian army that caused the revolution in the first place. They tried to stem the flow of deserters by insinuated that their women would have to take their place. This attempt to shame the army did not work and many of these women were reassigned. After the October Revolution the Bolsheviks would dissolve the remaining battalions but many of these women would go on to fight in support of both sides during the Russian Civil War that followed. Postcards depicting Russian woman’s battalions do exist but they are quite rare.
Women from Lowell, Massachusetts who were inspired by Russian women organized into America’s first Women’s Death Battalion but the Army had no use for them. Before the United States became involved in the War, women were already serving in the U.S. Army and Navy Nurse Corps on the same status with men, but attempts by women to further integrate themselves into the armed forces were met with little sympathy.