WW1 Comic Postcards
The Great War of 1914-18 was certainly not
one of the funniest events to be recorded on picture postcards, especially for
those men fighting in the mud-filled trenches of France and Belgian. However,
there were artists - both military and civilian - who were willing to inject a
little humour or satire into their postcard drawings and paintings – even when
depicting the gloomiest of situations.
The sense of humour, often displayed by the British in the face of hardship or adversity, played a major part in maintaining the moral of troops and civilians. It was a common bond and was usually good-natured and simple, while German or French humour was often vindictive. The British could laugh at themselves and at each other with sardonic sayings such as this one: "Dear Mother, this war's a bugger. Sell the pig and buy me out. John. Dear John, pig's gone. Soldier on."
The Great War
Soon after the outbreak of hostilities on 4th August 1914, postcard publishers and their artists seized the opportunity to increase sales of their cards, by recording and commenting on, both military and civilian events as they unfolded. Comedy and humour were popular themes and just as in peacetime - people found themselves in funny situations, or said or did amusing things, which would have been splendid subject matter for postcard artists. For instance, in 1915, a private in a reserve trench wrote home,
"I have not long ago finished my tea and it took me nearly an hour to get a biscuit with butter and jam on it down me. I was finishing the last bite when I found I was chewing one of my false teeth. That makes the third one I have had, gone west. If I loose anymore I am afraid I shall have to go in for an Army issue of upper ones. I hope they fit better than the lower ones the Army gave me - I am wearing those in my pocket. Still I shan't complain, as we are here to kill Germans not to eat them."
Another potential comic postcard involved a carrier pigeon. Pigeons were
often the only means of sending a dispatch from the front line when trench
telephones were damaged by artillery bombardment or troops were rapidly moving
forward. One message flown from the front, turned out to be very different to
that expected. During the Somme offensive of 1916,
Major Bernard Montgomery was
at Brigade Headquarters when a long expected messenger pigeon was seen on the
horizon, bringing what was hoped would be important news of the British
offensive. Monty said, "At last the cry went up; 'The Pigeon', and
sure enough back it came and alighted safely in the loft."
As the soldiers rushed to get the news the Brigade Commander brushed them aside and roared out, "give me the message." This is what it said; "I am absolutely fed up with carrying this bloody bird about France."
Fortunately, there were many popular comic artists whose work did appear in the postcard racks between 1914 and 1918. For example, Donald McGill, Fred Spurgin, Reg Maurice, Doug Tempest, Reg Carter, Arthur English, Dudley Buxton, T. Gilson, Lawson Wood, Bert Thomas, Fergus Mackain and Bruce Bainsfather - to name a few. Brief details of some of these artists and their work is mentioned below.
Donald McGill - one of the best known of all comic postcard artists - had
a career which spanned 54 years. Born into a middle-class family in 1875, he
was one of seven children and as a child attended a private school in
Blackheath. At the age of sixteen, McGill lost a foot in an accident while
playing rugby and was fitted with an artificial one. After attending art school
he worked as a naval architect for some time and then as an engineering
In 1908, he became a postcard artist working from his home in
Blackheath, Kent. During his long career making people laugh, his jokes covered
almost every subject imaginable. Including drunks, seaside, politics, transport,
sport, fashion, children, vicars, fat ladies, romance - and many social and
military topics during the Great War.
It has been estimated that during his
career, McGill produced around 10,000 different postcard designs and with a
mischievous sense of humour, illustrations and comments about women's
undergarments was one of his favourite subjects for saucy postcards.
Donald McGill frequently drew attention to women's underwear in his comic postcard designs, as the 'Inter-Art' card on the right demonstrated. So too did an artist who apparently signed himself 'JUTOBUL', on the rather cleverly drawn image on the card on the left. It was published by C.P.C. of London.
It was not only women's underwear which fascinated McGill. The Scotsman and his kilt was another favourite, and never more so than during the Great War. Prior to the outbreak of war, 'Joseph Asher & Co.' released a card illustrated by this great comic artist. It depicted a donkey with its head over a fence tugging the kilt of a Scottish soldier, while his girl stood behind him. In the distance, an officer approaches and the soldier standing to attention says, "LEAVE GO, LASSIE - DINNA YE SEE HERE'S TH' COLONEL COMIN!"
The card on the left is the pre-war 'Joseph
Asher' card - mentioned above. The card on the right is similar to it, but was
published several years later by the Inter-Art Co. as number 286 in its
"TWO-EIGHT-ONE" series and was postally used on 17th November 1916.
Although both cards are of similar design, there are obvious differences, the
wording of the caption is slightly different too. However, the girl is still
wearing her blue dress and the timber fence remains.
Who else but Donald McGill with his sharp and inventive mind could have solved the problem confronting a large lady and her equally large soldier friend - who simply wanted to share a kiss, but were unable to do so because of their size?
The card above was published by the Inter-Art Company as card number 1620 in its 'COMIQUE' series. The card below is another in the Inter-Art "COMIQUE" series, number 2331, and depicted a man 'going before the tribunal' to plead his case against being conscripted into the army. Their brief was "to get as many men for the army as possible." The tribunals usually included a 'Military Representative, a Magistrate and two 'upstanding citizens of the community' Even the man's reply of "…helping to make airyplanes." would probably not have saved him, as most men engaged in this work were released for army service and their jobs took over by women.
"Recruits" by Donald MaGill
Probably released at the time of Kitchener's recruiting programme in the late summer of 1914 (but certainly by April 1915) the inter-Art Company produced a set of six comic cards titled ‘RECRUITS’. Illustrated by the master of comedy, Donald McGil, these distinctive cards with their red and blue borders, depicted the volunteers performing a variety of tasks - accompanied by an amusing comment. For instance, number 920 showed a recruit receiving a vaccination jab and saying; 'I shan’t come back without a scar anyway!' Number 922 depicted a man heaving a bag of coal to 'Kitchener's Recruits Coal Store' and saying; 'Well, I've done my bit if I never see a German!' Three more from the set are shown below.
The card on the left displaying a box containing tins of cocoa and captioned "KITCHENER'S"? - NOT HALF!! was No.925 in the set and was postally used on 16th June 1916. The card on the right, depicting an exhausted recruit saying, " - AND THEN WE HAVE THE$ REST OF THE DAY TO OURSELVES !" was number 923. The centre card depicting two soldiers and a handcart inscribed 'Kitchener's Recruits', was No. 921 and was posted in Lurgan on 23rd April 1915.
Born Izydor Spurgin in 1882 and of Latvian origin, Fred Spurgin came to Britain with his parents and two brothers in 1900. Success in his chosen career soon came with advertisements, magazine and book illustrations and postcard des.igns.
Between 1906-08, at least twelve postcard publishers were happy to use
Fred's artwork, including J. