This month, a postcard will be sent from Beaumont-Hamel, France, to St. John’s, N.L.
On the front of the postcard is the head of a woodland caribou, the emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Underneath the caribou is a red scroll with the word “Newfoundland” stitched on it. It is difficult to tell from this reproduction of the 100-year-old original that the eighth-of-an-inch high lettering and the imagery on the postcard is hand-embroidered on a piece of silk smaller than the size of a deck of cards.
March 10, 1918
On the back of the postcard is the name Private Lester Barbour, his service number and the day he died—March 10, 1918—from wounds sustained during the Battle of Passchendaele on the Western Front during the First World War. He was 23 years old.
The Archives and Special Collections Division at the Queen Elizabeth II Library has a collection of First World War postcards, known as silks, that belong to the Lester Barbour Collection. Lester Barbour enlisted with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in 1917. While overseas, Private Barbour wrote home regularly to his sisters and mother in Bonavista Bay.
1/ My Dear Mother
2/ Happy Birthday To My Dear Sister
3/ Newfoundland Regiment
5/ Lester Barbour's Message To His Mother, Mary Jane Barbour
David Mercer, a library assistant with the QEII Library, and member of the Church Lads’ Brigade (CLB), had an idea to recreate copies of the beautiful postcards and offer people the chance to send commemorative messages the way soldiers would have done 100 years ago. Members of the CLB are visiting France on a trip they have titled a Tour of Honour to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme at Beaumont-Hamel.
Perhaps what is most evocative during commemorative milestones is the way people seek to find meaning in the experience of war, often as it intersects with family histories and personal memories.
Such is the case with the postcard described above. This time, the reproduction postcard will complete a journey that Private Barbour never did, and is being sent by the nephew of Private Lester Barbour, also called Lester Barbour. Their names will eerily travel through time and space.
Home fronts to battle fronts
Postcards held a unique and popular status in First World War communications and were often considered souvenirs. Official war news mostly reached people through daily newspapers and illustrated bulletins, but some postcards sent from soldiers were examples of textile art that stand in stark contrast to the atrocities of the war they were experiencing.
Silks were first produced during the war and eventually became less popular after 1923. Messages and images were hand embroidered on strips of silk organza by French or Belgian women and girls from either refugee camps or from their homes. When demand increased, the silk strips were sent to factories in Paris for cutting and mounting onto postcards. It is estimated that as many as 10 million handmade postcards were produced during the duration of the First World War.
Thread and design
The postcards typically depict patriotic images of flags and symbols like forget-me-nots, pansy flowers and regimental crests and badges through bright colours of thread and design. Some have a small silk pouch to insert a tiny printed greeting card with messages such as “Happy birthday.” The messages on the postcards are often more interesting in terms of what they don’t mention. Messages to loved ones are often deliberately light. In the Lester Barbour Collection, Private Barbour prophetically wrote the lyrics to an Irish song called Mother Machree on the back of some silk postcards he mailed:
“Sure, I love the dear silver that shines in your hair/And the brow that’s all furrowed And wrinkled with care./I kiss the dear fingers, so toil-worn for me./Oh! God bless you and keep you, Mother dearie.”
The silk postcards are highly collectible to deltiologists—those who study and collect postcards. Due to the fabric’s delicate nature, many of the cards from the First World War are faded due to sun exposure and humidity. The card stock is also typically browned as a result of deterioration, known as foxing.
“This particular collection is a favourite of mine and has a wide appeal because of their beauty, but also their historical significance,” said Jeannie Bail, acting special collections librarian, Archives and Special Collections Division. “If these silk postcards were left in someone’s attic, they would slowly turn to dust, instead of being used by scholars and students with an interest in how people communicate with loved ones during war time.”