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Themes of World War One:
Even though nurses were not supposed to be assigned duties closer to the battlefront than field hospitals, which were about 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 documentation of events that run counter to military regulations. 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. While some nurses might have found themselves closer to the battlefront than allowed, most depictions 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 nurse’s courageous dedication to service through drama than through the drudgery of hospital work.
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 the ranks once the Great War started. They did however find support for their skills in Belgium, though the early fall of Antwerp prevented most from being deployed. Many postcards show these nurses on the battlefront with Belgian soldiers, but these views all seem to be staged. By 1915 they were 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 into harms way.
Medical personnel were usually identified as part of a protected unarmed service by the arm bands they wore, but in a confusing environment where fragments of metal are flying around aimlessly at high velocity, anyone could be hit. Being wounded or killed out at the front lines while carrying out such a selfless act was considered a true sacrifice that was honored on postcards. Such events were considered even more tragic when female nurses were killed, because as women they were expected to be kept safe. While only men were assigned to be aid workers on active battlefields due to the risks involved, nurses sometimes found themselves close to the fighting out of choice or by accident. Although most deaths among nurses were attributable to disease or illness, there were battle casualties though the numbers are unclear. This occurrence was far more common on the Eastern Front where sisters of mercy often found themselves in the trenches or helping the wounded on the battlefield due to the more fluid conditions.
If one believes that war does not exclude morality, then one expects certain rules to be followed. By World War One this was not just a social compact between civilized nations, it was set down in international law through the Geneva Convention. Wars however often follow their own momentum and rules are discarded as soon as they become inconvenient. Once the atrocities of the rape of Belgium were captured on postcards, it unleashed a wave of anti-German and Austro-Hungarian propaganda that was based more on fantasy than fact. If the death of an aid worker was to be looked upon as an exceptional tragedy, then depictions of German killing unarmed Red Cross workers captured horrendous crimes.
While Germans tended not to be as heavy as the Allies in the propaganda war, they still played up the targeting of their own medical personnel. Even though it was impossible to assign intent, all damage to hospitals, ambulances, and the wounding of Red Cross aids could always be blamed on the enemy as deliberate acts. While some on both sides were no doubt deliberately targeted, most were just the victims of random fire but you would never guess this from postcards. This blame game is so potent that it has been used for propaganda purposes in every war since.
Numerous publishers depicted the killing of Red Cross workers or attacks on ambulances and hospitals, but some went a step further to imply these were not isolated incidents or accidents. These extreme views are to be found most often on French cards. A favorite trope was to compare the kind treatment that German soldiers received at the hands of the French, while French wounded are routinely murdered by Germans. These types of propaganda cards did not have to be based on actual incidents or even seem plausible; their only purpose was to enrage.
While depictions of a merciless enemy may have been good for stirring up hatred, they could also create more worry over soldiers that had to face them. This was countered by cards that show wounded soldiers being given the same good care by the enemy. Once wounded, they are no longer the enemy but comrades in arms. Although this message may have been comforting and bore a resemblance to the truth, such chivalrous behavior was not universal. Compassion was more easily displayed early in the War, which is reflected on early postcards. This dissipated as time went on, and in some situations like trench raids, there was often a policy of killing the all the enemy wounded.
While the many postcards produced showing enemy soldiers helping one another proves their popularity, they may not all be conveying the same message. There are few to be found from France where the animosity towards Germany was exceptionally high. Most cards of this theme seem to have been published in Germany where they also seem to promote the image of the good German to balance out anti-German propaganda. Some of these mock French cards by labeling Germans barbarians as they carry out charitable deeds.
For longer journeys and high volumes, trains became indispensable in transporting wounded soldiers back to their homes for recovery or to hospitals for further care. The first of these were makeshift with cargo cars refitted with racks to support stretchers or just ordinary boxcars strewn with straw. They had a huge disadvantage in that neither type of car could be heated, and there was usually no access for medical personnel to monitor the wounded or take care of emergencies once the train was in motion. The less seriously wounded sometimes got by traveling in ordinary passenger cars, but it was very difficult loading anyone by means of a stretcher. These makeshift conveyances were usually only pictured from the outside where they could only imply speed.
Passenger rail cars were eventually refitted to run as hospital trains where the wounded could ride in more comfort and receive treatment from a full medical staff, which vastly improved survival rates. A number of interior views of these hospital trains exist though they are usually pictured empty and lined with neat clean rows of beds. When the injured are pictured they are usually well attended and clean of blood. These types of postcards are not meant to catalog military equipment as much as give the impression to both soldier and family that the wounded will be well cared for.
The need to move casualties was sometimes so overwhelming that all sorts of transport were pressed into service including small boats, steamers, and barges. Some of these just saw temporary use out of convenience while others assumed regular military duties. The largest of these conveyances were hospital ships that might have served as passenger liners before the War. They could move vast amounts of men at a time and house the staff needed to give more expert care. All of these more unconventional modes of transport were depicted on postcards but not in great numbers.
