German Vernacular Photographic Heritage of the Great War

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There was much more to Oliver’s scholarship than searching through photographs for ‘funky beards’. Rather, these personal photographs of German soldiers provide a sometimes emotional insight into the lives of young men, many of whom were travelling abroad for the first time.

If you were to imagine travelling Europe for the first time in your life, how would you document it? How would you make those memories material? For many in the ranks of the Kaiser’s armies, the First World War was not just a conflict but the first time they travelled Europe – and widely too. Some of these men sent home for their camera equipment with which to record the experiences they had, to make memories material. Often, they sent the film to local photography studios in order for the photos they had taken to be made into real photographic postcards, later sent home from the front. It was fascinating for me to have access to Professor Mike Robinson’s extensive collection of such cards, roughly 800 of which I was able to digitise and analyse.

My main role on the project was to digitise part of the collection of cards and some albums. As I was doing this, I analysed the photos and what they depicted, creating a cataloguing system and database, primarily based on a set of themes to which most cards conformed (more on that later). Two particular challenges for me lay in trying to read the handwriting on the cards and also investigating the location in which these photos had been taken. Using the date the sender wrote on the card, the stamp describing the battalion and regiment of the sender and a pre-existing database of the movements of German forces in the First World War I attempted to pin down a location – a fascinating if fairly unfruitful process, given the scope for inaccuracy in the information given on the cards themselves and on the online database.

A photo from the collection

For my own database, I collated information about locations, dates and themes in the cards, by which I mean the sort of poses the subjects were in, what they were holding, climbing on, items they were showing off/wearing etc. Professor Robinson highlighted a number of themes to me when I began the project, items which he especially wanted me to look out for when analysing the postcards. A theme could be simply a funky beard or something that represents a deeper complexity. Searching through all the photos for the best beard was certainly a very fun part of my work but seeking out and thinking about other themes could be just as rewarding. In many of the photos, soldiers have made sure that pictures of their loved ones are very visible in the background; the same loved ones to whom the postcards were likely sent. Perhaps the sender wished to show that their family – or partners – had not been forgotten; or that they were taking comfort in images of friends and family being with them; that they had some home comforts with them. It could be argued that postcards of this kind (those featuring photos of family) have a much deeper resonance than those cards which – give or take a clothing style – could just as well have been taken on a lad’s night out in 2018, with funny poses, crazy costumes and drinks held aloft mid-party.

On the other hand, just one of many things I have learnt over this project is that just because one postcard is purely about having fun doesn’t make it any less important than the cards that stand out as having potentially deeper emotional resonance. I felt that one of the most important things Professor Robinson said to me about the project itself, was that he wished to show that not all images produced in Germany or by German forces were propaganda; and to publicise how playful so many of these cards are. There can be very uneasy truths within the photos: photos of young men smiling broadly beside natives of a country they are excited to explore for the first time do not depict any ordinary people welcoming foreign tourists, but an occupied people stood amongst the invading forces. It is easy enough to spend lots of time thinking about what might be considered these deeper issues presented by the real photographic postcards – and it is important and just to do so. However, considering the great wealth of writing and research on the battles and suffering of the First World War, I think these cards and their playfulness can best be used in publicising how so much of the German force was made up by young men, travelling abroad for the first time, trying to create for themselves a bit of joy and a piece of home in what was otherwise a tragic time for all.

Oliver Brafield, BA History

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