A peculiar thing about World War I was the way it was documented in the field by postcards: a sea of barbed wire in the snow, children begging for a meal, a city as it appeared before it was burned to the ground.
Those are familiar themes if one thinks about the long stalemate on the Western Front. But these are images from the Eastern Front.
It was far bigger and, to the rank-and-file in the German imperial army, a far different experience. In war, the other side has stories, too.
Postcards, diary entries and photographs focusing on the Eastern Front highlight a new exhibit at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and they offer a different perspective during the ongoing centennial of that conflict.
“Wacht im Osten: German Encounters with the East in World War I” continues through March 12 in the Ellis Gallery on the lower level of the Liberty Memorial, near the research center. It is accessible without admission to the museum.
“The Germans did win in the east,” said museum archivist and exhibit author Jonathan Casey. “They eventually would lose in the west, but they did defeat Russia. Russia collapsed.”
An offensive in 1915 snatched Poland away from the Russian Empire and pushed into what are now the independent countries of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine. The exhibit includes the first issue of a German-language newspaper published in Warsaw on Aug. 10 that same year. A program advertises a military rowing competition. Another announces an operetta performance.
“This is an occupation government with a mindset of, ‘We’re here to stay long-term, and we’re going to benefit from this,’ ” Casey said.
The postcards document German troops confiscating livestock and other materials to advance the war effort as well as to send back home. An American woman who married a Polish count described the situation in a book published during the war.
“Anyone touching or using any grain, potatoes, or vegetables from his own garden or fields would be punished to the full extent of the law — military law,” she wrote.
All of the materials are from the museum’s own collections, and much of the story is told through the writings and photographs of three German soldiers. Two of them were medics who survived the conflict. The third was a pious East Prussian in his 30s who was in the reserves.
“Thou hast everything in thy hand,” Friedrich Volkman wrote in his diary on March 10, 1915. “Oh God grant that the nights will not be so cold and our soldiers have to suffer.”
Volkman was shot May 19, 1915, and died a few days later.
“Through ‘Wacht im Osten,’ we’re able to explore an aspect of the Great War not commonly examined broadly,” museum president and CEO Matthew Naylor said in an announcement of the exhibit, “what life was like for soldiers serving as occupiers in lands previously unfamiliar from a cultural and environmental standpoint.”