What happens when First World War postcards and art come together, by Alan Ward

Alan Ward is a multi-disciplinary artist, based in Manchester. Many of his commissions are informed by research and engagement, whether historical or community led. Archives and artefacts, both personal and institutional, have become a significant reference point for exploration and reflection on ideas centred on the construction of historical narratives, identities, and individual and collective memories. Commissions and projects have included: historic building residencies; the first written rules of football; the Clarion cycling movement; and exploring miscellaneous on-line purchases. We met Alan at the 2023 Memory Studies Association conference and are excited to feature his work.

La Vojo Returne (The Way Back): Or as Susan Sontag said “To collect photographs is to collect the World” (1)

This blog is about an artistic project that is very much a work in progress. At some point there might be a more detailed analysis of its narrative, but for now this will give a brief overview of its origins and development to date. I hope it reveals the potential for both creative and social engagement using ephemeral artefacts as a touchstone for a wider discourse around a ‘sense of place’ and ‘memory’, both core interests in my artistic practice.

The project is titled ‘La Vojo Returne’, after the Esperanto first-edition translated book of E. M. Remarque’s Der Weg Zurück (The Way Back or The Road Back). (2) It is commonly regarded as the sequel to his 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, and reflects on what it is to be human – family, loss, transience, dislocation and memory – and whether anything has been learnt as the consequence of the Great War.

A Lockdown project to identify the location of a photograph

In early 2019, I had just completed a five-year Arts Council England funded project based on a glass negative collection I purchased on eBay. (3) Then the COVID pandemic struck and all life was interrupted. As a slightly compulsive collector of seemingly random photographs and negatives, and in the isolation of the pandemic restrictions, I began to look at a few of the things I’d acquired. One of these was a very small batch of 7 celluloid square negatives with the minimal attribution ‘Taken by German medical officer, WWI’. I’d always thought they were a bit odd, a bit Dada, and for that reason I’d bought them. I felt sure one negative in particular would allow me to identify the location in which they were taken. Google reverse imaging gave me absolutely no results, and to cut a long story short, I used a combination of maps, Google Street View and on-line antique postcard websites, to systematically cross-check locations along or just behind the Western Front. This was a painfully slow process, but I  finally identified the location as Grandpré, in the German-occupied Ardennes region of France.

It remained undamaged throughout the war, until it was liberated by the American Army at the very end of the fighting. Today Grandpré has a population of around 550, it has a rich historical past, but could now be described as a quiet rural town.

Once I had located it, I realised that there were multiple German postcards representing and documenting the same place. They mapped and created an extraordinarily detailed Grandpré. Sat in isolation at my computer, they appeared to represent the most complete picture of the town, far better than French postcard collections, pre- or post-war, and even the contemporary Google Street View portal. I found this liminal moment a fascinating representation and began to collect these German depictions of a French town.

The postcard that started this project and the negative of a similar picture, showing a panoramic view of Grandpré.
Figure 1: Original negative (left) and one of the first postcards found taken from same viewpoint.

Collecting postcards

The postcards, as ephemeral objects, fall into two typologies; mass-produced mechanically printed images and photographic, of the type produced by itinerant photographers and their travelling darkrooms.

The mass-produced ones, made by a range of publishers from across Germany, for the War-machine, are generally printed in a version of continuous tone rotogravure. (4) This means they can be scanned, enlarged and visually interrogated without significant degradation in quality, revealing fascinating details. There is a wonderful filmic quality to these details when enlarged. The subject matter generally portrays street scenes, soldiers relaxing in the urban environments, key buildings, and landscapes.

The photographic cards are direct contact prints from negatives and therefore offer even better detail. They are often personal, commissioned by individual solders or small groups, to send home. Or they mark key moments and events, for example a large funeral procession of a significant soldier, which appears on reseller sites quite regularly – I have three different moments from that.

The chemical process of making a photographic contact print means these can vary far more widely in look through the degradation of time, storage, and the less than fastidious fixing of the prints for a purpose that wasn’t considered of archival importance at the time.

The vast majority of postcards acquired are Grandpré-based or its environs and supercede early text-based Feldpost (Field Service) (5) postcards issued by the military authorities, where soldiers deleted a series of pre-printed messages as appropriate. I have found none of these from Grandpré, which is unsurprising, as the censorship constraints of the medium limited identification of their origin.

My collecting has been focused on purchasing used cards, that have a specific and grounded connection to the town. It is possible to buy unused cards, but these of course may never have actually been in Grandpré. The written cards are generally in Sütterlin, or old German, and often in a sort of shorthand. Mostly in pencil, with a few more ornate texts in pen, possibly indicating a more educated person, they are challenging to read.

