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CANADIAN WORLD WAR I POSTCARDS

By Andrew Cunningham

The First World War, the “war to end all wars”, got underway just as the shine was coming off the Golden Age of postcards. While wartime demand extended the postcard’s lease on life, it also changed the nature of the medium. In Canada, at least, postcards after 1913 were less apt than previously to show off the growth of the country’s towns, infrastructure and agriculture. Instead, and not unexpectedly, they dwelt more frequently on the war and its associated sentiments. Those sentiments encompassed both the public emotions of patriotism and more private feelings of estrangement and sadness — in addition to simple curiosity about what the soldier’s lives looked like. Because Great War postcards were so popular, postcard collections are often significant repositories of images of the War, including many that are unusual or unique, as well as of accounts (brief ones, of course) of the experiences of soldiers, recruits, families and friends during and after the long conflict. We were recently contacted by a representative of the Imperial War Museum, the London-based institution, which is currently attempting to record accounts of the conflict that are found on postcards. TPC members and friends who wish to contribute should see their website for details. 

As Remembrance Day is approaching, I’ve assembled a number of postcards from my own collection. They reveal the war years as they appeared to the ordinary men and women of the time and cover some — but by no means all — of the range of what is available to today’s “Great War” collector:

field-ambulance-depot-lines-sewell-camp-1915

Field Ambulance Depot Lines, Sewell Camp, 1915. — Advance Photo Co.

There are countless Canadian postcards depicting life at the camps at which Canadian soldiers received their pre-departure training. Among the largest of these was Camp Sewell — renamed Camp Hughes in 1915. A century later, remnants of its trenches and fixtures are discernible in farmers’ fields along the Trans-Canada Highway east of Brandon, Manitoba. As thousands of recruits passed through Camp Sewell/Camp Hughes, the Advance Photo Co. of Winnipeg was on hand to produce and sell real photo postcards depicting camp life. The number of real photo postcards produced of the camp by Advance (and a handful of other photographers) is unknown, but it is likely in the many hundreds. Despite its momentary prominence in the field of Canadian military photography, almost nothing is known about the Advance Photo Co. It had a brief existence around 1915 and 1916 and produced dozens of real photo postcards of a major flood in Winnipeg in the spring of 1916, but otherwise (it seems) almost nothing else. The company’s unidentified principals are quite possibly the gentlemen in the image below, which (more generally) illustrates how postcard photographers would have operated in such a setting.

souvenir-of-sewell-camp-advance-photo-co-hq-and-staff

Advance Photo Co. office (or, more likely, darkroom) at the Sewell Camp (halftone image from a view book of Camp Hughes produced by the company)

Scenes of departure are another frequently encountered World War I genre. Such postcards are usually real photos, which could be produced virtually on the spot for sale to participants in the event. But they were sometimes considered of sufficiently enduring interest to warrant production as lithographed cards. The following example — depicting the soldiers’ send-off at the Intercolonial Railway station in Truro, Nova Scotia — is by Valentine & Sons, the most prolific producers of picture postcards in Canada (and likely worldwide as well).

troops-leaving-truro-n-s

Valentine & Sons card no. 111,920 adds colour to a scene that we normally see only in monochromatic real photo cards.

Postcards showing such scenes only occasionally include related messages. This, fortunately, is one of the minority that does. The card turns out to have been used by a departing soldier to thank a woman who had prepared a gift packet for him. As part of the war effort, ordinary people were asked to send “care packages” to soldiers, who would then be given their names and would write them to express their appreciation. The package in this case was received by Pte. R. Grant, “C” Company of the 40th Battalion, Valcartier, Quebec, who wrote his benefactor, Mrs. Appleton P. Anderson of Sydney, C.B., as follows: “Mrs. A. P. Anderson:- I, Pte. R. Grant was the recipient of your gift on Friday night to the 40th Battalion. The boys were pleased to see the interest the women of Sydney have taken in providing for their comfort. Yours truly, Pte. R. Grant.” The rather stilted first sentence was likely dictated but the second might represent more of a personal effort. 

