Postcards from beneath the waves
This fascinating report on ghostly postcards rescued from the ocean's cold grip accompanies the article on the German scuttling of their own fleet in Scarpa Flow in 1919 that I posted right below. Be sure to read that article too. (The photo is of one of the restored postcards, and is described this way in the article: A second card shows an officer with a sling on his arm, sitting on what looks like a bench in the garden of a hospital. The sling and the uniform verify he's been wounded fighting for his country - but only slightly wounded, so the injuries don't detract from the image of the proud officer in full Address uniform with head held high and a hero-worshipping maiden in attendance.)
Scotsman.com Heritage & Culture - Scotland's People - Postcards from beneath the waves
Postcards from beneath the waves
THE RECREATIONAL divers were overawed by the sight of the massive rusting warship, looming out of the murky depths of Orkney's Scapa Flow. Ninety years had passed since the German cruiser Karlsruhe had sailed into battle with the rest of the First World War German Grand Fleet. As the divers swum round, they saw scraps of material drifting towards them out of a corroding bulkhead.
"We were spooked," one of them reported later. "It was like they were trying to communicate."
Prophetic words. The scraps of paper were unsent postcards intended for German wives and sweethearts, to reassure them that husbands and lovers were safe and well.
Over 52 boats, including the Karlsruhe were sunk by the Germans on 21 June 1919.
The cards have lain submerged in Scapa Flow since the captured German High Seas Fleet was scuttled on midsummer morning June 1919, four score and seven years ago on Wednesday. It was a last post-war act of defiance by Admiral Ludwig von Reuter that put paid to plans by the allies to lay claim to the defeated German navy.
"The fact that these postcards have survived at all is nothing short of amazing," says Mandy Clydesdale, conservation consultant with AOC Archaeology, a Midlothian company that specialises in restoring valuable artefacts. Since the seven German warships still remaining in Scapa Flow are now scheduled ancient monuments, Historic Scotland contacted diving scientist Bobby Forbes to recover the postcards from the Karlsruhe and pass them on to the company.
Forbes found all his skills tested to the limit when it came to removing the postcards from the wreck.
"The reason they'd survived so long was because they'd been buried in sediment," says Forbes. "There had been no water movement around them until the ship's bulkhead had started to corrode. I discovered that they'd been in tin boxes and the deteriorating metal had formed a concretion with the bulkhead metal, so getting them out was a bit of a nightmare, to put it mildly."
The tin boxes that had protected the postcards for so many years had welded the stacks together into a lump of sludge bound by rusting metal - a daunting task for the conservationists.
The postcards resembled old yogurt and proved hard to handle.
Picture: Courtesy Historic Scotland
"The more I worked with these postcards, the more I appreciated how skilful the diver had been in getting them from the wreck to the lab," says Clydesdale. "The postcards were so fragile that trying to handle them was like trying to lift slices of yoghurt."
It took nearly two years of painstaking work, but now the restored postcards forge a poignant link with the past.
The scene visible on one is informal and homely. A little girl in pigtails and a gingham dress bends purposefully over something half written, while her brother lies back against a cushion, smiling over the contents of a letter in his hand - a world away from the ghastly realities of war.
A second card shows an officer with a sling on his arm, sitting on what looks like a bench in the garden of a hospital. The sling and the uniform verify he's been wounded fighting for his country - but only slightly wounded, so the injuries don't detract from the image of the proud officer in full Address uniform with head held high and a hero-worshipping maiden in attendance.
Other scenes show flotillas of ships butting their way through choppy seas, and it's only when you compare a restored one with an original that you appreciate the skill involved in restoring them.
The only other instance of paper conservation from a shipwreck had been the Titanic where the French laboratories involved reported problems with unstable inks when it came to the restoration of postcards. What AOC Archaeology was attempting was considered a hopeless task by the Titanic conservation experts they consulted.
Staff at AOC Archaeology were basically working blind.
"It was highly technical and we had a lot of experimenting to do," says Clydesdale. "There were problems like iron sulphides from bacterial action underwater reacting with oxygen once out of the water. That gives you sulphuric acid, so just saving them, much less restoring them, was a major challenge."
The pictures on the cards, she says, were so loosely attached after soaking for almost a century at the bottom of Scapa Flow, that you could see the ink drifting off into the distilled water they were floating them in.
"The fact that bundles of cards had big lumps of iron stuck along the edges didn’t help either, and standard chemical stripping was out of the question because of damage to the filler layers. The sea water had already washed out the 'sizing' that held the fragile paper pulp in place. I'd been looking forward to the challenge of working on the cards, but I had to agree it was looking like a hopeless task."
What saved the day, thinks Clydesdale, were the small fragments of card that had been drifting around the wreck, and had been collected up. They were no use for putting together a whole card, but very handy for filling in gaps in the conservation treatment.
"I have to say we got better results than I'd expected," she says modestly.
What happens to them now remains to be seen. The decision will be up to the Receiver of Wreck, since the items were found at sea or washed ashore.
Meanwhile, 87 years on, time has stood still for a little boy and girl writing letters to papa.