Large military hospitals were set up further behind the lines where the wounded could receive the same level of care as at any civilian equivalent. While these were sometimes set up in large buildings such as schools, existing hospitals were commonly taken over and expanded to accommodate the great influx of patients. Even though casualties that made it this far were very likely to survive, those at home still needed further reassurance. Many hospital wards were depicted on printed and real photo cards where they are presented as clean professional facilities that are obviously taking the greatest care of their patients. The captions on these cards sometimes emphasize this point. These cards were largely meant to be used by the patients to write home, so a positive ambiance was essential.
Many hospital wards of all types were also captured on real photo postcards. These might actually outnumber printed cards because their personalization made them more desirable. The patients depicted could use them to reassure family back home that their loved one was recuperating. Great care was taken to present clean well staffed facilities, just as on printed cards; and Seasonal decorations, such as Christmas trees, are often included to add to the sense of well being. These cards were probably also popular with hospital staff. The number of these photographs suggest that they might have been taken regularly by professional photographers visiting the wards, but like most real photo cards their source is unclear.
Despite the great expansion of military facilities to accommodate the wounded, they were constantly overflowing with casualties. In many places both auxiliary military facilities and small private hospitals opened wherever they could find the room. Owners of large mansions sometimes opened their homes for such purposes. Postcards capturing these hospitals often depict situations reminiscent of home life where the soldier is not only diligently cared for but entertained as well. Here the emphasis shown is on a pleasant stay, but the message is not to worry.
While nurses routinely dote over patients in their beds, it is not as good as receiving an unexpected visitor of importance. Civilian leaders, generals, and their wives often visited hospitals to help keep up the morale of the wounded, and this activity was portrayed on postcards. Since an important visitor represented the state, the visit told the wounded, and who might potentially receive wounds that their service and sacrifice to their nation was appreciated and respected. Some wives took on the role of nurses to offer practical help as well. Not all these visitors needed a high title to be appreciated. There are many cards that show a happy reunion between a cavalryman and his horse.
Most postcards that deal with the wounded try to engage perceptions surrounding the care of soldiers, to show that they will be properly cared for. Cards that show visitors add on a layer of respect. While public officials did visit the bedsides of wounded soldiers, it is difficult not to read them as propaganda since they seem to capture a public relations stunt. More genuine, at least in appearance, are postcards that depict soldiers saluting their own wounded as they are taken off the battlefield or carried down streets filled with marching men. These types of images helped to strengthen the bonds between soldiers that were already strong due to their shared experiences, and help unite a nation as a whole.
A number of postcards were made depicting the wounded where there is no clear cut visual story. In these cases the publisher would usually add on a written narrative to impose a patriotic message where there was none. On the card above where we see nothing but wounded French soldiers being moved, they are first given the tile of heroes even though they might have done nothing more then gotten in the way of a bullet. The description goes on to say how disappointed these men are to be going to a hospital when all they want to do is fight Germans.
The term Blighty seems to have originated in India as affectionate slang for Great Britain by expatriates missing home. In 1915 it came into widespread use among the soldiers in the trenches after being popularized in song and print. On postcards, it was often used in the context of going home on leave to recuperate from a wound. Unlike patriotic cards that only depict wounded soldiers wanting to return to the fight, these cards usually depict men happy to return to their families if only for a brief leave of absence. This was closer to the truth for the desire to go home was often so great that soldiers wished for a Blighty wound that would get them there. Sometimes these injuries were self-inflicted, and thousands were sent to prison after being caught.
While Germans did not use the term Blighty, they also published cards of wounded troops on their way home. These cards range from the realistic to the humorous, subdued to rancorous, but they all seem to be situated on rail cars. The production of these cards probably played more to market demand than attempting to be overtly patriotic. They are however never downbeat, and many have subtle messages in them that show support for the troops.
There are many postcards depicting convalescing soldiers either at home, a hospital or some other facility. They probably exist in such numbers because they would have been primarily marketed to these wounded men eager to communicate with their families or friends left behind. On these cards recovery seems a simple matter; they are resting in comfort, often outdoors in the fresh air. An attractive nurse is almost always at their side to comfort them. None of these cards express pain, loneliness, or neglect; leading recruits and families to believe that a battle wound was nothing to worry over.
When the wounded were not being doted on in a facility or by family, they could often be found out on the street of their home town. Even if only on convalescent leave they were still enough of a returning hero to attract a following. Noncombatants such as old men, women, and children gather around to hear a firsthand account of the War. This was a common theme in art long before the Great War. Such depictions of suddenly becoming the center of attention must have tempered fears of being wounded by many soldiers who previously led a common if not anonymous life. Once the pain of a wound fades, a good story is left behind.
