“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).
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.
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.
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.