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Themes of World War One:
The Wounded  pt1


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Traditionally those wounded on the battlefield did not fare well. Medical attention was scant to nonexistent, and the help one’s comrades could administer was meager. Long term care was up to families if even possible as armies were only interested in men that could return to the ranks. Those who died were usually left where they fell as they were no one’s responsibility. While losses were always deplored, military aims were all that mattered and individual solders were generally viewed as disposable. This attitude began to change when small professional armies grew into much larger citizen armies. To maintain these large forces some accountability had to be shown for their welfare. By World War One a whole organized medical system had grown around armies to provide for the retrieval and care for the wounded. While an extraordinary amount of attention was paid to medical care, it could not live up to the strains put on it by a conflict that extended beyond all expectations. This is not the message those at home wanted to hear, and a great propaganda effort was enacted to help reduce these fears. Postcards played a major role in this effort.

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Perhaps the most emotionally potent images from any war revolve around the wounded and the dead, which attaches significant meaning to the way they are portrayed. These unpleasant matters had largely been divorced from warfare through the romanticism that grew in the 19th century. Death was something to be dealt to the enemy, and while the possibility of harm to self was evident, it remained a distant abstraction. Wounds were associated more with honor and heroism than with pain or disability. When actual casualties began to occur, their treatment and well being became a great concern to the men who fought and their families alike. Fears were only exaggerated by the inability to visit a wounded family member unless he was brought back to a hospital back home. Postcards basically provided the narrative that if a soldier was wounded, he would be well taken care of from the moment he fell through his recovery.

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A countless number of battle scenes were produced during the Great War that depict troops bravely charging and ranks of men firing in response. Included in these scenes are the obligatory dead but they tend to be generic or they are only of the enemy so their loss can easily be overlooked. The fallen are only there to create drama though a sense of danger, not regret. Postcards were widely used to promote the romantic side of war, encouraging men to enlist either directly or through suggestion. Heroism is only available when danger to self is a factor. Ideas of self-sacrifice were still very important but modern culture had largely come to downplay death in favor of glory. The natural tendency of people to compartmentalize contradictions allowed war to be perceived as a bloody affair, while one’s own role in it was free from harm.

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Although postcards showing generic depictions of death dominate, there are also cards that captured the savagery of battle. They may not be drawn in a gory fashion but they could still raise concern for anyone deployed at the front lines. Such violent scenes are prohibitive to our sensibilities today unless they directly relate to an actual news event. Even so, the story will be reported but the visual record will be highly edited. There is of course a subculture that has always used blood and gore as a selling point. It is evident in the macabre themes long found in the fine and applied arts to the video games and trading cards popular today. This conflicting output of cards may be due to naturally differing appetites in the market place, but it also represents the desire to hide from uncomfortable truths and the reaction against this repression.

Real Photo Postcard

While there are many real photo cards depicting the dead, there are few of the wounded before they begin to receive care. Those images that do exist must be considered highly suspect as it is unlikely that any time would be wasted in taking a photograph of wounded men while their injuries go untreated. There may be no telling of the unusual circumstances that provided for such an image, but it must be remembered that many soldiers posed for the photographer and the narrative of the card might be solely dependent on its caption.

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While receiving a wound is always serious business, being wounded on a battlefield was cause for exceptional concern. Troops advancing during an attack were not allowed to stop and care for wounded soldiers as they fell. Those caught out in no man’s land were often left to die when their retrieval became too dangerous. If help did arrive it was very difficult to drag wounded men off a muddy battlefield even if on a stretcher. Many were only saved through the selfless acts of other soldiers who would not leave their comrades behind despite official policy. This is not a reality that tended to be tackled by postcards. Instead they concentrate on all the ways a wounded soldier might be saved or in the worst scenario, have a good death. The primary way through which postcards deal with the wounded is through the depiction of Red Cross and other aid workers. The basic idea is to present images that convey the belief that if anyone is hurt there are the resources in place to insure they will be quickly found and be well taken care of before they suffer too much.

