Collecting the Great War: World War One postal history, postcards and stamps


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11 July 2014
Using postal history from the era, postcards and stamps, Alastair Gunn describes how World War One affected people at home and on the Front, and provides a visual guide to the many World War One collectables available today which serve as a reminder of the Great War ...
Using postal history from the era, postcards and stamps, Alastair Gunn describes how World War One affected people at home and on the Front, and provides a visual guide to the many World War One collectables available today which serve as a reminder of the Great War.

‘For the dead and the living we must bear witness’ – Elie Wiesel

The Great War was an appalling event; it killed millions, scarred nations and its echoes reverberate 100 years on. The impact varied from person to person, from country to country and from generation to generation however the worst aspect was that we didn’t learn as World War Two happened.

A 1915 postcard from North Ferry 9 August, 1915 wrongly inscribed O.H.M.S. The message reads ‘Landed alright no parade this afternoon on account of rain. We are all going to Keyingham in morning trench digging shall be through Hull about ½ past 8 or 9 so look out’ and it was to a Mrs Croft in Hull. The postcard was not dealt with properly – it was underpaid and should have been charged a 1d, being double the deficiency. Was this a local response, a postal worker being kind to one going to war?

Postcards provide a way for us to see the reality of the Great War as the message remains.

It shows the impact on normal people; postcards were the equivalent of a quick telephone call. Some postcards were from those going to the war, some from those at the front and others from those at home. The messages changed but the war remained.

An otherwise common postcard of the item – with Leyton East machine cancel of 31 December 1915 and two 1 January transit cancels -  made poignant by the message ‘we are keeping as well as we can in these terrible times. My brothers have both joined + are on active service’.

And the war was not just in France; it was fought in many other countries, including India.

What would you write on such messages to those fighting?
What sort of postcard would you send? 
In particular, what image would you choose on the postcard’s front? 
Sweet images of churches?
Garden scenes?
A forget-me-not? 
Or perhaps a more political front to keep the spirits up?

It would depend on your purpose and relationship to the one fighting of course; the simple anonymity of an envelope is not for the postcard user.


This postcard not only made sure people had the news but did so in a humorous way, note the comment from  (Kaiser) ‘Wilhlem’. Von Moltke was Chief of the German General Staff from 1906-1914 and only died in 1916. This postcard was posted in Highgate July 1915 so, although unwell, Von Moltke’s death was announced a little early. It was sent to Private Cecil Hollis at the British Cavalry Lines, Aubala, India; the message included ‘Saw a lot of Ger. prisoners last Sat. They looked very fit and quite contented.’

But for those on active service mail was not always a top priority.

Field Service postcards were suitable for a quick message home and these were issued in three types.

These are discernible by the card used; greyish, blue-grey and buff. The ink used on the front of the first two types was black. A variety of messages was available to be chosen on the back. Normal letters were also written, often using envelopes distributed by the YMCA.

The choices show the harshness of life at the front.

This Field Service Post Card was issued 15 October 1914.

A July 1915 YMCA issued envelope with Krag machine cancel; note 1 at the end of ARMYPOSTOFFICE which indicated cancelling at Le Havre.

Mail to prisoners-of-war was first sent to the Red Cross in Switzerland. Shown is a censored 20 September 1916 cover paying 2½d being the correct rate for foreign letters to 1 oz.

If captured, mail was of real importance to the prisoners-of-war.

Due to the Hague conventions each month a prisoner had the right to send two letters (up to six pages for officers, four pages for other ranks) and four postcards.

This was the theory, but such mail was a useful source of pressure for the German authorities who could refuse to send or receive mail.

Mail numbers were a significant issue; for example, in the second half of 1915 French prisoners sent 700,000 postal items. The parcels of food sent to Western prisoners were a major help; Russian prisoners were rarely so lucky and a much greater percentage of such prisoners died from starvation.

But then there was the going home be it as a normal member of the armed forces or a prisoner.  Tragic events would occur when all the trauma should have been over. For example, in 1919 HMS Lolaire sank off Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, drowning 205 men who had fought in the war; a generation perished and the tragedy had a huge impact on the small community.

One must also not forget the Empire; after 1918 they then often had enormous journeys to make to go home. My grandfather enlisted at 21 in 1914 in Melbourne, Australia, fought in France throughout the war and only returned home in 1919; he, like many others, had endured unimaginable lives.

The Somme War Graves Cemetery issued 5 October 1993, from ‘The Soldiers’ Tale’ stamp set.

But too many, of all sides, never returned and we should never forget the true cost – and waste – of war.

Read much more about World War One stamps, postal history and postcards in the

Your in-depth guide to the stamps of the era…
• Prisoner of War issues
• Evocative WWI postcards
• Propaganda 'Cinderella' stamps
• Postal history of 1914
• The latest stamps marking the WWI centenary

…and much more.

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