First swim in the archival pool

by Stefan Bernhardt-Radu

The postcards of the First World War are often considered to be part of a homogenized category usually labelled as ‘propaganda’, encompassing cinema, posters, books or journals. This would naturally entail that the politics of the movement of postcards would be rooted in a configuration regulated and directed by the states during the war. However, this limits our thinking, as the belligerent states, if they could at all, needed to appeal to their populations in regards to mobilisation in an acceptable and comprehensible, i.e. also personal, manner. In other words, states could not always shape the content of the postcards, either due to them becoming dry after a state-controlled recurrent exposure, or simply being too alienating from personal experiences – some of the representations and messages were therefore also customised. Hence, from a historical perspective, postcards should be understood not only as a phenomenon of mobilisation, but as auto-mobilisation. Examples from the Europeana archive are telling of this.

Some of the postcards, those depicting nationalistic symbolism and patriotic messages, figure in the Europeana archive. Fig. 1, a postcard sent from Exeter in England on the 30th September 1914, still in the immediate period after the declaration of war, shows a British bulldog emerging from the sea without a scratch having sunk several German ships. This suggests that British propaganda thought the population would be best mobilised by articulating the desires and hopes for a brief war, while at the same time exemplifying a national sense of stamina and vitality.

Patriotic cartoon postcard
Fig. 1. Patriotic cartoon postcard – Europeana 1914-1918. CC BY-SA –

Others examples occurring frequently in the archive are postcards that present a particular set of symbols designed to appeal to the nationalist understandings of their audiences. Fig. 2 is a typical example from Denmark, showing numerous nationalist paraphernalia such as a grand flag and a shield illustrating the royal coat of arms wielded by a woman, symbolizing the motherland, wearing full armour under the royal cape.

Fig. 2. Danmark – The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library – CC BY-NC-ND –

There are also numerous examples with a religious tone, designed to appeal to the spiritual side of their audiences and perhaps depict their involvement in the war as just or holy. For instance, a postcard presents a prayer titled ‘Vater, ich rufe dich’ [Father, I call you] (Fig.3).

Vater, ich rufe dich
Fig. 3. Vater, ich rufe dich – The Royal Library: The National Library of Denmark and Copenhagen University Library – CC BY-NC-ND –

The postcards that reflect self-motivation usually involve much more intimate matters. In many ways, those postcards were perhaps the only way to communicate with loved ones back home, being analogous to ‘WhatsApping’ them during the period of the protracted war. One of the examples of this are the following Fig. 4 and 5, which were sent by Germaine Baffert to her husband Eugène Baffert, on the 2nd June 1915 and the 2nd June 1918 respectively, the date of their 7th and 10th anniversaries. Fig. 4 combines the symbolism of France and a patriotic wish that ‘nous aurons la gloire’ [we will have glory] with the intimate message ‘à mon Eugène’ [to my Eugene]. On the verso of Fig. 4 (Fig. 5 is not its verso), she wishes him ‘bon prompt retour’ [a good, swift return], with an equally important message: ‘un gros mimi de Georges’ [a big kiss from Georges], his son. Fig. 5 demonstrates how her feelings changed during the war: no longer does she think of ‘glory’, but she clearly pens down her wistfulness for him: ‘Ces quatres ans de tourments endurés pour la France/ O mon pauvre adoré, lorque tu reviendras !…’ [These four years of torment endured for France/ O my poor beloved, when you return!…’].

Carte envoyée à Eugène Baffert par sa femme Germaine, 2 juin 1915
Fig. 4. Carte envoyée à Eugène Baffert par sa femme Germaine, 2 juin 1915 (recto) – europeana19141918:agent/175a14e51082e9102d99b7d8a36f3989. Europeana 1914-1918. CC BY-SA –
Carte envoyée à Eugène Baffert par sa femme Germaine, 2 juin 1918
Fig. 5. Carte envoyée à Eugène Baffert par sa femme Germaine, 2 juin 1918 (verso) – europeana19141918:agent/175a14e51082e9102d99b7d8a36f3989. Europeana 1914-1918. CC BY-SA –

Eugène Baffert had been a mechanic and had been living in Paris before the war. He was conscripted in January 1915, taking part in the campaign against Germany from the 25th February 1915 to the 2nd March 1919. He was enrolled in the 4th Engineers’ Regiment until the 28th September 1916, when he entered the 3rd Artillery Regiment, where he was a driver and mechanic of the searchlight cars, after which he became a gunner of the 70th Artillery Regiment in 1917. After the war, he returned to Grenoble in France to work as a builder and merchant of bicycles. Whereas Eugène Baffert was a mechanic, a trade clearly transferrable to military endeavours, others, like the recipient of the postcard shown in Fig. 6, were teachers.

Carte postale adressée à Alexandre Gendillout par ses élèves
Fig. 6. Carte postale adressée à Alexandre Gendillout par ses élèves – Europeana 1914-1918. CC BY-SA –

Corporal Gendillout was enrolled in the 90th Territorial Regiment at Vitry, in the proximity of Marne, where one of the bloodiest battles in France occurred. The postcard came from Chateauponsac, a little north of the city of Limoges in the centre of France, to address to their ‘ancien et très aimé maître leurs meilleurs vœux et l’assurance de leurs sentiments affectueux’ [former and loved teacher their best wishes and the assurance of their affectionate sentiment].

It is the message of this first dive into the archival pool that postcards cannot be simply heaped into one category that complies with the 21st century (presentist) premonition that people in 1914 were either essentially warmongering, or that they were ‘controlled’ into going to war. With one hand dipped in the archive, I suggest that there were postcards which could be called postcards of auto-mobilisation, which imply a spontaneous and decentralized indoctrination operating horizontally, rather than only vertically: donkey-carrot postcards. When one looks at them digitally, it is easy to forget the emotional drive behind those postcards, giving meaning, encouraging, animating and colouring the often bleak, dreadful, uncertain circumstances that the soldiers were in, finding some solace, as did simultaneously those at home or on the front, in those usually thin cardboard pieces that quite often, sent with a longing or anxious heart, would never reach their recipient, the very centrepiece of their intended destination.

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