It has been a long time since we last looked at an embroidered card on this blog, back here. That example was in the form of a greetings card, tonight we have another example, but this one has been produced as a postcard:These cards were made from hand embroidered pieces of silk mesh. French and Belgian refugees would embroider them on a long strip of silk, with as many as 25 on a single piece of backing fabric. These were then cut up and added to card mountings to sell to troops. This example has a movable flap on the front of the card that would allow a tiny greetings card to be tucked inside. These cards were hugely popular amongst British and American troops and it is estimated about 10 million hand embroidered cards were produced. This example is presumably for the American market as it features the flags of France, Belgium and the USA but not the UK on the front:It was typical to send these cards home in envelopes rather than directly through the post so few are encountered with stamps and writing on the rear. There are literally thousands of different designs of these cards, each hand sewn, but most have a patriotic theme to them, featuring flags, war personalities or national symbols. The use of flower motifs is equally common, helping to provide colour and very much in vogue amongst the civilian population the cards would have been sent to:The cards themselves were not cheap, certainly when compared to more conventional postcards, but were still well within the budget of the average soldier. This suggests they may well have been chosen to send home to a sweetheart or mother and perhaps to commemorate a special occasion such as a loved ones birthday. The silks were highly prized and are often found today faded and discoloured form being displayed on the mantelpiece above a coal fire for many years; this example though is still in lovely condition.
This week’s postcard is quite nice in showing a group of soldiers as they looked on active service in World War one. Most studio postcards are taken of men in their best uniforms, all polished and ironed but in France it was not uncommon for a group of men to have their pictures taken in their everyday uniforms and this helps paint a more accurate picture of what soldiers actually looked like in the field. This postcard then was taken in Paris at some point in World War One:It shows three men of the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment and they are definitely on the scruffy and dishevelled end of the spectrum. They are each wearing the utility version of service dress, with simple patch pockets and a less fitted cut, the presence of items in their pockets adds to the crumpled and dishevelled look:Other features to note include the use of five buttons up the front of the uniform, the lack of protective rifle patches on the shoulders- this simplified pattern was introduced in late 1914 to speed up production of uniforms. The caps are also distinctive as the stiffening wire has been removed so they have a much softer and less structured look than pre-war service dress caps:This made them far more practical as they could be folded up and put in a pocket, worn over a balaclava or under a scarf etc. Note also the lack of any brass shoulder titles in the picture above: brass was a strategic supply so efforts were made to reduce its use in non-essential items. The intricate lettering of shoulder titles was also lengthy to produce so quantities of shoulder titles went into decline and often men were not issued them and either had to scrounge some from somewhere or go without.
Boots in the postcard are again indicative of this being taken on active service, they are not polished and are merely waterproofed:These boots look well used and worn and the supply of army boots was a constant problem to the British Army. Although supplies never dried up, many new manufacturers were accepted and often the quality was far less than would have been acceptable in the pre-war military.
This postcard, despite being a studio photograph, ha some interesting features that make it a little more unusual than the normal examples of this genre.
This week’s postcard dates from the First World War and depicts a pair of pre-fabricated huts, with soldiers posing outside them:Fifteen men are stood outside a large wooden prefabricated hut:This hut is quite a substantial affair and is built of wooden lap boards, with windows and a corrugated iron roof, with the chimneys of stoves poking out:These huts were madeof a prefabricated fram that was clad and fitted out by contractors- the firm of Mcalpine’s Builders being heavily involved in fulfilling War office contracts. This photograph from the excellent ‘Great War Huts Project’ gives a flavour of what construction might have looked like:The second hut is of the Nissen type:This type of hut was designed by a Canadian called Captain Peter Norman Nissen and as the ‘Picturing the Great War’ blog explains:
Constructed from a half-cylindrical skin of corrugated steel, and underpinned by a skeleton of steel ribs and wooden purlins, Nissen huts were versatile, light and easy to construct. Devised by Nissen in April 1916, by August the huts were in production. Moving swiftly from drawing board to the production line, the speed at which a Nissen hut could be assembled once in location was also significant. A Nissen hut could be packed in a standard 3 tonne Army wagon, and erected by six men in four hours. Portability was a key factor; as well as ease of transportation on army wagons, the corrugated iron shells could easily be nested on top of one another for shipping.
Nissen huts were hugely successful, being cheap, strong and quick to put up. Their use continued in the Second World War and even today examples can still be found, a century after the design was first thought of!
Following on from the Daily mail war postcard we looked at a few weeks back here, tonight we have another card form the series, this one showing ‘British Infantry practicing an attack’:This postcard is notable for the dramatic photography used in the image, with the image taken from a low vantage point in a trench whilst the men leap over. There is a nice contrast between the dark of the trench sides and the men in mid-leap above:The artistic standard of this postcard is unusual and makes an attractive image out of a serious topic.
Training was essential for trench warfare, but could never fully replicate real life in a front line trench which combined monotony with moments of true terror. William Albert Hastings was a Sergeant in the Seaforth Highlanders and in 1915 he sent this letter to a friend describing life in the trenches:
Very pleased to receive your letter, like yourself I find my correspondence voluminous for me at times, especially since I have taken on the duties of Platoon Sergeant which takes up more time than one realises at first. We are still in the trenches and have been in action twenty four days consecutively and I don’t know long we shall keep it up. Had a dirty time yesterday morning dodging damned great bombs the blighters were presenting to us without exaggeration they were eighteen inches to a two feet long and made a hole about ten feet deep and fifteen feet diameter at least we did not wait to see them burst. They can be seen descending through the air and then a scoot is made to get as far as possible round the corner, the iron and dirt seem to be falling for a minute afterwards, they are disturbing. Dicky Gilson has not been with us the last twenty four days, he broke his glasses and would not buy new ones (went to the doctor and all that and worked the oracle and was left behind with the Transport, don’t know whether he worked the ticket properly and got a safer job farther back, should not blame him if he has, his nerves have been in a shocking state, he’d brood a lot as you know that is absolutely fatal when you have a dirty job on like this. I have not seen either Frost or Kemball out here, do not seem to meet anybody fresh as we are always in the same district and relieve the same crowds generally.
