Across land and sea, from the comfort of home to the horrors of the front line and back again, they were the equivalent of today’s text messages – brief and to the point.
Throughout the First World War, postcards were sent from trenches to families, from loved ones at home to friends and relations, snapshot messages that could bring a smile, a sigh of relief or the worst news of all.
While the briefest of news was scrawled on the back, the images on the front told their own story – sentimental, romantic, serious regimental and even light-hearted. Put together, they provide a fascinating view of how families dealt with the misery of years of war.
Down the years many were simply thrown away. However, a collection uncovered by Edinburgh’s Lord Provost survived in pristine condition – and now it is hoped the messages scrawled on some can be unravelled to shed further light on the families whose lives were torn apart by the Great War.
Postcards from the Lord Provost’s family’s large collection, which includes photographs and other mementoes, are on display in the poignant surroundings of Gorgie War Memorial Hall, which has at its centre a tribute to the dozens of local men whose lives were lost during the First World War.
Some cards feature sentimental illustrations of families in grief – a recurrent theme is a view of a family gathered around the vacant favourite chair of a lost loved one. Others celebrate the valiant contribution of wartime nurses, the bond between men marching to war or depict the sorrow of separation between husband and wife.
Lord Provost Donald Wilson found the collection among the belongings of his late aunt, Jessie MacIntyre. They had been so carefully stored that despite being around a century old, they have retained their brilliant colours and poignant messages.
But why she came to have such a large collection with a variety of names and addresses written on the backs, some clearly sent from the front line, others delivered across the country bearing news of a loved one, is a mystery.
“They were all very well stored in plastic bags and tied with bands. My aunt kept them all those years.
“They span the whole war and there are many different names and addresses,” he says. “Auntie Jessie had five sisters. It’s possible that they each knew lots of different families and they were encouraged to write to people at the front.”
One postcard brought brief but worrying news: “It is addressed to my aunt as Miss Addie, as she was then and says ‘Got word this morning that Alex has shell gas poisoning and is wounded and is at present in hospital in Rouen. We will let you know later how he is. Hoping to hear from you, love, Louise’.
“It’s quite a poignant message – imagine how terrible it would be to have to write that message.
“Another one is addressed to one of her sisters and mentions someone called Eddie who has not been very well and adds ‘Poor chap, he is away back to the noise and the din’, which is one way of describing the front line.
“And there’s a brilliant one with a nurse and ‘On service’ written on the bottom. On the back it says ‘I have been thinking so much about you all today. I thought I would send a thought for you. This says ‘On service’, but we are all on service here, on a very noble calling, on service for our king, kindest regards, Kate.”
The front of the card is illustrated with a drawing of a pretty blue-eyed nurse in her uniform, gazing wistfully into the distance.
Councillor Wilson adds: “It is very difficult to pinpoint who these people were but you get a real feeling from the postcards of how the war was affecting them.
“These were all they had to communicate with, no phones and no modern communication, just a postcard and a pencil. Some are quite difficult to read, some may well have been written in the trenches.”
Millions of postcards were sent to and from the front line during the First World War. Letters from enlisted men were discouraged as censoring them would take too long, whereas postcards – some even pre-printed with phrases which could be deleted as appropriate – were much easier for censors to process and left little opportunity to give away too much sensitive or demoralising detail.
The pictures on the front often said as much about the message being delivered as the words on the back, adds Cllr Wilson, who is an armed forces veterans champion.
“I think everyone at home would have been very keen to keep the morale up and postcards would be flying back and forwards all the time,” he adds.
“But as well as giving the men a real morale boost – not just to receive one but to send one, too – it would be quite therapeutic to write things down. It would be a link with normality.”
The Lord Provost’s collection – which includes photographs of serving soldiers taken at a photography studio in Selkirk and two poignant memorial ribbons given to mourners at a service for two brothers who lost their lives during the war – was found while he cleared his aunt’s house in Selkirk following her death several years ago.
“I like the idea of finding out who some of these people were,” adds Cllr Wilson. “Some photographs in the collection have comments on the back, and the postcards have names and addresses, so perhaps it’s not impossible to do.
“Apart from the postcards being very interesting to look at, they remind us of the real people who were affected by the war.”
n The exhibition of postcards is part of a series of events marking the outbreak of the First World War at Gorgie War Memorial Hall. The cards, poetry and other memorabilia are on show from today, Tuesday, until Thursday from 1pm to 4pm. Go to www.gorgiemem.org/postcard for more information.