Saying a little, saying a lot

We are re-posting today an article about a set of four postcards, with simple messages of the sort we are accustomed to read on postcards of the early twentieth century, a period when the postcard was the easiest way of communicating at a distance for those who could not afford the telephone, that is, most people. The relatively low cost of postage (it went up to a penny in 1918) and the number of postal deliveries, up to 12 daily in a city, meant that the postcard was used with as much alacrity as texting is now, and with as little apparent import: the weather, somebody’s health, ‘come over Tuesday’, seldom anything special. Except that within these postcards written between members of the Radley family of Bethnal Green, London, there are a few, very few, words about a soldier called Dan:

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17 April 1915 (postmark Homerton E.)

Dear Lill Pleased to say I have heard from Dan he has been in the trenches and is now resting 3 weeks [.] come over Tuesday

Lillie

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3 May 1915 (postmark Homerton E.)

Dear Alice and Lill

I was very busy last week and had my kitchen done up and also I have been washing today [.] I am very worried at present as I havent heard from Dan since the 11th of last month [.] I see their Regt has been fighting again [.] Hope Mother is well Bertie sends his love to Grandma if you are coming over Tuesday will you let me know

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11 April 1917 (postmark Winton) (picture of the Upper Gardens, Bournemouth)

Dear Mother, have you got quite settled down yet, and how do you like your new home? Aunt is much better and all being well we shall come home next week. Dan is in France. Bert is quite well and sends his love to Grandma, also my self, what do you think of the food going up each time, Love to you all

Lillie

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Date illegible, but 1917 (postmark Bognor)

Mrs Ames 3 Lyon St Bognor

Dear Lill and Mother [&] Alice

I find your hat has been very useful, it has been so windy. We have had the weather fine all day and wet at night. We are both having a fine time. I wish I could get a card or letter from Dan I have not heard since I have been here. We went and saw 7 day Leave you would like it if you went[.] Hope you are all well[.] Bertie sends his love to Grandma he wishes you all were here with him.

Seven Days Leave was a spy melodrama, licensed by the Lord Chamberlain’s office on 22 January 1917. You can read the synopsis on the excellent website by Great War Theatre https://www.greatwartheatre.org.uk/plays/script/1776/  Sadly, no advertisement for the production appears in the Bognor Regis Observer for 1917.

 

The images of the first two postcards require identification: was she a well-known actor, a generic model, an aristocratic beauty? More work needs to be done on how women at the time read published images of women, apparently designed for the male gaze. How to read them against the other tow images, of peaceful landscape.

What also stands out is the brevity of some of the phrases – ‘Dan is in France’, ‘Dan … has been in the trenches and is now resting 3 weeks’ – is quite shocking, as is the mundane context of life continuing, people taking holidays, washing, visiting. Yet, what has to be said and what can be said is said – Dan is in France, I have not heard, I wish I could get a card or letter from Dan, he has been in the trenches, I haven’t heard from Dan, his Regt has been fighting. What more could be said? The details were not given to those at home, this is all they knew, and so it was the only experience they could turn over in their minds; did they know that ‘resting 3 weeks’ did not mean that Dan was out of danger, and that ‘resting’ meant marching, training, drill, burial parties, delousing? In the May 1915 postcard the writer has seen that ‘their Regt has been fighting again’, news presumably obtained from newspapers, with the worrying wait for news from or about the individual; and indeed she states that she is worried.

Did the limited space of the postcard in fact assist the writer? The Field Service Postcard with its extreme limits on the nature and amount of information that could be conveyed allowed the soldier to accede to prescribed statementsy virtue of the fact that it said hardly anything, The soldier, without having to worry about saying the ‘right’ thing, said the most important thing – ‘I am alive’. And enterprising stationery companies printed similar cards that could be sent from home, creating correspondences flowing across the Channel, communications of both the said and the unsaid. The absence of information, the brevity of expression, the entrusting of the expression of one’s most valued thoughts to another, is itself a major aspect of the linguistic experience of the war.

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No D Radley is listed among the First World War dead in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

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