Field post

“The baggage cart advances with a painful squeal in the deep, bottomless mud and drizzling rain. An old blue-shirted soldier drives it, while smoking his pipe. The one sitting next to him, unshaven, in gray uniform, is urging the cart on by cursing in three languages. He’s a Hungarian, who three months earlier still examined the peaceful packages in a Budapest post office, to see whether they were properly stamped. It is possible, and even probable, that next year, if the weapons fall silent, he could do the same. But for now, he is a soldier. With a sergeant’s yellow collar patch, but instead of stars, a little horn indicates his appointment.

At the rear of the cart, the rain beats down on a field post soldier. This is how the field post advances, along with oncoming animals with luggage, carts, the wounded dragging themselves. The road is not easy, and not short. Up until the border town, the consignment was brought by automobile, the ordinary Bosnian mail car, but from then on no delivery can be made by motor. You need horses, two or rather four, because the cart is carrying the post for a whole division, about twenty-five thousand soldiers and craftsmen of all kind. In the sealed bag, the letters to the proud hussar officer and the long-bearded Moravian mountain gunner get on well with each other. They contain the letter as eagerly expected by the gold-bespectacled camp rabbi, as by the Croatian soldier soaking up there in the muddy hills…

How many letters, oh my God. Pink, green, yellow cards, white letters, dirty paper rags mixed with fragrant envelopes addressed in elegant feminine characters. How much desire, how many sighs, the amount of love and pain of life rests in those packed bags! But the road does not get any easier, nor the horses any calmer, so that the dear burden of the baggage cart, the only peaceful happiness for the soldier at war, the field post could get sooner to its goal. But you see, once it gets there. Some shabby little houses along the road and on the hillside, of two or three only the blackened beams are left, and carts, horses, tents all around in the field – this is the division headquarters. The baggage cart stops moaning in front of a little hovel which used to be a bakery and butcher’s, and a few soldiers come out and start to unload the wagon. This is the field post office. It even has a proud sign that indicates: “Field post office”, it’s just missing a mailbox beside the door. Of course, by entering the “office”, you hardly meet the hygienic comfort of domestic post offices. An ugly little lair, you cannot take more than one or two steps, for it is full of matted yellow suitcases. Actually, these few boxes are the field post office: one is the counter, the other the printed form storage, and so on. When the division post office is moving, the stands, chairs, stamps, letters are put in the boxes, the boxes on a cart, the two post officers – in the rank of first leutenant – sit on their innocent little horses, and the office goes on, into another hut, or perhaps only a tent. The bags are thus dumped, and the bundles of letters come to light. They are processed by regiment, but sometimes the post of Budapest brings bundles, which are sorted by battalions and batteries. A superhuman work. A separate bundle contains the newspapers. Whoever can, rushes to see them and looks for the latest news, although they do not have to be examined too closely, for they are printed in large boldface type.

As the post is laid out and sorted, the clients gradually come. The assistant of His Excellency; the big-mustachio’d field policeman; the Reverend Gentlemen – with no denominational distinction –; then come some reckless representative of the non-fighting branches, who make an effort to come here for the post, where sometimes a piece of shrapnel hits between the cows tied to stakes and the smoking furnaces. But these reckless ones are also accompanied by armed soldiers on the left and right, a revolver at his side, and his heroic sword in his right, which uselessly trembles from the desire to bathe in the blood of the enemy. In a few hours, the officers responsible for taking over the post arrive from every regiment. The money and parcels are only given to officers, the letters can be also taken by under-officers to certain stand-alone units. During this time, the field post is lively, and news is exchanged.

The members of the division staff listen in religious awe to an artillery officer, who rides fifteen kilometers every day to carry the post to his battery, which is fighting in the front line. The lieutenant smiles at the terror caused by a few bullet striking here.

“Just come visit us”, he encourages the postmen, “just listen the «Kalimegdan» and the «Sveti Nikola».” (This is what they call the two largest guns of the Serbs.) Of course, the post does not go there, it would not even be appropriate, and the postmen are satisfied with the enemy’s “zünders” received as gift. The sorting of the mail carries on, the letters to be sent are brought. The majority of the letters are written on unbelievable paper. Yes, the stock of postcards soon runs out, and any kind of paper does it. Many ask for blank paper from home, so they can write back. But the field post takes everything, even if undeliverable, and badly addressed letters are returned to the addresse, as if we were at peace. On the letters coming in, sometimes only a meagre clue is given to the postmen, but this single letter is enough to find the addressee, if he is still alive… for there are some, to whom mail can no longer be delivered. On such letters the unit writes that he is «deceased», and on the next day it is already carried by the post back to his home far away. The baggage cart is creaking again in the mud, the horses sweating, the post soldier is smoking his pipe at the rear of the cart, and the letters are joggling along, to villages and towns, to worried parents, crying wives, sad sweethearts. They are carrying the hearts of the warriors.”

