Souvenirs of the Great War


August 2014 is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, or First World War as it was later known. Fighting that began in the Balkans in July 1914 spread through Europe, involving some nations spoiling for a fight and others unprepared for conflict. By the beginning of August the madness had reached the Channel coast, with Germany threatening both France and Belgium. This sucked Britain into the war, when the British ultimatum to Germany demanding that military operations against Belgium must cease was ignored. The ultimatum expired at midnight on Tuesday 4th August, and from then on Britain was at war.

By mid-August the first troops of the British Expeditionary Force were disembarking on the Continent. By the third week in August they had reached the frontier between Belgium and France, but like the other troops already stationed at the border their role was to delay the enemy advance as much as possible, not stop it. Soon they were involved in a measured retreat as the allied forces fell back to the outskirts of Paris in order to regroup. The German advance was halted by the Battle of the Marne, which started on 5th September, and the Germans were forced to withdraw west of Verdun. This eventually led to the establishment of the Western Front and the notoriously static trench warfare that caused so much carnage during the First World War.


In Britain, from September 1914, there was a massive drive to recruit men for the army, and soldiers poured across the Channel and into France. Many had been recruited in a carnival atmosphere, few had any idea what was in store for them, and a large proportion had never been away from home before, let alone abroad. Inevitably, the homes and loved ones they had left behind were constantly in their thoughts, and their sole means of communication were letters and postcards. In France, an industry already existed that could cater for this demand, producing postcards with embroidered silk designs. Production was increased immediately, and many families kept them as souvenirs.


An embroidered silk panel was glued on to a white postcard and finished off with a frame, usually embossed. The one below shows a warship within a wreath held by a flying seagull, heading towards the armed forces with letters from home. Underneath are the English words ‘A Kiss from home’. This postcard was sent by a sergeant in France to his sweetheart in England, and his handwritten message on the reverse includes the note: ‘We are trying to make things as merry as possible for the troops this Xmas’. It was obviously posted in an envelope, because he used the address panel instead to refer to the embroidered design: ‘The boat that brings your most welcome letters to cheer me.’

Postcard 1An embroidered silk postcard with embossed frame


It was once thought that each postcard was embroidered by hand, but in recent years Dr Ian Collins has been in the forefront of research into embroidered silk postcards, including their manufacture. He has published a book about them (An Illustrated History of the Embroidered Silk Postcard, ISBN 0954023501), while his latest research can be found on his website. One new discovery is that the embroidery was done as repeating designs on a roll on large machines, which were cut up into panels for use in postcards.

Postcard 2An embroidered silk postcard with embossed frame and floral design

So-called ‘hand-embroidery machines’ had been in use from the late 1820s, and through the 19th century these machines became bigger and more sophisticated. They were operated by men, with women and children doing ancillary jobs, such as mending broken threads. They were used for all sorts of embroideries, and from 1899 embroidered silk postcards began to be manufactured, which were exhibited the following year at the Paris Exposition. Until the First World War, it was only a minor part of the embroidery industry. By now, the industry was based primarily in France, and women took over the work of those men who joined the armed forces. Millions of postcards were produced, with thousands of designs, many with patriotic themes or ones relating to the armed forces.


The publishers of embroidered silk postcards did not have the market to themselves, since rival companies began to produce woven silk postcards, which were also shown at the 1900 Paris Exposition. At the outbreak of the war, production was similarly increased to meet demand. Because the weaving process could produce a much more elaborate and subtle design, these postcards have quite a different appearance. During the war a great number were manufactured by the Neyret Freres company and published by E. Deffrène, based at no. 25 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle in Paris.

Postcard 3A woven silk postcard

Deffrène published this postcard of the town of Albert in the Somme region of France. It shows the ruins of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières, with the Golden Virgin statue on the tower left in a precarious horizontal position after a fierce battle in September 1914. A feature of the woven postcards is that they could produce scenes like this, giving an almost three-dimensional effect to the ruins and flames. As the card is moved, the weave and colour of the silks make the picture change subtly, with the colours looking brighter from some angles.

Both embroidered and woven silk postcards remained very popular throughout the 1914–18 war. They continued in production after the war, with less militaristic designs. In the Second World War, there was a slight resurgence of the industry, but never on the same scale.