NOTE: Medical units were not set up the same way in every army, and some nations had more resources to expend on medical care than others. The descriptions below are generalized to follow the more complex systems of organization in use during the Great War.

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The Red Cross was set up along the lines of a military organization, and so it integrated into army medical services fairy easily. They could only carry out their mission by treating those in need as members of humanity, not nations, which required strict obedience to the signed conventions. This stance did not always go over well with political and military leaders who wanted them to take sides, and it caused constant hostility and suspicion. This part of their story is not represented on postcards because it threatened the popular narrative that the wounded would be helped. Soldiers grateful for their attention held no animosity toward them and their service was praised and even glorified; an attitude well represented on postcards. National branches of the Red Cross faced different pressures, which are reflected in the types of charity cards they published, but they all adhered to the conventions signed in Geneva to retain their legitimacy.

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When soldiers began an attack, they were often equipped with emergency field dressing so they could initially tend toward their own wounds. Stretcher bearers would come out to gather the wounded whenever possible but their work was not only dangerous they were usually overburdened. Wounded soldiers might have to wait days for help. These men often provided the first medical treatment the wounded would receive. Though superficial this care saved countless lives, and it became the subject of numerous postcards.

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All sorts of innovative contraptions are pictured on postcards, some pertaining to the conveyance of the wounded. They mostly appear on prewar cards or with troops out on maneuvers where conditions for their use were always perfect. While they are meant to display the ingenious methods available to help the wounded, few of these devices ever made it to the battlefield because they could not be used while under fire or in the chewed up terrain of no man’s land. Stretchers were designed for two man teams, but in muddy conditions it could take six men to carry one soldier. Recovering the wounded could be a very slow process and many died before they ever received help.

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Many wounded soldiers are also shown being carried to safety by a comrade at arms, to show that if professional help is not available a soldier can expect their fellow soldiers to take good care of them. This message did not only showed that not all was chaos on the battlefield, it provided some comfort for those at home and it strengthened bonds between the men in the ranks. It is interesting to note that both soldiers involved in these scenarios are usually injured, one much worse than the other. This may be set up to imply that no able bodied soldier is shirking his duty to fight.

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It was not always easy to find wounded soldiers as most had a tendency to crawl to the safety of an out of the way spot while fighting raged around them. Mercy dogs were often used to help locate these men, and bring medical supplies to them that could be self-administered until further help arrived. The types of dogs and the way in which they were trained varied from army to army, but they were employed in very large numbers.

(The subject of mercy dogs is covered in further detail under Work Dogs in the Weapons of War section)

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Stretcher bearers who picked up the wounded from the battlefield took them to a regimental aid post set up just behind the front line to which they were assigned. These were mobile units that could change location quickly to meet changing conditions. There medical officers and orderlies would clean wounds and apply dressings before sending the wounded further back to a forward dressing station. These were essentially triage units where casualties would be sorted out according to type and severity of the injury. While some soldiers were sent directly back to their unit after receiving first aid, others with acute wounds might receive emergency amputations. Many wounds were very serious resulting in a twenty percent death rate even where medical care was widely available. Images of those who were seriously maimed in the War are not very common as they tended to do little to support the cause. More popular were cards that depicted determined soldiers being cared for at dressing stations who look like they are ready to rush back into combat.

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The severity of the wound a soldier receives is always downplayed on postcards. There can be no life threatening injuries or disfigurement. Men with missing limbs only appear after treatment but never awaiting help in battle. Head wounds are common but they do not extend to a soldier’s face. The most common sign of a wound is a bandage, and even then the soldier often presents a spirit of resilience. These cards were obviously made for home front consumption for any soldier that has experienced battle knows how bad wounds can be. They cater to a public that wants a better sense of reality but has limits on what it can stand. It was a delicate line for publishers that had to keep public taste in mind as well as the concerns of sensors.

