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Tuesday, 17 June 2014


German propaganda in World War 1 postcards
"...among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages."
from The Idler magazine, dated November 11, 1758, 160 years before Armistice Day.

On the little chalkboard at the front the message reads, “Kriegsjahr 1914/15”, or “Year of the War” then something indecipherable and what could be Eisenfeld, which would be a small town north of Frankfurt. An expert could interpret the variety of caps and tell us more, but for the time being it looks like a battalion or regiment has been billeted in the town. The sign on the door at the back is for Odam camembert cheese, which obviously makes us think they are outside a store or bar. The middle aged couple at the back could be the owners and the two younger women their daughters or staff. Everything so far has been self explanatory, but what of the mug of beer on the table? Thousands of German postcards just like this one are floating about and the mug of beer is a common element. There’s a simple explanation – someone just ordered a beer, and as the man at the very rear left is also holding a beer that looks straightforward and evident – but simple explanations aren’t always satisfying. Could it have stood in for absent friends? After all, the toast to lost comrades has been common across all armies through the centuries, and though it is somewhat atavistic, the idea of having a glass of beer to stand in for them is not illogical.

The two predominant images of World War 1 are the bodies in the trenches and the fools in charge. As the centenary drew closer there was a spot of revisionism, a few suggestions that as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Gallipoli campaign, Churchill wasn’t quite the disaster he has been made out to be, but even the worst leaders have their ever faithful supporters. Here’s a postcard of Counts Häseler (on the left) and Zeppelin. The caption at the top tells us they are the oldest commanders of the German army. This and several others in the same series were made in 1910, when war was a certainty though no timetable had been drawn up. Neither man had an active role in the war, both being in their 80s, but something about this image says a lot about the state high command. It wasn’t just that so many of the generals were old men who should have been pensioned off, but most of them had come through the various officer corps during an era when class distinctions were so strong they might never exchange words with a single ordinary soldier. It was an era when officers were gentlemen, hoped to engage in at least one legendary cavalry charge and had no clue how to deal with irregular Sudanese, Boer or other upstart militias out in the colonies. Look at these two. What silly hats. What pompous outfits. As for the sabres; what good would they be in the trenches? The photo is by Alfred Kuhlewindt, an official photographer for the German High Command and a man whose job was to make the ridiculous pass for the sublime.

There is a publisher’s stamp on this but no photographer credited. That doesn’t matter. Variations on this image, the young frau wearing the soldier’s cap with a (painted) horse behind her, were among the most popular postcards sent to the soldiers at the front. Thereby hangs a tale, or an idea at least. Wir halten durch! In English: ‘We came by’, or ‘We stopped by’. Who is ‘we’? Well, it is the young women of Germany, but more specifically, the young women who rode horses. In Germany C1914 to 1918, that really meant the young women from good middle to upper middle class families, der junge frauen der mittelschicht (I think): well bred, wholesome, cultured, for whom horse riding was a pleasure, like reading Goethe or going to the museum on Sundays; in other words, the ideal German woman, she whose honour the boys in the trenches are fighting for. Wir halten durch! Why? To offer words of encouragement? To remind young Kurt that trenchfoot, dysentery and good odds of a premature death were but small sacrifices for the greater ideal? There’s a study waiting to be made of this young frau, and her English, French, Belgian, Dutch and Russian equivalents, because they are the same, but different in their subtle ways. You won’t find many images of British lasses with painted horses because horse riding didn’t have the same cultural resonance in England. Ditto the French mademoiselle, who likely as not is holding a flag in one hand, a tray of pastries or a bottle and wine glasses in the other.   

Happy Easter, 1915. It is postmarked April 2nd but even Germans have trouble reading the handwriting, because it is so flowery they can’t tell if they are looking at a t, an f or a j. The message, or what they can work out from it, seems fairly pedestrian. Someone is going to Cologne soon and thinking warmly of the recipient. It is the image that matters in any case, and how strange it is. The egg itself is easy to understand, not so much a symbol of fertility as one of the family. And look at the trench the soldiers are in. It looks more like a culvert, a neat, shallow and well constructed channel. Did the people back home really believe the trenches looked like this? They may have. In early 1917 disillusion with the German army was so strong that several cities were paralysed by riots. It wasn’t just the death toll that made people angry; it was also the discovery that they were being lied to. Their boys weren’t winning magnificent victories, and just like the Allies, they couldn’t retreat if they wanted to, the war being stuck in the trenches. Despite all the evidence in the form of the war wounded wandering the streets it took two years for that message to affect enough people that civil unrest became possible. The day this postcard was mailed off, a German cavalry unit was badly beaten in Poland by a Russian force but the chances were slim the author of the postcard knew that. Only the Russian news services would have published that information, and as every German knew, they weren’t to be trusted. In 1915 Easter fell on Sunday April 4. This postcard was mailed on Good Friday.

While we are on the topic of truth being ignored, misconstrued or overlooked, here’s one the Allies may have conveniently forgotten. On the back the message reads, in German, “Three Tonkinese soldiers captured 5. 6. .18.” It also says where, though that isn’t clear. ‘Tonkinese’ was the common term for people from North Vietnam, but often enough anyone from what was then French Indochina, which included Cambodia. Consider the background. The palms suggest an exotic, tropical location. Brief research (Wikipedia) has uncovered the detail that some 92 000 Vietnamese soldiers served in the French army on the Western Front. That’s an awful lot of people to leave out of the standard histories, especially when you remember that approximately 103 000 New Zealanders served. The French could argue that, coming from the Colonies, they were part of France anyway, but perhaps France has always been troubled by the Indochinese contribution. The history of the Indochinese wars that began in 1946 and ended with America’s defeat in 1975, properly begins in the First World War when the initial anti-colonial uprisings took place. Vietnam wasn’t just sending soldiers but being taxed to support the French effort, and when you study the expressions on these men’s faces you get an inkling of why the King of Vietnam, Duy Tân, would leave his palace to join the protestors in the streets in 1916. Ho Chi Minh later claimed his political ideologies first formed during the war.



  1. Excellent post! I was so struck by the quote you used to open with, I have to write that one down.
    You know me as Nancy S. Ellis on facebook.


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