A selection of postcards, including views of individual houses and whole streets, as well as text in German on the back of some of these.
Figure 2: Row 1, 3 printed cards. Row 2: 3 photographic cards. Row 3: selection of postcard backs

Research, creativity and virtual engagement

As these cards arrived in the post, I scanned each one as a high-resolution digital record and began to assemble a chronological database of: typology; the postcard printer; when the card was written and franked; who wrote them, if identifiable; the recipient; and where they were sent.

I printed out facsimiles of the cards at varying scales and began using white acrylic paint to opaque out buildings I had identified as no longer existing. I also removed the imposed German codification of street signs and shop signage. Taking it a stage further, I removed the soldiers’ forms, they became ghost-like shapes occupying the spaces they inhabited. I had started to inhabit a virtual Grandpré through the physical cards.

I began to notice modified cloud formation despite the printed card being from the same original negative. I correlated postage dates of duplicate cards and reflected on the apparent changing light in different printing densities of reproduction, I imagined the photographer taking the same picture on each date at precisely the same time on the church clock. New artworks were forming from the artefacts and ephemera of the collection.

Series of artwork using some postcards where figures in the photographs have been blanked out and backgrounds and colours altered

Some postcards were translated with the help of a Manchester-based German academic researcher associated with the University here, and the messages began to have a direct conversation with the visual representation on their reverse.

These postcards represented familial interactions, small quiet voices, against the backdrop of the tumultuous frontline, all constrained by the censor’s eye.


My Dear Gustel

[on front] In the hope that this card will find you as safe and sound as it finds me, I leave you greetings and kiss you dearly.

[on reverse] Please send me 100 cigarettes and 2 packets of fine cut immediately, because there is nothing left to smoke, even for money. You have to wrap the package well and seal it otherwise the things will be stolen en route. Please fulfil my only wish. Greetings to parents … The French are repulsed every day.


Dear Mr. Behringer

Greetings from the west.

Destination still unknown.


Best greetings


Dear Klemm

Hopefully we are soon approaching the hour of redemption

regards from your friend Schuessler


Dear Mia!

My card from yesterday, I assume you will have received. Today I was here in an artist-concert, which was very pleasant, and it was for me a great change. Here one talks about a special offering. It may be true?  Otherwise, I am still well.

With hearty greetings and kisses, Your Peter

I became a member of some quite niche Facebook groups associated with the 14-18 campaign, in an attempt to understand what happened to Grandpré during its liberation. This engagement provided historical context to what was about to occur to the landscape of my collection. This information came mostly from descendants of American soldiers in the United States. At this point I noted several ‘likes’ to my posts that appeared to come from Grandpré, and so I then made tentative contact directly through Facebook Messenger.

There is a serendipitous nature to many of my projects, and both the people I initially contacted were of a similar age and shared many wider kindred interests. We immediately began a conversation around my project. One of these, Chris (Facebook name) also serves on the town council, and I suggested writing a proposal to the mayor to visit once lockdown ended, with the idea of exploring an artist residency. He presented this on my behalf, and the town council supported this with free accommodation in a mobile home on the municipal campsite.

Virtual and reality

In June 2022, with Covid on the wane, I planned my first month-long trip to Grandpré. Suddenly, a slightly playful isolated engagement with a collection of postcards, was now very real. Prior to making the journey, my newly established local working committee decided it would be good idea to create a Facebook group to announce the imminent arrival of ‘this strange man from Manchester’ who was interested in their little town.

I’m not a big user of Facebook, but it was a way of sharing my interest, postcards and starting a conversation. This was and continues to be an extraordinary success, and a rich resource, with now (at the time of writing) 352 members spread across the world, all with links to the town. It quickly became a closed-group by invitation, in order to make it a safe place to share images, familial and interconnected memories, and have conversations that had never taken place before, despite the vast majority of members being closely situated, or even related to each other. (6)

With my partner accompanying me, we loaded up the car with my camera equipment and visual material, and drove to this place I felt I already knew so well. On arrival in the bright clear rural light of late May, I stood in the square for the first time, and was struck by how saturated it all felt. It was as if I was on a stage set version of the town – a simulated reality.

I discovered that my collection wasn’t quite as unique as I thought, many residents also had significant collections, and during public meetings shared them with me. The vast majority of these were focused on the same period as mine – and as I began to understand more clearly, for them, it was the moment before it all changed.

