Old postcard of bombed town
Lens-Artists,  Themed galleries,  War

Postcards from a time of war

Browsing a flea market in East Berlin many years ago I came across an old postcard, with a pretty painting of forget-me-nots. Turning it over I found, to my surprise, that the message was in English. It was dated 19.6.17 and was sent from BEF France – the British Expeditionary Forces.

Old postcard of small blue flowers
Writing on a postcard

My dearest Lill

Just a line hoping this finds you quite well. Pleased to have your lovely card. I am quite fit at present. I had a splendid day on Sunday. I kept in woods all afternoon + evening. The heat is something terrible, if you are getting it in Blighty like what we are getting here then [illegible] simply splendid weather. I had a long letter from Ned last Friday morning. I am very busy at present but will try to send you a letter tomorrow. As regards your holidays I hope you have a good time. Ned + Jennie are going to St Leonards I think this weekend. I hope your Father + Mother are still keeping in the best of health. I must now close. With Best Love

Rodger M

Several things struck me about this card: the formality of the language between husband and wife; the interest Rodger is able to show in the details of life back home; and the total absence of any reference to what he must have been going through in France. I was fascinated and bought it.

Over the following years I sought out more examples of postcards from the First World War period and amassed quite a collection. I always sought cards that had something written on the back; I was intrigued by the brief windows the messages opened into the relationships of that time, and also by the stresses placed on them by the war.

Although I no longer buy them, I have kept those that I acquired over that period and have scanned a selection of the most interesting to share for this week’s Lens Artists Challenge theme of Postcards, as set by our guest host, Ana Campo.  

The locations

Some, like the one in my featured photo, have the place names scratched out; although many of these are legible if you look closely enough.

Old postcard of of Arabian-looking town

The sender of the above card mentions that he ‘would like a stroll tonight but feel a little tired having been on guard’.

Old postcard of war cemetery

The card above is from the same writer. On both cards he signs himself simply ‘F’ and addresses the recipient as ‘My dear C’. In this one he mentions that he may be moving again soon; but of course there are no clues given as to his present or future location. Both cards are stamped as having been passed by the censor.

The romances

Some are romantic images:

‘At Duty’s Call’ was sent by a soldier stationed in Ireland and he is allowed to send his full address, unlike those on the front line in France.

‘Loving Greetings’ was sent as a birthday card by the recipient’s brother. It seems an odd choice of image although I assume choice was somewhat restricted.

‘Soldier Lad’ was sent by Nellie to her uncle and aunt, advising them that a parcel was on the way.

And ‘Messageres d’Amour’ has a long message in French. The combination of a language I once spoke but have partly forgotten, and the old fashioned handwriting, make it difficult for me to decipher in full, but it is clearly very affectionate. It is dated 10 April (‘Avril’) 1917 and sent by Louisette to Gaston. She signs herself ‘ton petite fiancée qui t’aime’ – ‘your little fiancée who loves you’

The soldiers

Some reflect on the bravery and sacrifice of the soldiers:

‘Nous tiendrons’ was sent from the Champagne region in 1916. It is another that is densely written in French, but I can clearly see that it was sent from a father who signs off, ‘Je t’embrace de tout mon coeur, ton Papa’ (‘I embrace you with all my heart, your father’)

Most of the others are also in French and are relatively brief. One is sent to a niece, while another is addressed to ‘Chers Madame et Monsieur’, with a message about a dinner they seem to have treated the sender to.

