Spotlight on the collection: ‘Postcards from the Front’, the JD Fryer Collection

Guest Post - Mark Cryle

Former Fryer Library Manager Mark Cryle discusses WW1 postcards in the JD Fryer Collection. Mark is currently writing a PhD on the origins of Anzac Day.

Among the riches of the John D Fryer collection (UQFL23) is an array of World War One correspondence and memorabilia. JD Fryer, along with two of his brothers, William and Charles, served in the AIF in Europe. The Fryer boys were regular correspondents and part of their epistolary legacy is a fascinating collection of postcards.

The first printed postcards appeared in the 1870s and the trade was firmly established by 1914. Postcard publishers were quick to capitalise on the commercial opportunities provided by the outbreak of hostilities. By August 1914 British designers, artists and photographers were already contributing substantially to the material culture of the war. Traffic in postcards was extensive and they provided an important link between the home front and the battle front. Many soldiers sent souvenirs of their overseas journey such as this one from Jack and Will to their sister Lizzie.

Jack had not even left Australia before he starting sending postcards home as this 'Souvenir from Perth, WA' from October 1915 attests.

Note the presence of the army censor's stamp here, reminding us that postcards were subject to the same strict rules of military censorship as letters. Understandably, correspondence was not supposed to include information about location or troop movements. Nor was it allowed to include sentiments which may adversely affect morale on the home front and thus be 'prejudicial to recruiting'. The sheer volume of correspondence meant that army censorship was haphazard at best. Many soldiers, of course, self-censored and sought to protect their loved homes at home from detailed knowledge of the brutal carnage and horror of the battle front.

One British study has shown that among the Imperial War Museum's collection of World War One correspondence there are almost six times as many letters to mothers as there are to fathers. None of the Fryer boys were married and all corresponded regularly with their mother and their sister Elizabeth (Lizzie). Mrs Fryer too sent copious cards and letters as she sustained the practice of her mothering from half the world away. Men of this generation publicly revered their mothers with a frankness and intensity which, to twenty-first century sensibilities, seems positively saccharine. Sons were doubtless highly-attuned to the way that their mothers would respond to their words. Arguably, this constrained their writing as much as any formal censorship.

 

Postcard publishers played a significant role in the production of war propaganda. German soldiers were sometimes presented as overweight, short-sighted buffoons. On other occasions they were depicted as barbarians capable of the most hideous atrocities.

Among the most remarkable artefacts in the Fryer collection is the large collection of 'silks'. These were mostly embroidered by French women in their homes and then sent to factories for cutting and mounting on postcards. They found a ready market with Allied troops and 'silk' production was a thriving cottage industry in a France whose rural productivity, especially in the north, was ravaged by war. The quality of workmanship in the silks varied. It was typically high in the early years of the war but by 1917 production was more rushed to meet demand. Some postcards were made with small envelopes which could contain a smaller card for a sentimental message. In many cases however they were not sent directly through the mail but enclosed in letter and packages home to be kept as souvenirs and mementoes. Silks made direct appeals to sentiment with their emotive wording typically evoking family remembrance and allied unity. Their sprays of flowers and foliage offered a marked contrast to the grim and drab world of life in the trenches and camps.

Charles Fryer, it seems, was particularly fond of sending these cards. The one reproduced below with its caption 'God be with you till we meet again' is particularly poignant as a reminder of the tragedy that the war wrought on so many Australian families. Both of Charles' brothers were seriously wounded in the fighting. By the time this card would have reached his sister Lizzie at Springsure in Central Queensland, Charles himself was dead, killed near Bullecourt.

While they are typically mute about troop movements and battle stories, these cards offer a valuable insight into the epistolary culture of the trenches. The banality of the formulaic presentation masks powerful emotions and sentiments. This was the language through which the soldier communicated with home and thus these postcards constitute significant units in the social currency of the Great War.

 

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Last updated:
17 November 2017