Postcards from the Front

I bought a WW1 postcard the other day that had been mailed in Albert on the Somme in 1916, and received in Sevenoaks the next day. What an amazing service – and this while a war raged! Back home, the PM, ‘Squiffy’ Asquith (‘Squiffy’ because he was pissed much of the time), sent sometimes three letters a day from Downing Street to his mistress Venetia Stanley elsewhere in London, which she received not 2 hours later.

The importance for morale for frontline soldiers (whose leave was once a year) of regular contact with home was not lost on authorities of both sides. By 1914 the British Post Office, with a staff of 250,000, was the world’s largest single employer. The scale of their Army Postal Service is staggering – in 1917, for example, over 19,000 mailbags crossed the channel each day (soldiers overseas, incidentally, paid no postage). Of course speed could not be guaranteed, a mailbag might be blown up or lost at sea. A Donald McGill funny postcard was received in Norwich in 2011, 94 years after it was posted from France. McGill was one of several artists churning out comic cards. The humour was typically British – jokes about kilts and what was under them, moans about fatigues, marching, the weight of kit, the discomfort of trench life (typical grumbles of the Kitchener recruit). German comic cards were never so negative – they often depict fat soldiers at the front scoffing sausage and beer, reassuring to Frau Schmidt in Berlin fussing that her boy isn’t getting enough to eat. German comic cards feature endless photos of the tallest and shortest chap in the regiment side by side, they never tired of this joke. Postcards reflect national taste. German and American cards are robustly patriotic, as were Italian (though more romantic). French cards were invariably of the ‘Sweetheart’ type, sentimental, mawkish even, often showing women in the uniform of their man; though some jokey cards depict the Poilu swigging his beloved wine ration, the thin red pinard. French cards also depict, perversely, scenes of devastation, ruined towns and cathedrals, shattered trenches – evidence of German ‘frightfulness’ and a call perhaps for resilience against the invader.

But if you think the British Post Office was efficient, how about the Japanese railways in the last war. A chap was minding his own business in Hiroshima when the bomb fell. He survived and decided to get the hell out so walked to the railway station. He bought a ticket to ‘anywhere’ as he later recounted, he just wanted to bugger off. He plumped for Negasaki. Bad choice. But what is astounding is not the coincidence of being the only man to have two atom bombs land on him, but that the railways were running at all! In Britain fallen leaves stop trains, but not even an atom bomb could disrupt their timetable.

Picture: Typical McGill wartime card, c1915. After the war McGill churned out ever saucier seaside postcards until eventually, in the 50s, he was convicted of obscenity.