Silk embroidered postcards, in a way, are the pinnacle of what it was to distract oneself from the horrors of war. The bright colours and sweet expressions woven into their fabric distracted both the sender and the receiver from the truth of what was possible. Perhaps this is why they appealed to British soldiers so much; they spent considerable amounts of money on pretty-coloured fabric to send home to loved ones because this was a slightly more normal thing to be doing than watching friends and enemies die brutal deaths.
The start of this industry can be traced back to the late 19th century, to the German town of Krefeld. Their true popularity stemmed from their display at the World Fair in 1900 in Paris. They had been used in France prior to World War One, but the arrival of soldiers created a new market and the outbreak of war a new workforce of labour for their production. Many women who had been displaced from their homes and found themselves in precarious and unfamiliar places took up the task of embroidering as a source of extra income. By 1915, demand had risen considerably, and cards began to be manufactured in factories, with women buying machines in order to help create the intricate designs they were tediously repeating. Women would embroider yards of mesh, and these would be sent to factories to be cut up and glued to card, eventually being sold on to soldiers.
The British postal service was strict on censorship during the war. They did not wish for distressing letters from soldiers to reach people at home, or the message of patriotism would crumble in the face of the very men who had believed in it telling of the atrocities of war. The postcard manufacturers were aware of this and so kept their designs simple and patriotic – often displaying the flags of the nations fighting with the UK, or small symbols like horseshoes. Also popular was the use of Victorian flower language, with forget-me-nots being frequently displayed. Another popular form of postcard was nicknamed a ‘Wizz-bang’, after the shells used in combat, due to how fast they reached home. This was down to the ease they had passing through censorship. It was a pre-printed card, where soldiers could eliminate pre-written responses to the letters they had received from home. Often, these were quite simplistic, just letting the receiver know that they were well, and the date they had received their last letter. It cannot be said that the families were disappointed by these cards, but they dehumanised the experience of war further, preventing the soldier from expressing any kind of emotion and taking away even the normalising experience of telling someone how their day had been. In limiting what they could say, however, they restricted the negative information that was fed back to the public, which was the whole point.
It is worth noting that they only partly succeeded in creating this façade. Once soldiers caught on to the way their words were being blotted out in their letters, they came up with ways around it. For example, Wilfred Owen created a code in order to communicate with people he wrote to at home. Some letters were successful in portraying the negative experiences of the soldiers, like this one, quoted from an embroidered postcard sent by a person called Fred:
“We are on the [censored] it is dreadful to see the chaps dead thousands of them and Germans legs and arms flying all roads I saw some sights walking on dead chaps [censored] get in shell holes and go to sleep on the tops of them don’t let anyone see this. Fred”
Even more tragic than the contents of his letter is the knowledge that Fred died in battle a few weeks after it was sent. The fact that he writes of these things clearly shows these images had a deep effect on him, but the repression of such emotions encouraged by the war campaign made him shameful of his feelings. These beautifully embroidered postcards are a cacophony of emotions – the desire to communicate with one’s loved ones, people trying to process horrific events, and also a desire for normality. They both give and take away voices from the deceased soldiers, expressing beauty and pain. But despite what they convey, they never live up to the real thing – the moment when these men were finally able to go home and be with the people they were so desperately trying to communicate with.
Written By Megan Crutchley
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