The next thing you would have done as a soldier is to board a ship for England, and there are many postcards that depict such departures. Below is a particularly fine example – a real photo – showing soldiers waving goodbye at Saint John, N.B., as they begin the long voyage across the Atlantic. Many of them must have been imagining this moment as the beginning of a great adventure. Whether they continued to be of that view on their return (if they returned) is another matter. The ship is the Caledonia:

transport-caledonia-leaving-st-john-n-b-with-26th-battalion-and-r-column

Transport Caledonia, leaving Saint John with the 26th Battalion and “A” Column (undated) — photo by D. Smith Reid of Saint John.

While in England, solders of the Canadian Expeditionary Force underwent additional training. Postcards were naturally a hot seller; messages to friends and family in Canada were dispatched by the thousands each day. Many of Canada’s soldiers ended up at Shorncliffe Camp in Kent (a dangerous place in its own right as it predictably attracted enemy aircraft bombardment). The postcard below shows Canadian soldiers awaiting a visit from George V:

waiting-for-the-king-at-shorncliffe-c-e-f

“For Cecilie. Cecilie this is the camp where Frank Berry hung out all summer. This is the oldest camp in England. It’s the old original camp from the Beginning of history of war. The King’s favorite camp and where the burying ground [is] of all his fancy horses that die. DAD”

This was published by Upton Publishers of Folkestone, the town adjacent to Shorncliffe camp. “Dad” was correct about the historic nature of the location, as this recent BBC story about Shorncliffe’s uncertain future makes clear.

Once the soldiers had made their way across the channel, the most distinctive form of postcard they sent back was the “silk”, as we’ve recently discussed. This example, though showing signs of age now, is typical inasmuch as it incorporates flags and the current year into an attractive design:

1917-souvenir-from-france

These postcards, known as “silks”, were manufactured by the millions in France and Belgium for sale to soldiers.

This is only a sampling of the types of Great War postcards that can be collected — there are also countless examples associated with individual regiments, real photos of soldiers, images of postwar destruction, anti-Kaiser (and pro-German) propaganda cards and many other types. The final cards, chronologically at least, are those depicting the troops’ return home and the memorials that were erected to the dead. The example below, showing the interior of Montreal’s Windsor Station, nicely combines those two elements. We see a soldier in military dress, nearly alone in the cavernous hall, overwhelmed in the image by the names of the battles in which the C.E.F. fought. Those names were already etched in the country’s consciousness when the postcard was mailed on 24 July 1919 — even though many of those who had fought in the battles were only just then making their way home.

c-p-r-windsor-station-montreal

Ypres. Festubert. The Somme. Vimy. Hill 70. Passchendaele. Amiens. Cambrai. Drocourt-Quéant. Mons.

As the Great War is now passing out of the realm of direct human memory, postcards offer us a tangible connection to the people, events and ideas that defined it.

 

GOVERNMENT AGENT CARDS – A CLUE TO THEIR ORIGIN

By Andrew Cunningham

Twice in its illustrious history — in 1981 and 2013 — the TPC’s magazine Card Talk (free to Club members!) has featured an intriguing set of Prairie postcards known as “Government Agent Cards”. These postcards are so called because their distinctive backs reveal them to have been part of the Dominion Government’s effort to promote immigration to the newly opened farming districts of the Canadian West, with recipients of the cards being urged by the printed text to obtain more information “from any Canadian Government Agent”. Here are the front and back of one of the series of 35 known cards, entitled “Home of Mr. Nelson Bedford, Glengross Manitoba, Canada.”:

Home of Mr. Nelson Bedford, Glengross, Manitoba, Canada

Mr. Bedford’s well-established farm may have been in operation for 40 years by the time of this image, making it an attractive candidate for “immigration propaganda” use. This might have been one of the oldest farms on the Prairies outside the immediate vicinity of Winnipeg.

