Telling War Stories through Postage Stamps

A feature by Chris Yardley 

This is a short version of a paper to the 23rd Irish Studies in Australia and New Zealand conference at the University of Sydney, December 2018.

One hundred years is a long time. The centenary of the beginning of the Great War has seen a number of new analyses and interpretations of that history. I regard the postage stamp as a time capsule that lasts forever. Its message reflects what the designer wanted to say at the time. In the case of the Irish Post it is still owned by the government, although many country post offices are, these days, commercial operations within the purview of a communications minister. Fifty countries have issued some 400 plus stamps to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, among them Australia Post  that issued these commemorative stamps over five years: 2014-2018 ‘Centenary of WW1’ and ‘A Century of Service’ – 49 stamps in total.

Figure 1 : Australia: two combination sheets of the stamps issued (top down) during 2014-2018.

It is worth noting that the events of the Great War are shown in chronological order in the Centenary of WW1 set, each stamp emblazoned with a single poppy, for remembrance. Three poppies adorn the service images: the four services, animals in war, the Vietnam War, women in war, and war memorials. The first set is very much in accordance with the sets issued by the Anglo-sphere countries: Great Britain (30 stamps over five years), New Zealand (50), Isle of Man (20).

By contrast, the European countries have generally been more modest, although Russia has issued 20 WW1 commemorative stamps and Belgium (20). Germany has shown the way, perhaps, to the future, with an emphasis on peace – just one stamp;

Figure 2 : Germany: 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War – ‘no more war

Ireland’s An Post began its commemoration in a similar vein to Australia Post, looking at events and celebrities in a sequential fashion. Context is everything in understanding the message the stamp is meant to convey. The fourth stamp in Figure #3 below shows the Troopship SS River Clyde. She carried to Gallipoli  the 1st Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, two Companies of the 2nd Battalion and also one Company of 1st Battalion, all Royal Dublin Fusiliers. This is not stated except in the descriptive explanation for the subject. Both sides of the Irish divide are joined in the Great War endeavour and will die together (see https://www.historyireland.com/volume-23/the-irish-at-gallipoli/). The Irish suffered extremely heavy losses during the V beach landing at Cape Helles, Gallipoli in April 1915, at Suvla Bay in August, at Kiritch Tepe Ridge and Scimitar Hill. See also Jeff Kildae’s podcast series at http://historyhub.ie/the-irish-at-gallipoli-by-jeff-kildea

 

 Figure 3 : An Post : 2014 ‘1914 recruitment posters’, 2015 ‘The 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli Campaign’.

 

Figure 4: An Post : the 100th anniversaries of  2016 ‘the Battle of the Somme’, 2017;  ‘the Battle of Messines Ridge’; 2018

 

 

 

Meanwhile An Post is also telling the story of what has been happening at home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Figure 5 : An Post : 2014 ‘the 100th anniversary of the founding of Cumann na mBan’ and ‘Irish Citizen Army’, 2015, ‘the sinking of RMS Lusitania’ (not reproduced) ;and 2016, ‘the 100th anniversary of Pádraig Pearse’s oration at the graveside of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa’.

 

 

Figure 6: An Post 2016, stamps from the 1st and 2nd series of definitive (everyday) stamps

The 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising’, first and second series.

On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, around 1,000 men and women from the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Irish Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army (ICA) and Cumann na mBan converged upon the centre of Dublin. Accustomed to the sight of armed men on the streets, few onlookers realised they were witnessing history in the making. 

Figure 7 : An Post 2016 ‘The 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising’, 3rd series, the 16 stamps as a miniature sheet. The child is Sean Foster, the youngest victim. To his right is Louisa Nolan, who tended the wounded at the battle of Mount St bridge.

The Irish Post not only issued three series of postage stamps, they commemorated the event with a book The 1916 Easter Rising under four main headings: Before the Rising, The road to the GPO, The Rising, The Aftermath. The 16 stamps of the third series follow these headings, four stamps across in the scan below one row per heading in the figure above.

Despite the initial popularity of John Redmond’s support for the British War effort, Fenians such as Tom Clarke regarded England’s difficulty as Ireland’s opportunity. The rebels struck at noon, on Easter Monday, with audacious raids on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park, at the headquarters of the Irish Administration at Dublin Castle, and other locations including the main General Post Office Headquarters (GPO). A Proclamation announcing The Irish Republic was posted around Dublin. The British fought back vigorously using the Army. Over 500 people died and the centre of Dublin was destroyed in the fighting. The rebels held out or five days before surrendering to the much stronger resourced British Army.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of the Easter Rising which destroyed the Irish Parliamentary Party, discredited ‘Home Rule’, undermined the legitimacy of British Rule, and created popular support for republicanism.

Both Australia Post and An Post have followed the trend, with their Great War images commemorating the ordinary soldier and his sacrifice rather than glorifying the General who sent them to die. Australian historians have endorsed the perception that Gallipoli has been too dominant in the telling of the country’s story: ANZAC is out, General Monash is not the genius he has been revered to be, Gallipoli was a disaster.

The An Post images tell the story of reconciliation: that both sides suffered as a consequence of war and also the 1916 rising. As well as acknowledging the rebel leaders, they have tried to share the story of those affected by the event and the development of the Nation.

Chris Yardley

Seventy years a stamp collector,Canberra-based (Dr) Chris Yardley now exercises his brains determining the messages sent via postage stamp images.

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