European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

22 August 2014

Postcards and Photographs from the Eastern Front

The current exhibition in the British Library Folio Gallery “Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour”  starts with a multimedia display of postcards written by soldiers on the Western Front to their loved ones. A group of British actors read their messages while visitors look at the screen.  It is a very touching experience.

Postcards played an extremely important role for soldiers on the Western and Eastern Fronts during the war. Less well known are postcards of the time from the Eastern Front, since narratives about the Second World War overtook historical research during Soviet times and later. However, in recent years Eastern European publishers have started to pay attention to the collections of postcards kept in private archives of enthusiastic collectors.  Amongst the most recent acquisitions in our Ukrainian collections is the album Svitova viina y poshtovykh lystivkakh z kolektsii Ivan Snihura (‘World War in Postcards from the Collection of Ivan Snihur’; Chernivtsi, 2014; YF.2014.a.20099).

Cover of Svitova viina y poshtovykh lystivkakh z kolektsii Ivan Snihura

Postcards were extremely popular in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the territory of modern Ukraine (part of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires), postcard publishers in Lviv (known also as Lemberg and Lwów), Czernivtsi (known also as Czernowitz), Uzhhorod (known also as Ungwar) and smaller places such as Kolomiya were very productive. Visitors to modern Ukraine will notice proud displays of old postcards in many lovely decorated coffee houses, especially in Lviv.

Our Ukrainian and Polish collections hold a dozen colourful albums of old postcards from these vivid cosmopolitan places, for example Nasz ukochany Lwów na dawnej karcie pocztowej 1896-1939 (‘Our beloved Lwów in old postcards 1896-1939’; 2000; YA.2001.b.2435); Lwów na dawnej pocztowce (‘Lwów in old postcards’; Kraków, 2006; YF.2008.b.1023), Posztówki lwowskie i kresowe "Książnicy-Atlas" (‘Postcards from Lwów and Kresy by Książnica-Atlas’; Katowice, 2006, YF.2008.a.41284); Zolota doba kolomyiskoi lystivky (‘The Golden Age of Postcards from Kolomea’; Kolomyia, 2010; YF.2012.a.10282); Lviv u starykh lystivkakh (‘Lviv in old postcards’; Kyiv, 2011; LF.31.a.3729). 

During the First World War Ukrainians, being members of a stateless nation, fought in several armies:  in the army of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in the Russian army, and in the Canadian army. This photograph of Filip Konoval, a Ukrainian who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1919 and was awarded the Victoria Cross, is now digitised in the project “Europeana 1914-1918” (image from the Imperial War Museum).

Photograph of Corporal Filip Konova; in uniformPhotograph of Corporal Filip Konoval (© IWM)

Most of the postcards sent by Ukrainian soldiers are to be found in Western Ukraine and relate to the Ukrainian unit in the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Sichovi Striltsi (Ukrainian Sich Riflemen). The British Library holds a lovely book about the Sich Riflemen in postcards, Ukrainski Sichovi Striltsi – lytsari ridnoho kraiu (Kolomya, 2007; YF.2007.b.3418).

Girls dancing in Ukrainian national costumeMany postcards were sent home from the Eastern Front by German and Austrian soldiers. Often they depicted Ukrainian landscapes or villagers in their colourful costumes. Soldiers loved to take photographs with local people, especially with beautifully-dressed Ukrainian girls and children. Some of these photographs held in various European libraries have been digitised in “Europeana 1914-1918” (left: Ukrainian Girls dancing; below right, Ukrainian girls from the Kalush region, photographs from the Austrian National Library)

Ukrainian Girls in national costume greeting a uniformed soldierMore than 160 painters, amongst them some Polish and Ukrainian artists, were involved in creating propaganda postcards in Germany and Austria. Their postcards depicted the same subjects as those created by Western artists and displayed in the exhibition: soldiers fraternizing, crimes committed by enemy forces, the invincibility of their own forces, acts of heroism, etc. Ukrainian painter and graphic artist Olena Kulchytska (1877-1967) painted the  sufferings of the civilian population and refugees. Her works were reproduced as postcards by the Ukrainian Women's Committee to Aid Wounded Soldiers in Vienna. We hope that one day the postcards published by this Committee will be collected and published.

 As the war raged these small works of art were sent back and forth to families, friends and loved ones, bringing joy and sorrow. The picture of World War One would be incomplete without these testimonies of “grief, grit and humour”. As Ukraine prepares to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of its independence on Sunday 24 August amid new turmoil, memories of both World Wars are vivid there as never before.

Olga Kerziouk, Curator Ukrainian Studies


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