Real Photo Postcard

Although dressing stations were positioned back from the front lines, they were still close enough to the enemy to suffer from incoming shell fire. It all came down to a delicate balance between becoming a target and being close enough to the injured to receive them as quickly as possible if lives were to be saved. Dangerous conditions often caused them to only receive and discharge the wounded by night when they would not attract enemy fire. This rule was often broken when they could not treat a serious wound and thought the daylight journey was worth the risk. Only those too badly injured were kept there for any time, while the rest were transported further back to a field hospital.

Real Photo Postcard

Wagons have always carried the wounded away from battlefields, but by the mid-19th century horse drawn ambulances began to regularly accompany armies. Though specialized for the task at hand, they often lacked simple amenities like springs to cushion a ride. The constant jarring could quickly turn a very uncomfortable trip into one of excruciating pain for the wounded. Few improvements were made to these wagons by World War One, but they still managed to save countless lives.

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When depicted on postcards, ambulance wagons are usually clean and tidy, and more than likely photographed behind the lines when first put into service. In reality they were often an overburdened mess where there was not enough time to thoroughly clean them or make repairs. While ambulances were assigned to medical units, all sorts of conveyance were used in emergencies, especially when an army was making a retreat. These cards conveyed the message that even under difficult conditions the wounded would still be cared for.

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Motorized vehicles had great advantage over horse drawn wagons in terms of comfort and speed. Those designed as ambulances typically carried six to eight men, which was a larger load than most horse drawn models. The problem was there were far less of them available in 1914 to serve the overwhelming demand. At first all sorts of vehicles were pressed into service from private cars to city buses.

Real Photo Postcard

Private funds were contributed to various motorized ambulance groups that were staffed by volunteers. Some of these like the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps and the American Field Service were organized in Europe, but made up of Americans who wanted to help the Allied War effort while the United States remained neutral. Such services grew rapidly in size during the War and served many fronts though they were most active in France. They were pioneers in the use of motorized ambulances and were often the only motorized transport in horse dependent armies. When the United States entered the War, they took not and the American Expeditionary Force was deployed with a motorized Ambulance Corps. These vehicles are more apt to show up on real photo cards than printed ones.

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The primary use of ambulances was to convey wounded men from forward dressing stations to field hospitals. This work had to be done slowly as most roads were poor or damaged and jarring could cause further injury let alone pain. This however made them easy targets and they would normally only move at night. High casualties after a battle sometimes forced them to operate around the clock. In these cases ambulance convoys were spaced out so that a single shell could not destroy more than one ambulance.

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Once receiving preliminary treatment at a dressing station, serious casualties would then be taken to a casualty clearing station located a few miles behind the front line. While field ambulances and light railways were reserved for this purpose, some wounded were forced to walk the distance when casualties were high. This was sometimes captured on postcards in both printed and real photo form. The wounded depicted on artist drawn cards usually have help from nurses or those less injured, which was not always the case. It was acceptable to portray hardship on postcards because it made the solder&esquo;s sacrifice nobler. Even though some of these images are incredibly sad, they do not directly show conditions that would further imperiled the life of a wounded soldier.

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While field hospitals were designed to function under tents to make them mobile, they were tethered to transportation networks where they served as hubs. They were usually attached to dressing stations by means of light rail and field ambulance units, and then by established rail lines through which they shipped off patients to regular hospitals once they were stabilized. They only moved when the front lines did, but their location was always determined by the proximity to railways. These facilities were well equipped and staffed so they could carry out serious operations. Some had specialists to treat specific types of injuries and even diseases. Though these stations were only meant to be transient points, some patients were too ill to be moved and received longer term care. Others whose recovery was deemed to fall within two weeks’ time were also retained there so they could be sent directly back to their unit without tying up valuable transport.

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Even though most armies had a system in place to move injured soldiers off the battlefield and back to safety through a number of staged facilities that would provide care, circumstances did not always allow this. On some fronts the field hospitals were set up much closer to the fighting than would normally be desired simply because there was no where else to locate them. When transportation networks began at a dock rather than a railhead, the trip back home to a regular hospital could be very long.

Real Photo Postcard

Not all depictions of field hospitals are real even when they appear on real photo postcards. With all the emphasis on hiding the horrors of war coupled with efforts to show how well the wounded are treated, many photographers resorted to creating posed scenes. While this practice tends to be fairly obvious on charity cards, where a perfect composition was crucial to send the proper message, other times both motive and reality are less clear. On the French card above by E. Arnault, a patient pleasantly relaxing in the outdoors with privacy and music defies some credibility.

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It is rare to see field hospitals displayed on postcards. Perhaps they lack the glamour and excitement of units stationed closer to the front as well as the ability to portray the safety found in sturdier facilities closer to home. Those images that do exist are often artist drawn by those who had a particular interest in this type of subject matter. A good example is the drawings of field medical personnel by Livio Apolloni that were placed on lithographic charity cards for the Committee to Support War Orphans of Physicians in Anzio.

Real Photo Postcard

Some of the best images of field hospitals, like so many other types of medical units, were captured before they were deployed to the front. Photographers took advantage of opportunities to photograph these facilities while they could, hoping to sell the results in postcard form to their personnel. Since these types of cards tend to be posed or are meant to document, they usually show off a great deal of detail.

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For many who came into casualty clearing stations, it was their last stop. Despite the medical expertise available, surgeons often had to perform emergency operations under less than ideal conditions. The amount of casualties flooding in after a battle also insured that none would receive the slow expert care they needed or deserved. Amputations were common at these facilities since more time consuming limb saving surgery was prohibitive. This was not the reality that publishers wished to present on their cards, though sometimes the subject was approached through satire.

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Of all the men and women that served in the medical services, doctors seem to be the least represented on postcards. They are most often to be found posing on real photo cards as part of group shots of medical personnel in hospital wards. Artist drawn cards will show them examining patients but seldom performing a medical procedure.

Real Photo Postcard

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. The last thing the military wanted was untrained volunteers, but as the War dragged on and casualties mounted they had no choice but to accept them. They often fell into conflict with trained volunteers who were vying for respect and status and did not want to be lumped together with them. Postcards do 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. While nurses generally received little recognition for their service, they were greatly honored on countless postcards.

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It has often been said that the contribution of nurses is one of the unappreciated stories of the Great War. This may be in part due to the bias against postcards by historians as well for nurses are by far the most commonly depicted personnel in medical services. Since publishers produced cards to meet demand, the great volume depicting nurses shows that they were certainly recognized in their own time. While many of these cards may have been bought by nurses themselves, they generally seem to be honored in a fashion that represents a much broader public view of them.

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While nurses were certainly honored on postcards, they do appear in many different incarnations where they can substitute for the archetypal mother or be assigned to more romantic situations. This was all food for publishers as these narratives made for good sales even if strict military discipline prohibited most transgressions.

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There were many men who served as nurses who were already part of the established military structure when the War broke out. Male nurses were initially preferred to females because they could perform dangerous duties on the front line as medics. Only after it became clear that there was a shortage of nurses to care for all the mounting wounded did armies reluctantly begin accepting women in large numbers. The number of female nurses was further increased to free men for combat duty. Male nurses receive scant attention from postcard publishers because their service could not be easily associated with the common myths and fantasies that promoted sales. Demand for military postcards however was so high that few services were completely overlooked.

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Most cards depicting nurses or aid workers on the battlefield do so in a realistic manner even if they are prone to idealization. There are however many French hand colored real photo cards that present nurses in highly staged narratives. They are set both in the field and at hospitals 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. Besides tending to the wounded or are helping them off the battlefield, they shield defenseless soldiers against the enemy moving in for the kill, though sometimes they just pray. Despite all these nuances, the patriotic message tends to be the same on all.




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