The Great War

About This Project

The Great War 1914-1918 began as a resource for courses in World War I poetry, a topic now taught in a number of universities. The site has since grown to be of interest to anyone studying World War I. Several years ago Woodruff Library of Emory University purchased fifty volumes of poetry written between 1914 and 1918; none of these books went into second editions, so they are now rather difficult to find except in specialized collections. The Beck Center of Woodruff Library is putting these volumes and others, beginning with the poetry by women, on line as e-texts, thus making available an interesting collection of poetry from a time that witnessed an unparalleled outpouring of war poetry by the men fighting in the trenches, by the poets at home trying to raise the morale of the troops, and by the women who could do little else but volunteer as aids or wait anxiously at home for their sons, husbands, and lovers. The poems are the heart of the site, and readers will appreciate being able to search the poetry by volume, title, author, and even individual lines and words.

After beginning the project with poetry, Dr. Alice Hickcox of the Beck Center suggested that The Great War 1914-1918 might expand to include other aspects of popular culture--which is for the most part how we would describe the poetry on this site--beginning with a collection of some 450 postcards from World War I. With the assistance of Dr. Erika Farr and Rebecca Sutton Koeser the postcards were scanned, categorized and described to become what is, to our knowledge, one of the largest collections of World War I cards on the web.

How many of us would think of postcards when we study the history of the First World War? Lest these ephemeral bits of paper seem too marginal and trivial, let's put the topic of the war and postcards in its historical context. For deltiologists (a name with which we collectors attempt to dignify our hobby) the "golden age" of postcards corresponds roughly with the first decades of the twentieth century when picture-postcard collecting became a worldwide phenomenon--a mania, in fact. Richard Carline, writing in 1971, says it is difficult for us today to appreciate what cards meant to people sixty or more years ago, but during the quarter of a century that included the Great War, thousands of hobbyists sought cards to add to their collections (Pictures in the Post, 9).

In 1911 the Atlantic City Post Office sold in that single year 17,000,000 one-cent stamps, most of them destined to be stuck on postcards. At Christmas, 1909, more than 1,000,000 postcards were handled by the Baltimore Post Office, and the St. Louis Post Office cancelled 750,000 cards on a single day in that same Christmas season. The postcard mania was indeed in full swing in the first decade of the last century. Dorothy Ryan calls the number of postcards sent through the mails at the height of their popularity "staggering." In 1906 the Post Card Dealer reported that Germany's annual consumption was 1,161,000,000; the United States', 770,500,000; and Great Britain's, 734,500,000. Official United States Post Office figures for the year ending June 30, 1908, cite 667,777,798 postcards mailed in this country. By 1913--just a year before war was declared--the total in the United States had increased to over 868,000,000, and by this date the craze was reportedly on the decline (Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918, 22).

A rough estimate, Richard Carline suggests, is that in 1905 about seven thousand million postcards were handled by the various postal services worldwide; his source is a magazine published especially for collectors, the September, 1905 issue of Picture Postcard Magazine. The war was soon to generate its share of postcards mailed back and forth from the front to home in every country.

This site allows the user to search the cards in a variety of ways and demonstrates the place of the postcard in the popular culture of the war. The category of "nationality" shows cards from a dozen countries, the "military" selection depicts actual scenes and photos of the trenches and the destruction caused by the war. The cards in the "home front" section have many sentimental romantic and religious cards meant to cheer the men at the front and comfort loved ones at home. We are still in the process of editing the descriptions of the cards, but browsing through the categories reveals the variety of cards and the feelings they attempted to express. Some of the most interesting cards are known as "silks," carefully embroidered cards that brought a small income to the French women who produced them. They sold for a few francs each, really only a few cents, but I have never seen one that was sent as a card; they were too exquisitely embroidered to trust to the mail without an envelope to protect them. Like most postcards, these silks injected a bit of normalcy in an otherwise increasingly insane war.

-- Harry Rusche