La Lettre au Fiancé , Paysanne et Artisane de la Ville La Lettre au Fiancé , Paysanne et Artisane de la VilleLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Approaching the First World War, 1,700,000 letters were exchanged each day. Photographs were far less common in homes than they are today and even newspapers didn't use them much!
Postcards were therefore an important way of receiving news.
Nouvelles du Front Nouvelles du Front by MARIANDLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
The number of letters sent rose dramatically once the war started.
Between three and four million letters were sent each day from behind the lines to the front line
and between 1.8 and two million letters went the other way.
From the Front to Behind the Lines
Attacks were interspersed with very long breaks in fighting and the soldiers became bored while stuck in the trenches. They took advantage of these moments to read and write letters.
Le Courrier à la famille , Letter to the family Le Courrier à la famille , Letter to the familyLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
The infantrymen wrote on postcards, sheets of paper, or notebook pages, most often using a pencil.
They weren't allowed to state the precise location of where they were posted, the number of deaths, the next offensives, or to comment on troop morale. The letters were censored, with each one being reviewed before it was sent.
Parnier S. Parnier S.Le Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Postcards said "things are fine here" or even just "I'm alive."
Etang de la Roche Etang de la Roche (1916-06-12)Le Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
"June 12, 1916
I received your letter yesterday, and am still in good health. Since my last letter I have spent three more days on the front line, and we now have a rest period until the 19th; we seem to have had some nice days but it really is typical December weather today.
An ordinary postcard that passed on some trivial news regarding health and weather, probably carried in the soldier's kit bag. The reality was that a card took three days to make the trip from behind the lines to the front and any response also took three days. At that time, a lot could happen in six days…
This is why some soldiers wrote letters every day or even several times a day.
Jeune Fille de Gourin Jeune Fille de Gourin (1915-04-14)Le Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Some soldiers continued to take care of their personal business from the front.
"Gouesnon, April 14, 1915,
My dear Mother,
In response to your last letter, do not send me any new laundry, I have enough. If Florentin wants to be responsible for something, you can give him a piece of cheese, if you still have some with a cloth and a handkerchief, that's all I need. I'm still expecting to stay in Gouesnon for a while, since I cannot do any better, but maybe we can return at the end of May. As for the cows, do your best, I know it's not easy.
Above all, do not worry about what may be said about me, I'm in good health and that's the main thing.
All my love. "
During the war, some soldiers who ran large farms were able to get a special "farming leave" to help out during the busiest times of the year.
From Behind the Lines to the Front
La lettre du front !... Le Cap-Sizun La lettre du front !... Le Cap-Sizun by PAULETTELe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Everyone waited impatiently for the postman to bring them proof that their loved ones were alive. By contrast, everyone feared the arrival of the mayor or a police officer as this was often a sign of bad news (injury or death).
Eglise St-Louis Eglise St-Louis (1916-05-08)Le Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Families also wrote about trivial things in their letters. Keeping up soldiers' morale was crucial, they did not need to know how difficult life also was behind the lines. These letters were also a way for soldiers to maintain links with family and their daily lives.
"Lorient, May 8, 1916,
My beloved Eugene, I received your card dated the 5th this morning. There have been no more delays for the last few days. Wonderful father, I am very happy to know you are in good health. The same is true also for your three little ones. This is despite the rather cold weather we have had the last few days. It is so cold that I have had to have the stove on for three days. Don't tell me to switch it off my darling. It can't be too good in your tent as I doubt you will still be getting coal supplied. This afternoon I'm going to see Mrs. Keriaud and will try to return for four p.m. so that Jeannette is not left at the door. Mrs. Parisot's successors have moved into their apartment. I don't remember if I told you that already. It's not as quiet as it used to be with Mrs. Parisot. They have a young child of about seven or eight months old who has already woken me up several times during the night. It's annoying I know, but these poor souls must get up despite all the inconveniences of the little one. I'm pretty sure they do not care much about neighborhood relations. At least we will get along well on that point. It would be good though to be on friendly terms with the neighbors. Dear little father, please forgive me if I don't write too much today. I still love you very much and am with you and near your heart in my thoughts. "
Village de Tagenac Village de TagenacLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
People said more between families, yet they were still restrained to a certain extent as defeatism during wartime was punishable by death.
News of soldiers on the front line was given from one family to another. We see that injuries didn't matter much and the important thing was that the soldier was alive and safe during their convalescence.
I am writing to let you know that my husband has been injured by a bullet in his arm, but it's nothing. He has a week of rest to convalesce. Imagine how happy I was to see him arrive. I hope that you are still well. Things are fine here and so all that is left for me to say is have a good day. "
La cathédrale, Latéral droit. Retable d'une chapelle La cathédrale, Latéral droit. Retable d'une chapelleLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
It was the same between soldiers, with the exchanges revealing daily life in the barracks or on the front. In this exchange, we get a sense of the danger of life on the front at the Somme and the friendship between the two soldiers. Here again, the correspondence shows that being wounded was not the worst thing because a period of rest allowed the soldier to escape the front for a while.
Correspondance des armées de la République, Carte en franchise Correspondance des armées de la République, Carte en franchiseLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Pre-printed cards with free postage:
French infantrymen in WWI were able to write and send news to their families free of charge, but what they wrote was monitored by the army.
Here is an example of correspondence from the army of the Republic.
There were fields to complete to identify oneself without saying too much, and a postal division was used so that the enemy did not obtain information if the mail was stolen.
These cards were given to the soldiers and were reviewed systematically by the officer in charge of the mail.
Les Vaches en pâture Les Vaches en pâtureLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Unofficial cards featuring the military franking stamp:
Any traditional card could be used provided that they stated "Military franking" so they were sent free of charge.
Here is a card signed by a soldier named Salvage with the official stamp of the military postal service.
It tells the story of his activities and his daily life.
Published in very large numbers, postcards can also convey a political message produced by the state. This card features a famous poster published to encourage subscription to National Defense coupons to maintain the war effort. On the front a soldier is mounting an assault shouting "let's get them!" His invites us to follow him, and as explained on the back of the card, contribute financially.
Bretonne et Française toujours, Boche jamais ! Bretonne et Française toujours, Boche jamais !Le Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
Unofficial cards with a propaganda message:
The publishers of postcards played their part in distributing patriotic and anti-German messages. One example is this young Breton girl, in line with the cards featuring costumes that were produced in large numbers, except that we can see a surprising caption:
"Breton and French girls forever, the Boche never! "
Supporting Soldiers Using All Means
Letters and postcards were not the only things sent by mail. Many parcels were also sent to the front. These could include everything from clothes to food (cheese, bread, cans, etc.), and also writing paper…
The Role of the Soldiers' Wartime Godmothers
The role of these women was to support soldiers—often those who didn't have any family—becoming a sort of "godmother" to them. They helped keep up morale by writing to the soldiers, and supporting their physical needs by sending parcels.
Un jour de Foire Un jour de FoireLe Carton Voyageur - Musée de la carte postale
A soldier sends news to his female wartime godmother from the auxiliary hospital where he is recovering.
The town of Baud
Le Carton Voyageur - Postcard Museum