Private Frost of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was another who wrote home from the trenches:
It has been a quiet place for two months, until two days after our occupation, when the British exploded mines under some workings of the Germans near their trenches, to prevent them blowing our trench up. Well! That woke them up and the following Saturday they retaliated by opening rapid fire early in the morning.
However we were ready for them and quickly replied, so they then bombarded us, which to say the least of it was a noisy business. That eventually ceased and rapid firing was quickly in process again, followed by another shelling, which our guns again put a stop to. The whole affair lasted an hour and ten minutes, and although we believe an attack was intended, the Germans didn’t leave their trench, opposite to us. After putting our trench in order again which took some time, as the parapet was blown down for about three yards near me, and a shell burst amongst a lot of beef tins, scattering them and the contents in all directions, besides the bottom of the trench being littered with hundreds of empty cartridges, we proceeded with boiling water for tea, also to show the Huns by the smoke that we were still there. Only a hundred yards separated the two trenches, so it was always a case of “bob down” and the enemy were good shots, as we found out to our cost when they smashed the top glasses in two periscopes within half an hour one morning.
In 1916 the Daily Mail started releasing a series of postcards for sale to the general public depicting scenes of the front, having paid £2500 to war charities for permission to produce the images. Eventually 22 series of 8 card sets were produced, with accompanying albums to store the cards in. The newspaper touted described the first run of cards as:
The first selection of pictures numbers 40, and these represent all phases of the new warfare. They are up to date, for they depict scenes in the great Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1. They will form a precious record of the gallantry and devotion of our soldiers in the great advance.
As might be expected, these cards are still very common and the images they show are far more exciting and historic than many postcards of the period and so they are a great place to start collecting Great War cards. I have a small number of these cards and will bring you them on an occasional basis going forwards. Tonight we start with an image entitled ‘The Worcesters Going into Action’:The photograph is clearly posed, but interesting nonetheless. The men are waving their helmets in the air:And one at least seems to be carrying a massive wooden mallet:Each man is carrying his full equipment including 08 webbing, PH hood respirator case and SMLE rifle:The combination of helmet and PH Hood bag indiates the image dates from 1916 and suggests it is from one of the earlier runs of cards. The Daily mail’s series of postcards was unbelievably popular and their main tabloid rival, the Daily mirror, got in on the act by producing a series of their own based around the Canadian Army.
This week’s postcard is a little different from our usual photographic images and is a cartoon of a German battle ship called the ‘Stikphastz’ (Stick fast), moored up and covered in weeds and cobwebs. It has the tag line “The German Navy Taking Root! ‘And the green grass grew around me boys’:The image is poking fun at the Kaiser’s Navy which spent much of its time in port, as compared to the Royal navy who sent ships out into the North Sea and Atlantic to take part in operations. The card could also be referencing the SMS Königsberg which was chased up a river in East Africa by the Royal navy and blockaded there from September 1914 until a British attack forced her to be scuttled in July 1915. The back of the postcard is in some ways just as interesting as the front:The card was sent from a girl called May to a marine called Jack who was serving aboard HMS Mars. HMS Mars was a pre-dreadnought Majestic class battleship who spent the first part of the war as a guard ship on the Humber and then as part of the Dover patrol before transferring to Belfast to pay off on 15th February 1915, just four days after this card was sent:She spent the rest of the war as an unarmed troop transport and as a depot ship.
At first glance the stamp on this card seems to be very badly applied, being distinctly ‘wonky’:This however may be deliberate as there was a ‘language of stamps’ used by young people at the time to impart hidden messages. According to this guide from World War One, it would indicate the postcard was sent with a kiss:
During the First World War there was a great hunger from members of the public in the United kingdom to understand what their loved ones were experiencing on the front lines. Books, magazines and news reels were eagerly lapped up but one British newspaper decided to take this a stage further and offer an exhibition of captured war booty and a full size trench for the public to ogle at. By charging an admission and offering souvenirs, such as today’s postcards, they managed to raise a considerable sum for service charities. The Daily Mail explained its ‘Active Service Exhibition’ in an article published on 20th January 1916:
The Daily Mail has undertaken the whole of the organisation and management of the great ‘Active Service Exhibition’ which is to be held on behalf of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John at Prince’s Skating Club and the adjacent Knightsbridge Hall from March 18 to April 8.
The arrangements for the construction under the supervision of experts returned from the front, of various reproductions of actual war conditions are now well in hand. One of the chief of these will be a full sized trench through which visitors can walk. It will be complete in every detail with a dug-out, communication and front-line trenches, and barbed wire entanglements…
The following postcards depict aspects of this replica trench network, with sandbag walls, dugouts and a painted back-scene representing war torn France:The detail is quite impressive, although the trenches themselves are compressed compared to the real ones in France, presumably to fit onto the site in London. The Daily Mail explained:
Visitors will be able to walk through the trenches and go into the dug-outs, which will be of the exact official pattern…
The back scenes were painted by “Mr Dudley Hardy, whose recent highly successful exhibition of paintings showed how closely he has studied war conditions in France and Belgium.”
As well as being able to walk through the trenches, it appears that a display was made replicating the “Bombardment of Ypres”- for this the public were charged 1s from 11am to 5pm and 6d from 5pm to 9pm. The exhibition was hugely popular and ran for far longer than the originally envisaged time period, open until July 22nd 1916 and raising £6750.