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By P.H. Robbs

Postcards by their very nature are a comparatively heavy and uneconomic form of message delivery and consequently their use as weapons of psychological warfare has been greatly restricted. However, in the First World War there were some important propaganda items in the form of postcards, and the writer's collection contains a representative but obviously not complete collection.

From the beginning of the First World War in 1914 the Germans assiduously spread the idea among their troops that the British and French maltreated prisoners, and many Allied leaflets were designed to prove this was not so. In 1916 postcard facsimiles of prisoner-of-war messages of varying types were dropped by British aircraft. These were good photographic reproductions, and were followed later by picture postcards with photographs of happy prisoners-of-war (and also by facsimile letters and air-letter sheets).

Considerable argument has developed as to what extent these messages were genuine. Officially it has been claimed that they were all genuine and that because of the number of prisoners there was never any shortage of suitable cards and letters for reproduction. Certainly most of the cards and air-letter sheets do appear genuine, though it is quite possible that some were doctored or even fabricated.

It must not be forgotten that one of the objects of this propaganda was to influence the German homeland; many of them were picked up and read by the front-line troops who put them in letters and sent them to the addressees - presumably only in areas where there was not regular censorship! Anyhow, the fact remains that certain of the people to whom these cards and letters were addressed did receive several copies of them, when they were proudly and excitedly shown to friends and relatives and brought them considerable relief.

The earliest cards were dropped by aircraft, but in October 1917 occurred the famous Scholz-Wookey affair, particulars of which are given in Appendix A, and some of the later cards were disseminated by leaflet-dropping free balloons invented by Mr. Fleming. These can be distinguished by having a small hole by which means they were threaded on to a slow-burning fuse to secure gradual and controlled dissemination.

WWI Postcard
WWI Postcard

In April 1917 the British Naval Air Service had a small squadron of sea-planes based on the island of Thasos in the Aegean Sea, and from this base they dropped small 'postcards' which bore on the obverse a photograph of happy well-fed Turkish prisoners-of-war and the following text in Turkish on the reverse:

"You will gather from this photograph that the maltreatment of prisoners-of-war by the British is without any basis. Those who surrender to the British are not only fed with white bread and delicious dishes, but they are without doubt also treated in a friendly manner. When you show this photograph to any British Military Station, you will receive a courteous welcome and you will be sent to Headquarters as a friend."

These constitute one of the earliest know Safe Conducts which were destined to become such an important part of psychological warfare later on.

The British also dropped picture postcards over Belgium in 1918, reportedly both over the coastline and Brussels. The Clemenceau card is in black and white; the others were dropped in sets of six and were in sepia. The text was in French and Flemish.

Appreciable numbers of French leaflets to the Germans were on small pieces of white or pink cardboard, but these can hardly be classed as postcards; although a set of 8 cards inscribed 'Vorsicht! Weitergeben' with lengthy German text on the one side and on the other side photographs of extracts from prisoner-of-war letters, with printed reproductions, which were dropped in May 1917, may be worthy of mention.

Also 'postcard size' is another leaflet with the photograph of German officers having a party, a poem 'Was ich tät,' picture of a German soldier being blown-up and poem 'Pour le Mérité.'

Professor Linebarger's book Psychological Warfare illustrates on page 70 an American reproduction of a German Feldpostkarte used as a surrender pass. "When you are taken prisoner by the Americans, give this to the first officer who checks your identities." The prisoner is commanded to fill in his own battle-order history. By marking out appropriate items he indicates whether he is hurt or not and can explain that he is well-cared for and fed beef, white bread, potatoes, beans, plums, genuine bean coffee, milk, butter, tobacco, etc.

However, to date I have never seen this leaflet or been able to secure a copy.

Appendix A

Extract from pages 142/3 of Allied Propaganda and the Collapse of the German Empire in 1918 by G.G. Bruntz - Stanford University, 1938.

The German government, despite the fact that it had been the first to distribute leaflets to enemy troops by means of the airplane, considered such acts a serious breach of international law. The leading case on the subject of leaflet-dropping that came up during the war is that in which two British officers, Captain E. Scholtz and Lieutenant H.C. Wookey, were concerned in the latter part of 1917. These two officers, carrying propaganda leaflets, were shot down and captured by the Germans near Cambrai on October 17, 1917. They were taken to the 2d Army Headquarters at Le Cateau and there interrogated by Captain von Loehnegsen of the Intelligence Staff, who informed them that the German government had notified the Allies in April 1917 that the dropping of pamphlets was considered illegitimate and that the airmen guilty of the practice were liable to be brought before a field-general court-martial and to be shot. On November 22, 1917, the officers were shown the charge sheet, which referred to two separate alleged offenses: The distribution, in September 1917, of pamphlets detrimental to the German troops; and the attempted distribution, on October 17, 1917, of pamphlets describing the favourable conditions in the English prison camps and intended to induce the German soldiers to desert. On December 1 the two British airmen were placed on trial before a court composed partly of civil and partly of military judges sitting with a jury. They were found "guilty of treason" and were sentenced to ten years of hard labour.

The British government learned of the case and took immediate steps to obtain the release of the officers. The German government was informed through the Dutch representative at Berlin that unless the airmen were released His Majesty's government would take reprisals. The stand of the British government was that the distribution of leaflets from the air was not a breach of international law. Consequently, the condemnation of Captain Scholtz and Lieutenant Wookey to a long term of penal servitude for this 'offense' was held to be abusive. Furthermore, it was pointed out that German and Austrian airmen had committed similar offenses and no punitive measures had been undertaken against them upon capture. The German government was given one month - the period fixed by the Hague Mission for giving notice of intended reprisals - to release the airmen and cancel the sentences before adequate retaliatory measures would be taken. The Prisoners of War Department announced, on March 11, that the two men had been released and returned to their camp. Hence reprisal action was not necessary.

The Falling Leaf. No. 52. March 1971
For further information see Psywar Society Blatter Catalogue 14:
Airdropped Facsimile Postal Stationery, World War I 1916-1918'.

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