As part of my engagement, I wanted to share some of my reference points. The French writer Georges Perec provides a way of looking at ordinary life, his ideas and approach have been a significant influence on how I visually articulate my interest in a sense of  ‘place’. His was a quest for ‘an anthropology of everyday life’ by writing about both minor and major aspects of our surrounding environment – the beauty of the ‘infra-ordinary’. ‘La Vojo’ and my photography explores the minutiae of this with the postcards being a catalyst. (7)

Developing an artistic and academic partnership

After this visit, I realised I needed a more formal collaboration to translate the cards. I had previously made contact with Dr Corinne Painter at University of Leeds, German Department and introduced the project to her. Armed with feedback and photography from the first trip, we met again, and this began to develop into a wider collaboration to provide translation expertise, explore the artist’s impact, and increased the conceptual rigour of the project. Corinne introduced me to Lara-Marie Hägerling (Technische Universität Braunschweig), who began translating a greater selection of the cards’ messages.

Corinne and I submitted an abstract proposal about the project to the Memory Studies Association’s 7th Annual International Conference, which was accepted. Corinne made a University seed funding application to cover our costs to attend and for her to make a trip to Grandpré on the third of my residencies in May of this year. Lara also joined us from Germany.

As part of this trip I developed an alternative ‘psychogeographical’ walking tour of Grandpré in conjunction with some members of the Facebook group. This included a carefully assembled series of stories and locations. A selection of German Postcards were read in situ in French, German and English – thus reanimating those voices in the place that authored them originally, sparking much spontaneous and animated conversation.

Grandpré has a small Secondary School and we delivered a classroom-based engagement session practicing English language and visual interpretation, using a selection of the postcard collection, with a follow-up session of postcard writing in English. I then sent these to selected addresses in Europe and the UK, with the recipients taking selfies and sending them to me to reverse share with the School.

It has become clear that the town reflects on its current position by referring to the postcards that document its past, in particular the German ones and an inter-war series of coloured cards, which are very like my initial hyper-reality experience on arrival. The topics they discuss include: rural life; local opportunities; depopulation; high streets; climate change; and tourism.

Selection of pictures showing Alan engage with local residents in Grandpré
Figure 4: Artist walk, school engagements and studio pictures.

Et Maintenant? (And now?)

I’ve completed three month-long residencies to date. Corinne and I have delivered our paper to the conference, and this blog is one outcome of that experience.

I now have my head down in the studio reviewing all the material I’ve made both visually, and referentially through the continued conversations on the Facebook group. This period of reflection will inform a trip in June next year and then a series of installations, interventions and an exhibition within the town in the Autumn. I’m planning a series of events and workshops in conjunction with this in the shape of an arts festival, that might allow an alternative appreciation of Grandpré and its future.

Everyone has their own way of seeing things.
Everyone is leaving the countryside. 
How do we find ways to maintain our heritage?

17.06.2023: Patrick Brouillon (La Vojo Returne Facebook Group)


(1) On Photography, Susan Sontag ISBN: 0-140053970. Publisher Penguin, 1997, p. 3. After this quote, Susan Sontag develops the idea referencing Jean-Luc Godard’s film Les Carabiniers (1963) and a suitcase full of postcards.

(2) I read the first English translation of this work (A W Wheen) during lockdown, and then compared it with a 2019 critically acclaimed translation by Brian Murdoch. I was struck by how very different they felt, how language was interpreted and nuanced over time. Then when buying the Esperanto edition by chance, I began to understand the reasons for the translation of this book in 1931 by Joseph F Berger. Here was an international language created to foster world peace, and of course this book was an important piece of literature at a time when Europe was beginning to be unsettled again by the rise of fascism. The book’s most salient feature is the central characters’ pessimism about contemporary society which, they feel, is morally deficient, because it has arguably caused the war and learnt nothing from the experience.

(3) Photographs from Another Place: www.alanjward.co.uk/project/photographs-from-another-place/

(4) Rota-gravure, at the time of the First World War was most akin to a contemporary digital inkjet print in feel, being almost screenless in appearance with no mechanical dot pattern visible.

(5) This website gives an overview of the scale and depth of the military postal service.

(6) It became very apparent to me on the first trip, that most residents of Grandpré are related or connected in some form or other. Six degrees of separation in miniature, this included being introduced to a direct descendant of Joan of Arc’s sister.

(7) As part of my engagement process with the community I have referred to 3 of Perec’s publications in presentations. Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien, 1975 (An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, ISBN: 9780984115525. Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2010); Je me souviens, 1978, (I Remember, ISBN 9781567925173. Publisher Godine, 2014); La Vie mode d’emploi, 1978 (Life: A User’s Manual, Vintage ISBN: 9780099449256. Publisher Vintage, 1996). I specifically invited people to read I remember as a way of sharing their own memories or recollected family memories in relation to the postcards.

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