December 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the first ever text message. Obviously there was no such way for Great War soldiers to communicate over long distances so quickly, but one thing allowed relatively quick and easy (if not fulsome) communication: the humble field service postcard.
The volume of post sent front the front back to the UK was enormous. In 1916, 7.5 million items of mail per week were received by British soldiers and five million sent home, suggesting that soldiers sent on average 5 items in the post every week! Not all of these were full letters, though. Many were Field Service Postcards, which allowed soldiers only to delete as appropriate from a pre-printed set of messages – mainly about their health and whether they had received letters or parcels recently. This was a fairly limited selection of news, but actually represents the core of most soldiers’ letters (which generally related that the Tommy was ‘in the pink’ and had received x number of letters).
Londoner and war artist Len Smith pasted his first ever Field Service Postcard (presumably sent to his family in Walthamstow) into his war memoir – now published as ‘Drawing Fire’.
Most museums with any personal archival material from 1914-18 have a number of these postcards. The Museum of London’s Twentieth Century London website shows a postcard sent by W.H. Golding to his mother living on the Old Kent Road from the front in Italy in 1917.
In the IWM’s collection is a set of letters sent by Harold Bantin, a clerk from Shepherd’s Bush. Bantin had married Dorothy M Reynolds in June 1916 but was conscripted into the army before their son Ronald was born on 1 July 1917. While in the army he wrote nearly a hundred letters to his wife and son. Sadly, Harold Bantin was reported missing on 30 November 1917 at Cambrai. In the two months he served at the front, he sent home 19 letters and 20 Field Service Postcards back to Dorothy and Ronald in Shepherd’s Bush, showing something of the proportion of mail that these simple notes could make up.
It would be easy to dismiss the Field Service Postcard as suppressing soldiers’ expression or exacerbating their distance from home, since they did not allow any details or emotion to be conveyed. To some extent, this is true, but it ignores the ways that they were used. As their core function, they were used just to reassure civilians that the soldier in question was alive and well (or that he was injured rather than dead), or simply that the letters that people had sent out had actually arrived. The postcards also relayed these messages quickly, as they would by-pass the censor (in reality an officer in the man’s company).
In the hands of some more inventive soldiers, they could be used to convey more complex messages. Men might arrange a code, for example writing their full name if they were in the front line but their initials only if they were in reserve lines or at rest, or something similar. One amusing and rather telling way that a soldier used the pre-printed message (I think this was related in the Billie Nevill letters) was to cross out everything except the words “I am well… and hope to be discharged soon”.
Paul Fussell (who was rather dismissive of the postcards) notes their impact, making their way – in parody form – into letters written by Wilfred Owen and (later) Evelyn Waugh.
Although they were not the same thing, text messages and Field Service Postcards have some similarities: they provide(d) a way or people to send short, simple messages to convey a message quickly (and sometimes inventively) – messages that could be expanded upon in a longer letter (or today an email).