Postcards from the Front

24 April, 2011

Postcard - Private Albert Edward Kemp, 'To my dear Father', Embroidered, 1917.
Postcard - Private Albert Edward Kemp, 'To my dear Father', Embroidered, 1917.
Source: Museum Victoria

Question: I am trying to find out information about my grandmother’s brothers, who fought in World War 1 and sent home a number of these embroidered postcards from France. How can I find more about these cards and their war service?

Answer: The beautiful embroidery on these postcards, very popular during WW1, was produced by French women in their own homes, probably to provide some kind of income during these difficult times. Silk mesh was used to embroider the designs, which often featured floral designs, as well as flags and military insignia that were meaningful to the soldiers who bought and sent them. The embroidered silk was then sent to be mounted onto card at factories. According to the AWM, about ten million of these were made between 1915 and 1919. The soldiers used them to write home short notes to their wives, sisters, mothers and fathers and the straightforward greetings in their handwriting is a poignant reminder that many of them never made it home.

The National Archives of Australia (NAA) holds all service records from WW1 and other conflicts in which Australia has been involved since the time of the Boer War. They have recently completed the digitisation of all service records from WW1 and you can search for your relatives’ records on their website. These records provide detailed information about each soldier, including: the date they enlisted; information about their next of kin; identifying features; where they were posted during the war; injuries sustained; and awards and medals received.

Another good source of information is the National Library of Australia's Trove website, where you can look at newspaper reports during the period of the War and search for articles on specific people.

Additionally, you might wish to do a search on the Australian War Memorial (AWM) site for images taken during the war. Scenes of the war were documented by official photographers, such as Frank Hurley. While some of the Australians in these images are anonymous, numerous individuals are identified by name and are searchable on the AWM Collection Search.

Although they weren’t allowed to have personal cameras, we know that lots of soldiers did take photos using cameras they kept hidden. Ironically, these have become an important source of information for researchers, sometimes providing more detail and insight than the official photographs. Bendigo Art Gallery recently produced an exhibition of such images by brothers Jack & Bert Grinton, which is currently showing at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. Museum Victoria also has a large collection of WW1 photographs; every week we are identifying names of more soldiers and they’ll soon be added to our History & Technology Collections Online site.

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