Home of Mr. Nelson Bedford, Glengross, Manitoba, Canada [back]

The postcard may have been handed out as a “freebie” by the Devon Shipping Bureau in an effort to drum up business.


As is still the case, giveaway postcards were often not valued by their recipients and would often end up being used for minor notes such as this. A distinguishing feature of most of the Government Agent cards, illustrated by the Nelson Bedford example, is that they depict specific farms and actually name the owners. In this case, Mr. Bedford turns out to have been one of the earliest (1870s-era) settlers in the Morden, Manitoba district, just a few miles up from the North Dakota line. The reference to “Glengross” should read “Glencross”, but even with that correction the name might not mean much to those in the area today as the Glencross P.O. closed for good in 1909 (by which time Mr. Bedford himself had been dead for two years, after a life that was apparently marked by tragedy).

In my experience, these cards tended to be collected rather than actually mailed, making the well-used example above somewhat uncommon. Of the 28 Government Agent cards in my collection, only 7 were posted — 5 in England and 2 in Canada. An eighth card was presented to a pupil at a school in Oxfordshire as a prize for composition. The predominance of English uses suggests that (as we might have expected) the cards were produced primarily for overseas distribution to potential emigrants.

But when were these cards actually produced, and for how long did the Government distribute them? The postmark dates in my collection suggest fairly specific (if tentative) answers to each of those questions:

Canadian uses

INDIAN HEAD, ASSA. – Sept. 12, 1905

WINNIPEG, MAN. – Nov. 18 [year not readable]

English uses

ROCHESTER, KENT – Oct. 30, 1905

DERBY – Nov. 14, 1905

MELTHAM – Nov. 25, 1905

BANBURY (Hornton National School, prize card) – Dec. 1, 1905 (ink-stamped date)

EXETER – Dec. 19, 1905 (the Nelson Bedford card)

OXFORD – May 9, 1906 (sent by someone actually departing for a 3 month tour of Canada)

Amazingly, all but one of the dated cards from the U.K. were used within a period of about 50 days in 1905. Assuming that the missing year on the Winnipeg card was 1905, the Sept. 12 and Nov. 18 dates of the two Canadian uses suggest the entirely unsurprising possibility that the series was distributed a little earlier in Canada. But it seems that we can date the production of the cards, if only tentatively, to the spring or summer of 1905.

Fortunately, a piece of corroborating evidence has emerged, in the form of a short item published in The Winnipeg Tribune on July 24, 1905. The note appears to refer to a set of cards that is surely these selfsame Government Agent Cards — if only because three of the bird’s-eye views mentioned match the three known examples of bird’s-eye images in the Government Agent set.

The article suggests that this “innovation” may have been the product of the Winnipeg branch of the Dominion immigration department:

Immigration Department cards WT 240705p12

Note that the Calgary bird’s eye view doesn’t appear in the list provided by Philip Francis and the late Wayne Curtis in the 2013 Card Talk article, so perhaps that is the 36th card in the series. [ed. Alas, no! See our update post!]

Besides the identity of the printers and the exact number of cards in the series, two great mysteries remain about the Government Agent set: who took the photos and why these particular farms? To these questions I have no answer, other than a very small piece of evidence that Alfred J. Sutton (later of the postcard publisher Gowen Sutton in Vancouver) might possibly have had some involvement. But — to look on the “glass half full” side — we now know that the cards were printed around June or July of 1905 and can further hypothesize (with some “poetic licence” and all due caution) that, after a few had leaked out around Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the bulk of them were shipped off to England for distribution mainly in relatively prosperous counties in the southern half of the country (perhaps with a view to attracting “the right kind” of farmer). Getting the cards into circulation in England must have involved a fairly intensive and concentrated effort by someone over a few weeks in late October and early November 1905.

If anyone can fill in more dates and more places in England and Canada (or elsewhere), we can test and, as warranted, correct the hypothesis! Please feel free to leave a comment if you can help.