A handful of evocative, one hundred year old embroidered postcards in my possession have always exerted a potent fascination.
The pity is that I found them in a box of my grandmother’s possessions after her death and so I lost the chance to ask her about them. From what I know of my family’s past, however, these must have belonged to her mother and were sent by my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother’s brother from the Western Front during World War One.
Despite their age, the embroidered threads are still vibrant and colourful – a testament perhaps to the quality of work of the French and Belgian housewives who embroidered them onto strips of white organza by means of a home loom before sending them off to a factory to be made into postcards.
I often take out these postcards and look at them. They are undoubtedly sentimental and rather saccharine, with their emotive wording designed to evoke love, duty, patriotism and thoughts of family – no doubt anodyne enough to be proudly displayed on the mantelpiece at home for all to see – but also a visual reminder that a loved one was fighting for King and Country.
The simple greetings, such as ‘Forget Me Not’, ‘Far Yet Near’ or ‘A Kiss from France’ and the small space provided for a short message didn’t require any great eloquence on the part of the sender or allow for any mention of the horrors of trench warfare, which may account for their popularity among the troops. Back home in Britain, such attractive designs and syrupy greetings were welcomed as they were, after all, infinitely preferable to receiving notification of a death, injury or capture by the enemy, sentiments usually communicated by the feared telegram – the leitmotif of the darker side of the war.
Each time I hold these poignant mementos in my hands, I picture my great-grandmother doing the same thing during those emotional roller-coaster years of 1914-1918. I wonder what swell of thoughts and feelings must have ebbed and flowed in her mind. She would have found them pretty to look at, of course, and it meant her husband and brother were thinking of her. But it was what they symbolised that would be far more potent. Here was the proof – wonderful, glorious proof! – that at the time of writing at least, they were still alive. The visceral relief in that moment of opening it and finding that her fears for their safety were assuaged must have been overwhelming.
I can’t truly know what my great grandmother felt; I can only imagine myself back one hundred years as if it were my husband and two sons fighting for King and Country. It is then that I find there are no words.
WWI Centenary. Lest we forget.
(all photographs © Susan Hughes)