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excellent study of the subject
on 24 April 2010
If there is one area of ephemera which captures the social history of the First World War, it must be the picture postcard, and Peter Doyle's book explores the subject thoroughly in a well researched and illustrated volume. Despite being a fairly new phenomenon (the current format of the picture-postcard dates from less than twenty years before the outbreak of the war), the postcard was quickly adopted as the ideal medium for expressing patriotism, keeping up the spirits, and conveying information.
Doyle's book shows how the card was used to reinforce morale, as a recruiting medium, to share experiences of the Home Front, and to make fun of the enemy. Perhaps the most iconic are the silk-embroidered cards, sewn in sheets by French and Belgian civilians, and sold individually to soldiers, to be sent home in envelopes. Each of these, with designs ranging from birthday wishes to regimental crests, cost usually more than a shilling, representing a day's pay, itself a symbolic figure.
The cards, with a strong, stark or colourful image, gave the recipient an idea of what to expect, and perhaps, given the restrictions on information, a subtext: the sentimental verse that masks fear, the misery and boredom of trench life behind the cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather, the hope for a swift end to the war seen in the portrayal of warships, guns and troops. The written messages, as one should expect, seem simple, banal even: a request for pyjamas, thanks for a parcel, a note that the writer is `just off to somewhere in Flanders'. More than this would probably not have got past the censor. The field-service postcard with its `delete as appropriate' officially acceptable alternatives, which range from the optimistic to the slightly more optimistic, is parodied on a sentimental card with the words `I have received no kisses from you lately/for a long time'. For all its kitsch sweetness its most important message is the Cartesian subtext - `I am still alive'.
The extraordinary longevity of these cards, still easy to find, attests to their popularity; we can only imagine how important they were to those who originally received them.