Friday, 27 July 2007

Love tokens from the Front

Standing knee deep in mud, deprived of sleep and waiting for the next whistle to go over the top are images we recognise as being part of life in the trenches, but what our fathers' fathers endured in the Great War, we cannot imagine.

That was two generations ago. I wanted to bring to this column some images of a sweeter nature from the war to end all wars.

They come from the covers of cheap and cheerful silk postcards sent home by our boys to mothers, wives and sweethearts who were sitting at home praying for the safe return of their loved ones.

It has been estimated that 10 million of the cards were produced between 1914 and 1918. Amazingly, many survive and they remain among the most affordable miniature works of art often produced entirely by hand.

There was a time, perhaps five years ago, when a First World War silk postcard could be had for £1. Now they cost at least a fiver a piece and often dealers want to least double that.

But even at that price, they make a charming collection.

The postcards have several common features. Generally speaking, they were hand-embroidered, usually in silk, on strips of silk mesh and the resulting image sandwiched between two cream-coloured cards.

The face of the card had a cut-out window framing the image, which was usually embossed with decorative designs often in the Art Nouveau manner.

The reverse of the card was either blank or printed with spaces for address and message as you would expect on the back of any postcard.

Tradition has it that the cards were embroidered by Frenchwomen and children working in their homes to earn a living while the men were at war.

The workers were paid piece rate for their sewing and the strips of silk mesh were cut and mounted as postcards in the nearby factories which employed them.

Who am I to argue with the idea? However, given the fact that the cards were mass-produced and the embroidery is so perfectly executed on each of them, I suspect many of the cards that survive today were machine-made.

Certainly the quality of the embroidery began to decline after 1919 to be replaced by a simpler, plainer machined card after 1923 which never enjoyed the same popularity.

Hand-embroidered cards are not seen after that date and the silk postcard disappeared altogether after 1945.

Although they were meant to be posted home, it is interesting to note that few First World War silk postcards are found with stamps or postmarks.

The explanation is simple: Post was collected from troops periodically and sent by the sackful as military mail, post free.

Alternatively, the cards were purchased by soldiers and stuffed into the bottom of kitbags where they remained until they came home.

Messages scribbled on the backs of the cards are often poignant and sentimental.

Perhaps because they were expensive in relative terms, soldiers tended not to use the cards for general chitchat about day-to-day life or news.

Instead, and possibly because they were used to mark special occasions, hand-written inscriptions speak of undying love or best wishes for a birthday or other anniversary.

How many were sent by lads who never came home is as moving a thought as the answer is unfathomable.

The cards had no propaganda purposes but they must have been unsurpassed as a means of keeping spirits high.

The woven designs are in colours picked from the Allied flags and messages were often themed around victory. "United We Stand", "Right Is Might" and "Glory To The Allies" are among the popular epithets, while probably every English regiment is represented by a card depicting its cap badge and flag, as is the Royal Flying Corps, founded in 1912 and still in its infancy.

Easily the most delightful are the cards intended for wives and sweethearts. They are invariably decorated in ravishing colours with bouquets or basket of flowers often held in the beaks of exotic birds.

Messages are sweetly sentimental. "Thinking of You", "Your Soldier Boy", "To My Dear Mother/Sister/Sweetheart", "Not Absent in My Thoughts", and so on are as commonplace today as they clearly were then.

Another interesting feature of the cards is a delicate woven pouch or envelope-like flap worked into the silk mesh which often still contains the small printed card they were meant to contain.

It's a curious addition, given that the card is printed with a message not unlike that embroidered on the front of a postcard.

Its purpose is unclear other than perhaps the intention of the manufacturer that the card should be used by the sender on which to write a personal message.

Rarity, condition and subject matter governs prices. A dated card is always more valuable, particularly if the date is a distinctive feature of the woven design.

Cards woven with regimental badges are sought after by both postcard collectors and collectors of militaria, the double demand easily doubling value.

Cards decorated with a biplane or an airship or a battleship are among the most valuable, particularly if named and identified.

Cards with the flap or pouch are worth more if they still contain the printed card, and a card which is in mint condition and blank is more desirable than one which is grubby and written on.

Since they are still relatively common, cards which are damaged in any way should be avoided.

There are various ways of displaying a collection. Collectors' clubs and good-quality stationers produce albums fitted with plastic sleeves designed specifically to hold postcards which are handy if you own a large number.

Similarly, it is possible to find vintage postcard albums which are perfect for displaying a smaller collection.

However, given their intrinsic beauty and striking colours First World War silk postcards look stunning when they are mounted together, framed and hung on the wall.

If you choose this latter course, be sure to hang the cards out of direct sunlight. The colours will become bleached and faded in the space of a few weeks and once the damage is done, the cards are rendered worthless.

While I mention the C word reluctantly, a silk postcard inscribed "Merry Christmas" and decorated with a suitable festive image -- see the one above of the Robin standing on the Yuletide log -- makes a charming alternative to the modern commercial nonsense which pass as Christmas cards today.

Who knows, it might set the recipient off on a new collecting venture.

Pictures show a selection of cards with values between £10-25. Notice particularly the Christmas robin and the Buffs with the Welsh dragon

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