Throughout The Indian Clerk, we're reminded how different the world of hundred years ago was, especially in the area of communications. Beginning with the first letter from Ramanujan, dozens of letters and postcards traverse continents at the large end of the scale, and buildings at the small end. But one of the most interesting of these communications comes about two-thirds of the way through the book, when Hardy is fretting over the whereabouts of Thayer, a young man with whom he's had a fling that ended badly and who is now away at war. Here's the setup:
What I could not do, hard as I tried, was forget him. At least once a week I visited the hospital on the cricket grounds—ostensibly to offer words of support and reassurance to the injured soldiers, really to see if by some miracle Thayer might show up, once again, in one of the wards. Things had changed in the intervening year. In addition to the sisters, uniformed members of the Medical Unit of the Officers Training Corps paced among the beds. They were surgical dressers or clerks. As I moved through the vast expanse of the hospital, I would pretend to a purely academic interest, ask them to explain the treatment methods they were testing out, when in fact all I wanted was to find Thayer. But he was never there. Occasionally I might strike up conversations with some of the other lads. With surprising frequency these took a flirtatious turn. But I could not muster enough enthusiasm to follow up on the leads I was offered. For Thayer had claimed me. I suppose I must have been in love with him. I wanted no one else.
Under the best of circumstances, hope has a short lifespan. During wartime its lifespan is shorter still. At midnight on New Year's Eve, 1917, I raised my glass to the sky (I was alone in Cranleigh, Gertrude and Mother asleep) and declared valiantly that I had given up on Thayer. It was a new year, and I would move on.
Shortly after that, word does, in fact, show up in the form of a Field Service Post Card, an example of which is pictured below.
I first became aware of these fascinating forms in Paul Fussell's landmark The Great War and Modern Memory (which Leavitt notes in his acknowledgements). Here's what he has to say about them:
Infinite replication and utter uniformity - those are the ideas attached to the Field Service Post Card, the first wartime printing of which, in November, 1914, was one million copies. As the first widely known example of dehumanized, automated communication, the post card popularized a mode of rhetoric indispensable to the conduct of later wars. ... The perversion of a fully flexible human rhetoric betokened by the post card has seemed so typical not just of the conduct of later wars but of something like their "causes" that satirists have made itone of their commonest targets. In Heller's Catch-22 Colonel Cathcart writes form-letters of condolence implicity requiring the recipient to strike out "what does not apply":
Dear Mrs., Mr., Miss, or Mr and Mrs. Daneeka,
Words cannot express the deep personal grief I experienced when your husband, son, father or brother was killed, wounded, or reported missing in action.
According to Fussell, parodies of the card were a staple of everyone from Siegfried Sassoon to Evelyn Waugh. He further suspects that Edmund Wilson was "paying distant homage in the semi-facetious post cards" he would send that "listed a number of things which 'Mr. Edmund Wilson does not do,' like granting interviews, reading manuscripts, delivering commencement addresses, receiving honorary degrees, etc., each with a small box to be checked."
If you'd like a greater understanding of the world that Hardy and Ramanujan inhabited, one marked by "the unparalleled literariness of all ranks who fought the Great War," you'll want to read this indispensable book, winner of both the National Book Award and the NBCC Award. You can also read the World War I correspondence between lovers Harold McGill and Emma Griffis, at Dear Miss Griffis, the site from which the image above is taken.