In: Csataképek a nagy háborúból (War landscapes from the great war). Composed and introduced
by Endre Nagy. Budapest, 1915, Singer and Wolfner. (From Káfé Főnix)

Field post traffic at the Isonzo front

We have written many times, and will write many more, about field posts, both from the First and the Second World War, and from both sides of the front. The great wars created a new genre. The millions of men living far away from their families, for a period of years, in constant mortal danger, wrote home hundreds of millions of censored postcards, in which they could virtually write nothing about what surrounded them every day, only about that which took place inside: the nostalgia and affectionate longing, that they are healthy and endure, and they still have hope that they will return home alive.

Thousands of families still keep tens of thousands of similar letters from grandfathers and great-grandfathers, and in fortunate cases, they also have the responses that were brought home with them.

“…we are well, we are here at one of our passes, and we guard the thousand-year old border… We are convinced that no enemy will pass through here, across the Árpád Line!”

An exploded bunker of the Árpád Line, from the mountains above the often mentioned Yasinia, from the Wikipedia entry “Árpád-vonal”. Below: the Árpád Line built out 600 kilometers long on the old Hungarian border, from here.

Lieutenant Doctor Zoltán Kovács, to his bride in Kolozsvár/Cluj, on his conviction about the safety of the Árpád Line just two days before Romania switched to the Soviet side, and thus the Soviet army could occupy the positions from the rear, through Romanian territory. This is the last postcard which survives from him, in the collection of János Fellner.

The field postcards kept by the families are rarely available to outsiders, perhaps only on the occasion of an exhibition. Whatever we know about field letters, we mainly know thanks to passionate collectors who fish them out and save them from antique shops and flea markets, philatelic and auction sites, to preserve these less conspicuous pieces of orphaned legacies. And they also share them on the web, including on the Facebook site dedicated to the field post, from where I received the postcards of Zoltán Kovács through the group administrator János Fellner.

Field butchers on the front page of a hand-made field postcard, 1914

By the time the field postcards get to the collectors, they are usually bereft of the personal stories, which a family may still remember about the senders and addressees of the letters in their possession. This is made up to a certain extent by the great amount of the published cards, which already enables serious typological and historical statistics, as well as by the in-depth knowledge of the collectors commenting on the cards. We find, for example, many new examples of the slow postal-snails, dragging along, which we had already encountered before, and János Fellner confirms, that this motif does not occur on postcards before the release of the famous song by Katalin Karády in 1942.

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Letters in fact move slowly over Russian land. From the press review of  Huszadik Század

The post cards may also contain some different representations of the Russian lands, which are not drawn by hand, but centrally printed, and intended to inspire and encourage the soldiers. Like this one from 1942, where the brave Hungarian lad has already cut the Red Army-head of the dragon, which resembles Stalin, and only the ruefully twinkling Jewish head is left.

In a lucky case, the brave Hungarian lads who failed to cope with the dragon, could also continue writing field postcards. The group has published plenty of POW postcards from Russia, from both world wars. Moreover, we also find a telegram sent to “Asian Russia”, Samarkand, by the prisoner’s father, accompanied with some money. Of course, in the First World War, letters went more quickly over the Russian land.

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Some of the postcards become interesting, or even gruesome, if we are able – as do the experienced collectors – to decode the field post numbers in cipher, and uncover the story behind them. This postcard, for example, was written by the commander of the labor camp in the Serbian Bor, where the great Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti was a prisoner, who wrote it to his wife in a suburb of Budapest. The text is the usual: he is looking for free leave, he misses her, it is a beautiful autumn weather. Actually, the same as what was written from the same place by Radnóti in his “Letter to my wife”, of course each of them in its own way.

But to avoid finishing our review with such a tragic final word, we also find in the common collection the earliest known examples of field postcards from the years of blessed peace. Soldiers complained then, too, how could they not? They did not know yet, that their sons happily möchten ihre Sorge haben.

“My letter is written in Budapest, 20 December 1888. My dear beloved mother and dear brothers, I let you know about my fate and condition, that my sort is not the best, because I am in the hospital with my ear, and I do not know when I would leave, now I cry now I swear that I am at this point, Christmas will be long here, and also poor, because what they cook here, I cannot eat, it is as bad as garblings”

János Fellner encourages the collectors of field postcards to join the group, and share their treasures. We also encourage on our part those who still have their family postcards, and can illustrate them with stories and other documents and pictures, as we do in the “Pink Postcards” series.

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