Don’t forget to write:artifact spotlight #4

Given my infinite interest in field service postcards, I thought it was high time to spotlight one from the collection. Although hardly a flashy document from World War I, the field service postcard has the distinction of being the first real “form letter.”  Letter censorship played a heavy role in the first war in all involved nations. As such, it ensured delays in mail service to and from troops abroad. However, the field service card was sent out more rapidly because troops were not allowed to write anything on them except their name and date and cross out all sentences that did not apply.

This particular field service card sent by Bernard Raupp to his cousin, Josephine Raupp of Arlington Heights in 1918 is a typical specimen. The card is sterile and impersonal, leaving no means to deviate from the optimistic if not downright cheerful rhetoric.  There is something perverse about the intensifier “quite” in the first sentence (“I am quite well”) as if the very worst part about the war was slow mail and lack of clean socks. The postcards did not allow the troops to elaborate on their degree of health, the loss of limbs, lack of confidence of ever leaving the hospital, or even of being sent to the front.

Although it reduced the soldier’s war experience to the dehumanized uniformity of a form letter, the field service postcard is remarkable for its succinct, unaccommodating communication method. It actually characterizes an entire genre of literature from World War I (specifically letters from soldiers) that are lengthy but without substance so as not to break censorship and yet allow soldiers to feel connected to home.

Bernard Raupp’s letters are typical in that regard. He often wrote pages and pages of conversation that had no real substance: mostly discussing the weather, his health and hope to be home for a visit on the next holiday. However, the letters are fascinating for their upbeat tone and all that they say and don’t say about his war experiences. The museum houses dozens of his letters and postcards sent to his cousin while he served in the American Expeditionary Forces.

If you’re curious about how censorship shaped the war and its effect on literature that came out of the era, read The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. He primarily uses literary works, letters, poems, and other cultural references to express the general British soldier experience. Fussell does a much better job of elaborating on this discussion so go read his book. It’s outstanding [end plug].