‘Vive l’Italie’ has a simple message: ‘”Somewhere in France” May 31st 1916 To My Darling Wife with love and xxxxxx Fred’. I do hope Fred made it home from ‘somewhere in France’!

~~~o~~~

I’ll leave you one that completely astounded me, as this distressing image was sent by Bert to his mother as a birthday card. I wonder how his mother felt on receiving it? Was she happy to hear from him, or appalled to see what Lille had become and the impact of the fighting he had, presumably, been engaged in?

Old postcard of street after bombing

43 Comments

  • Anonymous

    Like you, Sarah, I too, collect postcards from the wars. I used to lecture on the Prose & Poetry of War (from Boer to Vietnam) and they were useful for bringing the temperature down when emotions threatened to take over. I remember one man crying when I told them about the infantry being shipped off to Russia in 1918, without having a chance to tell families back home. His grandfather couldn’t write and when he made it back two years after the war ended and told his wife he’s been in Russia, she wouldn’t believe him and threw him out! In those days, the poor and needy, the soldiers who fought and returned maimed and damaged, had nowhere to turn for help or help wasn’t easy to access.
    Back to postcards. There is a series of 8 which make up the complete Roses in Picardy lyrics. I have 7, missing the last one. If you ever come across it, do grab it for me. I’ve got them framed, 4 in one frame and 3 in another, they are delicately coloured and look really lovely.
    One last thing, is there a date stamp on the birthday card? Could it have been sent after the war as I can’t imagine any publisher having time or paper to make such postcards during the war.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you for your long and thoughtful response. It’s really interesting to hear that you collect such cards and also how you’ve used them in your lecturing. I’ve not got any with Roses of Picardy lyrics but if I do spot one I’ll buy it for sure.

      As to the birthday card, no, there’s no date stamp – there’s no address either, so it must have been sent in an envelope. It was printed in Paris and all the text on the back is in French (e.g. ‘Addresse’ not ‘Address’)

  • Nancy Gordon

    What a great collection. Many of the cards are beautiful as well as well written. But it is sad to think of how hard it must have
    been for everyone and interesting how they either look at something more positive or avoid the topic of war all together, that’s how my father was after fighting in WWII.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Nancy. I think it’s true that many of the men fighting would have wanted to avoid the topic, and family at home wouldn’t want to raise it, so it made sense to focus on the little details of daily life instead. Plus there was a lot the men couldn’t say even if they wanted to because all the mail was checked and censored in case it gave away important details to a potential enemy if it fell into the wrong hands.

  • Tina Schell

    I found your post truly fascinating this week Sarah. I was just thinking last night as I was feeling sad about an issue I’m dealing with that others have much more serious problems. Specifically I thought about what it must have been like for the young mothers during WW I in England as I’d just read Warlight. I understand they go to bomb shelters every night with their little ones, which were filthy and rat-infested. They had little to eat and had no idea if their husbands were alive or where they might be. Your postcards further reinforced my thoughts about how fortunate we really are. Thanks for sharing these amazing moments in time!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with an issue Tina, and appreciate you taking the time to look at and comment on my post. I haven’t read Warlight but I believe it is set during World War Two, which is when Britain suffered so badly under the Blitz, especially London. That’s when people in our cities had to spend night after night in the bomb shelters. I’m sure too that they suffered all the worries of not knowing what was happening to husbands, sons, fathers and indeed many sisters and daughters too, who were caught up in the fighting. But these postcards are from WWI when there was much less danger for people back in Britain. For them in some ways life went on much as usual, with a strange disconnect from the war . But communication was slower, so I believe they suffered even more worry about loved ones caught up in the fighting. And at times people in the south of England could actually hear the guns across the Channel!

      • Tina Schell

        You’re right of course Sarah! I was remembering Jacqueline Winspear’s series of novels set in WWI. It’s main character is a woman who is a nurse in the war who’s fiance, an MD working w her, is mentally disabled in WWI action and never speaks again

  • Rosa

    Amazing collection – thanks for sharing! It’s interesting to see the censorship coming into play where there are crossed out words and place names. Great post!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Rosa 🙂 I found that interesting too, and also the fact that it hasn’t always been done very thoroughly and the place name is still legible, as in the cemetery photo.

    • ASNworks

