A Postcard from the Edge of Disaster

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I bought this postcard in an antiques shop in Scotland a few years ago, choosing it almost randomly from among thousands of others. I say almost randomly for a reason I will explain in a bit.

The Photo

Almost everything I know about the postcard comes from the postcard.

Click on the photo to enlarge it, so you can get a good look. As you see, most of the people in the photo are young adults. Who they are, where they are, or why the picture was taken? Total mystery.

How about when? Dating the photo by clothes is not easy: I’m no expert on fashion, as you can probably tell from looking at me. But the hats are a dead giveaway: the picture was taken in the years right before World War I.

Anything else? Have a look in the back row. A couple of young women in the middle of the picture are wearing enormous hats, hats that come close in size to the most expensive models of the period. But they're not fancy hats. Yes, they're fashionable hats, but they're also sensible, affordable hats. So, based on hats,  I’m pretty sure we're looking at a lower middle class group.

Why did the sender choose this card? Maybe he’s in the picture (although he doesn’t say so, so maybe not). Maybe he asked around for a postcard, and this is what someone handed him.

A Postcard from Hayfield

The sender’s brief address at the top of the message tells us (and the postmark confirms) the postcard was sent from Peebles, a small town in the south of Scotland.

Hayfield is almost certainly the name of a house. At the time, even the most modest suburban middle-class British homes proudly displayed grand names. Google tells me there’s still a house called Hayfield in Peebles. There’s no guarantee this is the same house. But still.

When I looked up the house, Google Street View jumped around a bit (as it does), so I can’t quite be sure which house it is. Probably, like most on the street, it's a typical Edwardian (early 20th century) brick villa, which is much less impressive than that sounds.

George and Mrs. Snow

The sender addresses “my very dear mother,” Mrs. Snow in London, and signs himself George.

George Snow (I assume) then writes a typically boring postcard message. All he reveals is that he is almost certainly a young man, and that he’s staying with an uncle in Scotland. He complains about the weather (not warm like London, he points out, but honestly, what did he expect? He's in Scotland. It rains.)

And that’s about it.

So what’s the big deal?

I’m not claiming this very ordinary postcard is an exciting historical document. It’s nothing special. And I can’t learn more about it without a lot more research I’m not about to do, because who cares? Not everything old is history.

But George’s postcard matters, as do thousands, even millions, of similar documents, when we consider them all together. That's because of when it was sent.

George dates his message July 2nd, 1914 and the crystal clear postmark confirms he mailed it the very same day.

The date. That’s why I bought this particular card from the antique shop in Scotland.

The Deluge

Even as the postcard made its train journey to London, Europe was moving toward catastrophe. Just four days before George sat down to write his postcard, Serbian teenager Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophia, an assassination that, insanely, triggered World War I.

Over the next four years, millions of young men would be sent to their deaths in battle, while millions more were maimed and traumatized. And millions of people would lose fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons to the carnage.

Holding George’s postcard in my hands is terribly poignant. I imagine him scratching quickly with an ink pen, dipping into a bottle of ink, licking and sticking on a stamp, and, his job done, popping his message into a red postbox. I imagine his mother’s pleasure on receiving his card (perhaps she had recovered from her illness by the time it arrived.)

Neither of them could have imagined that they were on the verge of what one historian later called The Deluge, the massive flood that overwhelmed George's world.

On August 3, 1914, only a few miles from Mrs. Snow's London home, and almost exactly a month after her son dropped his postcard into the mail in Peebles, a deeply anguished Sir Edward Gray, Britain's Foreign Secretary, was standing at his office window, watching men light the streetlamps at dusk. He turned to a companion, and said, in words that have been quoted ever since,

"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time."

The next day, Britain declared war.

Everything was about to change: for Edward Grey, for George Snow and his mother, and for all the young people on the postcard. Everything.

This is a postcard from the last days of normal.

UPDATE: Don’t miss Finding George Snow It’s what happened right after I wrote it, and it will knock your socks off.

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