Silks

“Silks” – postcards framing squares of silk decorated with silk embroidery – were graceful communiques that were popular during a graceless and ugly quartet of years, 1914-1918.  They originated in France and Belgium and disappeared shortly after the Armistice, their fey romantic prettiness no longer needed.

Soldiers passed their bloody and shaking hands over the soft prisms – the colored threads that formed flowers and flags.  The patriotism was a comfort, a sentimentality that seeped through their fingers like new blood.  Thus encouraged, they scribbled a few sentences and mailed their cards home, soaring like iridescent birds to a home front that waited with clasped hands.

I own a few of these icons of loneliness.  One bears the badge of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.  The years, “1914 – 15 – 1916”, indicate that the card was sent in 1916.  Or perhaps the soldier was being optimistic, thinking to add the war’s span of years, from beginning to end. The silk is spotted, the embroidered knots are coming undone, but the stitching is still intact.  It traces the motto of the regiment “Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt” (Where Right And Glory Lead).  Draped across the howitzer is a banner quoting “Ubique” (Everywhere).

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The artillery was a key element of the British arsenal.  But to be important in battle also means being a target.  Kings, bannermen, gunners.  During World War I, over 49,000 members of the RA died.  This soldier would have been in the thick of it – each detachment composed of 5 or 6 men, working in an awful harmony to prime and fire their laborious gun.  If he worked a trench mortar, he would have some protection, if a howitzer of 18-pounder, he was out in the open.

Image result for british 18-pounder

I hope this fellow made it through the war, settled into a comfortable life, embraced a family full of compassion and understanding.  But at the same time I hope he never forgets the sodden trenches, the filth, the stench, the months of boredom, the minutes of staggering fear; the muddy clouds of Ypres, the deadly sun of the bombardment on the Somme:  the kaleidoscope of war.  I hope he had the strength to accept this mosaic of memories, despite their ability to savage the emotions like wolves.  I hope he was able to live with the grief, yet to have the strength to cry, silently so, as he watched future generations march to their own wars.

In 1925 The Artillery Memorial was unveiled at Hyde Park Corner, dedicated to the casualties the Regiment suffered in ‘The Great War’. Whomever the man was who sent this lovely card, I hope he lived to accompany his family to their annual excursion to the memorial, that he could see his silhouette as well as those of his comrades in the bronze statues and stone reliefs.

Image result for royal artillery memorial

I hope he was not a memory, carried like a postcard in a pocket, as they lay their bouquets of blood at its base every November 11.

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6 responses to “Silks

  1. I’d never heard of these postcards in anything I’ve read or watched on WW I — again, you’ve opened a unique little window into the past. Thank you, as ever, Aubrey.
    (I wonder who embroidered them so the soldiers could use them?)

  2. Have two my grandfather sent from France to his then-fiancé framed with his photo in uniform. He died when my mother was in college, so I never met him. But I love the silks he left behind.

  3. This is a fascinating window into history that I didn’t know about. Thank you for writing about it.

    It was hard to listen to all the patriotic blather in the wake of the election, but your post reminds me of why we have Veterans’ Day, once known as Armistice Day. I didn’t see anyone selling paper poppies in front of the local stores this week, which was disappointing, though maybe the election affected that tradition as well. 😦

  4. I’ve never heard of these silks. They’re tragic, and wonderful, and as all such ephemera are, windows into the past. If only wars could disappear, and these live on.

  5. Laurie – I don’t know the mechanics of these pretty things, what kind of industry produced them or whether they just magically appeared in the little shops behind the lines!

    postcardsfromsanantonio – What a beautiful thought and remembrance; I’m sorry you never met him but even though it is behind glass, what a memory you have!

    Hangaku Gozen – It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anyone selling poppies here too. But in England, I remember people wearing their poppies around Guy Fawkes Day (11/5). “Lest We Forget” should be on everyone’s mind, all year round.

    shoreacres – Quite. I adore ephemera, from dance cards to WWI photographs/postcards; they are tiny, evocative views into a time that is not our own – they help us learn, appreciate and they move us considerably.

  6. As others have commented, I was not aware of these silks. Fascinating and such a delicate, intimate item.

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