There are countless postcards depicting soldiers on the battlefront dreaming of home, but there are also cards of men convalescing at home dreaming of battle. Though surrounded by all the comforts they were deprived of in the field, their thoughts go to their comrades at arms and the nation they need to serve. While such cards were obviously reproduced for propaganda purposes, reminding soldiers not to get too comfortable for they were still needed at the front; it does capture a sentiment that many soldiers truly felt. The idea of letting your fellow soldiers down by being away from the fighting was common. The sudden change of social as well as physical environment was also jarring to many soldier’s sense of reality. If someone joined the army to escape the falsehoods of society, then to return to it after experiencing combat must have made it seem even less real. This contrast must have been enhanced by the censorship of real War news back home that gave few if any insights into soldier’s lives. Even when soldiers hated fighting and all the other discomforts of military life, they were often conflicted because no matter how awful the battlefront was, it made them feel real.
There was no single acceptable way in which to show the wounded on postcards; there seemed to be different rules depending on the message that was to be conveyed. For the most part severe injuries were unlikely to be pictured. Most wounds were rather ambiguous and the only sign a soldiers was injured was that he was in a hospital bed or wheelchair. Sometimes bandages are shown. A soldier on crutches might be acceptable but not one missing a leg despite the large numbers of amputees. More often they are only shown with a cane and being accompanied by a pretty nurse. In general these cards were meant to sooth fears surrounding injuries.
Many cards that depict the wounded in recovery do so in a light hearted manner. These cards tend to resemble glamour or fashion cards because the emphasis is no longer on the injury but the relationship between the nurse and the injured man. Even though these cards do not contain romantic content, there is always an undercurrent of flirtation. While injuries are to some extent trivialized, it is only to lighten the mood by presenting scenarios where not all is gloom.
There are always exceptions to genres but they only appear in number when the subject cannot be completely avoided, and artists or publishers have found a way to exploit the situation by turning the narrative around. Instead of depicting the loss of a limb as a terrible cost of war, we see officers with these old injuries continuing to perform their duties in the field and rallying their men. Even serious wounds do not always deter true patriots from continuing the fight. A good example are the Italian cards depicting the one legged cyclist Enrico Toti who died in 1916 throwing his crutch at the enemy. Many of these types of cards are obviously propaganda and make little effort to disguise their message. Here the message is made stronger by avoiding subtlety.
Many Austrian charity cards were issued to raise money to fit veterans with prosthetics. They show these men filling various occupations, even demanding ones, as if nothing had happened to them. They present the message that despite the loss of a limb, life can return to normal. While these cards are meant to be reassuring, it is difficult to escape their grim overtones. The fact that charity was needed to provide prosthetics meant that not all would receive them. They also overlook those veterans that were so badly damaged that they were incapable of returning to normalcy.
Soldiers received all sorts of wounds in the War, and not all could be made whole with prosthetics or return to their former employment. Charity cards will sometimes show these men in a facility where they can live in relative comfort. Even when they cannot return to their old trade, they can still learn to live out useful lives and contribute to their support, and not be subject to begging in the street. This of course was propaganda of a sort as many soldiers were too badly injured to return to any sort of normalcy. Hidden away in veteran’s homes or living alone in poverty, they were not a reality the public wanted to see on postcards.
When severely wounded veterans do appear on postcards, a rosy view of their injuries is not always provided. The amounts of men at the end of the War who were missing limbs or horribly disfigured were staggering. While many of these men were well cared for, they were largely hidden away from a society that did not want to be reminded of the true cost of the War. It was a subject tackled by many fine artists in postwar years but these images rarely tricked down into the popular culture of postcards where the public had no appetite for them. Many would be denounced as unpatriotic. A few depictions exist as political satire, but even these are rare.
There was one exception to when images of the seriously maimed were considered palatable; this was when they depicted the enemy. Mutilated bodies are more likely to be found on propaganda cards and political satire as the good work of soldiers against a deserving foe. Political leaders are also more apt to be portrayed than ordinary soldiers. Not only do they stand in for the hated enemy as a whole, their portrayal makes it more difficult to associate them with oneีs own soldiers. Despite this there are many cards that do not disguise their viciousness.
Most of the discussion in this section has been concerned with postcards that try to allay worries over being wounded, for they make up a large percentage of cards produced during the Great War. There was however another way that this delicate subject was tackled by publishers that reflected common religious beliefs. For many the War took on the form of a crusade where good was battling evil. Fighting in this conflict was doing service to God, and this sacrifice was the foundation of the chivalric tradition. Wounds then ennobled warriors, and charity cards in particular reminded the public that this sacrifice was made on their behalf.
(See Religion and War in the Themes of World War One chapter of this guide for more on religious aspects concerning self-sacrifice)