|By Jim Trautman
“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning: we will Remember Them.”
–verses written by Lawrence Binyon
The summer of 1914 has been described as one of the warmest and most pleasant seasons of the 20th century. Tragically, by the end of August, the Great War would turn beauty into years of unspeakable horror and death. Close to 40 million would be killed or wounded.
America which did not enter the war until 1917, would suffer 50,000 killed and 206,000 wounded. Even today, men declared missing in action are occasionally uncovered by a French farmer plowing a field. In 2008, 250 unidentified British and Australian soldiers were discovered in a mass grave.
The war’s hostilities ceased at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles officially ended the “War to End All Wars” on June 28, 1919. President Woodrow Wilson designated Nov. 11, 1919 as Armistice Day to honor those who served in the Great War. In 1938, Congress made Armistice Day a national holiday; and in 1954, Congress changed the name to Veterans Day to honor U.S. veterans of all wars.
As with all wars, material connected to those years has become collectible. Besides medals and uniforms, ephemera of all types were issued during the Great War. This included sheet music, patriotic posters, postcards, cigarette cards, stereoscopic cards for viewers, books and more.
Sheet music connected to war themes is among the more popular genres. It was sold both at home and on military bases. Since commercial radio had not yet been introduced, the dance halls, parades, 78 rpm records played on gramophones or pianos would be the main avenues for songs honoring the soldiers. Many officers took portable gramophones into the combat zone with them. Since the war involved years of trench fighting, records provided a welcome release for the soldiers.
The U.S. Army issued song books to the troops to encourage men to take part in sing-along sessions when there was a lull in the fighting. On military bases, large sing-alongs with songs from the book were organized to boost morale. Few of the newly recruited or inducted soldiers had ever been away from home.
Some of the songs were; Good Bye, Little Girl, Good Bye; The Little Grey Mother, Who Waits All Alone; Say A Prayer For The Boys Out There; Keep The Home Fires Burning; March Of The Allies and It’s A Long Way To Tipperary. The sheet music usually had a scene on the front to provide a preview of the song’s focus.
Say A Prayer For The Boys Out There had a mother, father and sister – or sweetheart – sitting at a dinner table praying. In the background are rows and rows of tents. At the start of the war in 1914, many songs were not only patriotic, but issued to increase enlistments through outrage – in other words propaganda.
One such song was about Nurse Cavell, titled: Remember Nurse Cavell. A photo of Cavell with her dog is on the front of the sheet music. Report were that Nurse Cavell had been killed in Belgium by the “evil Huns.”
The most popular song, and biggest seller in 1918, was When I Send You A Picture Of Berlin – You’ll Know It’s Over, Over There. I’m Coming Home.
Posters of all types were printed during the war. One color poster for the U.S. Navy shows a sailor in action as a submarine is being hit with depth charges.
Others show dashing cavalry men on horseback charging into battle. Of course, anyone who has seen the movie War Horse knows that the dashing horsemen did not generally meet a good fate – no match for machine guns and barb wire.
One of the most interesting Canadian recruitment posters is geared to cyclists. “Cyclists, if you want a quick trip overseas, ride through Belgium, wear the nattiest uniform, scouting, sniping, dispatch riding and outpost duties, enlist today with the Canadian Corps of Cyclists.” One of the last survivors of this unit said, many years ago, he rode a bike with a radio on his back and a rifle in a sling. When he was shot on outpost duty on New Years Day, the first thing his officer did was to smell his rifle to see if he had shot himself.
By 1916, a draft was introduced since the patriotic volunteers had disappeared.
Variety of postcards
Through the course of the war, thousands of postcards were issued and sold in drug stores and on military posts. Many were in black and white, but some were produced in color. Images included troops marching, learning to shoot a rifle, throw a hand grenade, and battle scenes including medical units carrying the wounded.
By studying the images, it is often possible to date the year of the scene. In the first year of the war, Allied soldiers wore soft hats and Germans had the famous spike on the top of their small helmet. By 1915, troops had been issued more protection with larger helmets to protect the head and neck area.
Patriotic postcards were issued with various themes about fighting for humanity or democracy. Wounded soldiers were issued small postcards to send home or to a loved one. No writing was allowed as the card said, “If anything else is added, the postcard will be destroyed.” The soldier was to check one of the statements which fitted his situation. “I have been admitted to hospital – check sick or wounded, I have received your letter.”
Some of the more beautiful postcards were woven of fabric. The front of the card has a scene or some sort – a battle or a building rendered in silk and embroidered.
One Christmas card has the image of a machine gun crew in battle – inscribed with “Seasons Greetings.”
Many collectors focus on cigarette cards. In the period of 1914-1918, there were hundreds of cigarette companies. Since there was little difference from one brand to the next, the key was to create repeat customers. Cigarette cards featuring sports heroes, cars and other popular subjects.
During World War I, cards featured military figures, medals, battles and the new weapons which included planes and tanks. Not only were the cards popular among soldiers, but individuals on the home front collected them, as well.
For a small fee and several proofs of purchase, many companies offered an album geared to the subject so the cards could be placed in the proper sequence. In Germany, the Salem Zigaretten Co. issued a series of several hundred cards.
Cards featured the German Navy removing mines, artillery batteries in action, and troops charging. The card images were not just confined to the Western Front, but had desert engagements and troops fighting in the Alps.
One card talks of Capt. Erwin Rommel and a force of 112 men taking 9,000 Italian prisoners and capturing 81 field guns. Rommel, of course, would become the Desert Fox tank commander of World War II.
Books on the Great War
At the conclusion of the war, book stores were filled with books on the history of the Great War – the War to End All Wars. Many were a year-by-year study of the event. Others were personal accounts, such as My Year of the Great War, by Frederick Palmer, which included chapters My Best Day at the Front, With The Guns and Christmas.
Other books were produced as photo books similar to the style of Civil War photographers. Collier’s New Photograph History of the World’s War was filled with hundreds of photos. It was one of the first books to contain scenes of aerial battles of the various national air forces. Many photos, like those of the Civil War, were graphic in showing dead men caught in the wire or bodies stacked up against a building wall, the wounded laying in deep mud, men who it appeared had not been killed by a bullet or shell, but suffocated in a deep shell hole.
Soldiers were killed and then buried by the next exploding shell.