      “At duty’s call” and, the sacrifice of soldiers resonated with a war poem “Henna”. It is a sacrifice not only made by soldiers but also their families.
      Editor, ASNworks.org

  • starship VT

    Sarah, I had no idea you once collected postcards, specifically those from WWI. The images and written words are moving and thought provoking. The last postcard is particularly dreadful in general and even more so as a birthday greeting. My thought is that the sender wanted the receiver to see what he was actually seeing, and the indescribable horror of it all — the horror just cannot be put into words. But this imagine will be engraved on the memory forever.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks for your thoughts Sylvia. This is an old collection from long before we ‘met 😀 I see what you mean about that last card but I think most sons would want to spare their mother from the worst of that knowledge, especially on their birthday. Maybe Alli (below) is right about PTSD?

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    These are fabulous, little insights into people’s lives when those lives had been blown apart. I have in my possession copies of letters sent by a family member of ours, to his brothers and parents, whilst he was in POW camp building the Death Railway in Siam. He was to die there. They are so unbelievably moving that I can’t read them without welling up, even though I’ve read them dozens of times. Great idea for a post, Sarah.

    • Toonsarah

      Oh that’s so sad, I can completely understand how they would be so tough to read. I do wonder how many of the soldier writers of my cards made it home.

    • Toonsarah

      Thanks Margaret – these are just a few of those I bought, but eventually they all started to seem a bit similar which is why I think I eventually lost interest. But it was great to have been inspired to get them out again for this challenge 😀

  • Leya

    Very interesting, Sarah – and they tell sad stories of war and destruction, loss and being away from your love and family. I wonder why people sell them – if they belonged to someone, they must have been relatives. I would never sell such precious cards myself.

    • Toonsarah

      Maybe the family member whose hands they were in died without leaving any relatives, or any that cared enough, and the contents of their home were sold off in job lots? It’s sad but it happens.

      And while the stories they tell are of separation and sacrifice, they are also stories of love sustained during absences, of soldiers reassuring their loved ones, and of the minutiae of daily life maintained in tough times.

  • Alli Templeton

    Absolutely fascinating, Sarah. It’s amazing how much we can glean about the past and human interaction from these small snapshots of life and experience. As any historian would say, they’re excellent primary sources. Wonderful pictures, and that last one really is a conundrum, isn’t it? Perhaps the sign of a young man suffering from PTSD? If only these cards could talk.

    • Toonsarah

      I hadn’t thought about PTSD Alli but yes, that could be an explanation. If it was simply that he couldn’t find a more appropriate card you would think he would include an apology in his message, which he does not.

      • Alli Templeton

        Exactly, Sarah, that’s what suggests a dark or disturbed state of mind to me. Poor chap. He must have been through hell.

  • Ana

    Oh, wow, Sarah!!! I’m impressed with this magnificent collection of old postcards. I found it very interesting, there are great stories in each of them. Thank you very much for your participation, you have done a great job.

  • Alison

    Very interesting Sarah, what a great hobby that was. Hardly anyone sends postcards these days. I used to love receiving them. At the offices wherever I worked there was always a notice board with everyone’s cards.

    • Toonsarah

      You’re right Alison, it’s a shame in some ways that the custom of sending cards is dying out. I guess future historians will have to look elsewhere for their sources!

  • Amy

    These postcards tell the history… I think museums would want to archieved them.
    Thank you for sharing with us, Sarah.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      These cards are far too common for a museum to be interested in my little collection Amy, but I’m sure some have a collection of their own 🙂 They’re part of the ephemera of their age.

  • SandyL

    Interesting post Sarah. Now I see the appeal of those market stalls selling old postcards. It’s a different way of seeing history. Maybe because of where I’ve lived, I’ve never seen these types of postcards from WWI & WWII. It’s quite shocking to see scenes of destruction being sent back. But when you think of it, without television and only regional newspapers, these would be very personal images of scenes abroad.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I think you’re far more likely to come across these in Europe Sandy. It’s very true these would have been the main way some people learned about the war but I still find it odd to send quite such a horrific image as a birthday card to your mother!

      • SandyL

        Maybe their family humour was very dry.

        “Happy Birthday! Glad you’re not dead” is a Hallmark greeting doesn’t appeal to everyone 😉

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