The Poilu in postcards


The British historian and WWII veteran, John Laffin, in his valuable compilation, World War I in Postcards, finds these French carte postales from 1914-1918, compared to their more conservative British counterparts, frequently “overdone” and in “atrocious bad taste”. Personally I find them unexpected, playful and charming, even if occasionally verging on the absurd (how very French, after all).

Either way, our present-day reactions are hardly the point.  What is significant is how popular the cards were at the time with the soldiers themselves, who bought them and sent them home by the hundreds of thousands— not only French soldiers, but soldiers of all the allied armies serving in France.

My grandfather, a corporal with the US Marines in France in 1918, sent home several of them to his wife and niece back on the homeplace in Illinois when he was billeted in the tiny farming village of Germainvilliers in the Vosges foothills— and that was how, 35 years later when I was still a boy and he showed them to me, I first became acquainted with such cards.

Each county had its own distinctive postcards, of course, including the Germans, but the French postcards stand out from all the others, and were especially popular.  Given the miserable and unrelenting drabness of life at the front, these inexpensive trifles of charm and color, easily available in estaminets and stationary shops behind the lines, may well have seemed irresistible to soldiers just out of the trenches.

It is hardly necessary to point out the immeasurable distance between the fantasized image of the poilus in these cards— with their scrubbed male models wearing immaculately laundered and pressed uniforms against picturesque battlefield backdrops in pleasing pastels— and the actual mud-encrusted, lice-infested poilus they supposedly portrayed.  These cards were fantasy, pure and simple.  No one mistook them for any sort of reality, certainly not the soldiers themselves.  From our distant perspective, after a century of unspeakable warfare and atrocity following the end of the Great War, we might very well find such postcards inexcusably trite, or even mildly offensive. But the soldiers at the time seemed genuinely fond of them.  They certainly bought enough of them.

BJ Omanson


















Published in: on March 30, 2015 at 12:54 am  Comments (3)