When George V declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, he did so on behalf of the British Empire, not just Britain. Although they were not consulted on the matter, few New Zealanders protested. They were proud to do their bit ‘for King and country’ on the distant battlefields of Turkey, Egypt and France. Military historian Chris Pugsley provides some telling statistics in his 1996 book Scars on the heart: ‘Between 5 August 1914 and 12 November 1918, New Zealand, with a population of just over one million people, sent 99,263 soldiers, 539 sailors, 192 Flying Corps and 550 nurses overseas to war.’ The casualty rate for New Zealanders who served in World War I was horrifyingly high: 18,166 deaths and 41,317 wounded. Awareness of the level of pain and loss adds a deep sadness to any viewing of the Library’s collection of greeting cards from the period.
The official Field Service postcard was stark and drab and came with a printed warning: ‘Nothing is to be written on this side except the date and signature of the sender. Sentences not required may be erased. If anything is added the postcard will be destroyed.’ Servicemen were expected to choose their message from a small range of prescribed alternatives: ‘I am quite well’, or ‘I have been admitted into hospital’, or ‘I am wounded and hope to be discharged soon’. Seeing the possibilities (including hospitalisation and maiming) laid out so bluntly could not have been very assuring for the soldiers’ families and friends.
The official Christmas cards issued for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were less stern. They generally included a photograph of the troops in a non-combat situation. Because of the likelihood of some cards falling into enemy hands, captions were deliberately vague about geographical locations (e.g. ‘somewhere in France’ or ‘somewhere in Palestine’). An optimistic message was printed inside. The card for Christmas 1916 offered a hopeful thought in Māori and English: ‘The Tide Has Turned. Kua Timu Te Tai.’ Unfortunately, the second half of the war proved just as bloody as the first.
Cards produced commercially between 1914 and 1918 often featured the New Zealand flag, either by itself or - more frequently - aligned with the flags of Britain, Australia, France and other allies. An inspiring quote was almost always part of the design. Popular sources of encouragement included the King, songwriter Ivor Novello (composer of Keep the home fires burning) and the patriotic ‘poet of Empire’ Rudyard Kipling. The poignant irony here is that Kipling lost all of his early enthusiasm for the war after his eighteen-year-old son was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.
New Zealanders serving at the Western Front often bought French-made cards decorated (sometimes embroidered) with pretty floral designs. If somewhat sentimental, these were cheerier items to send home than anything that brought to mind the realities of trench warfare.
Related resources: Scars on the heart : two centuries of New Zealand at war by Chris Pugsley with Laurie Barber.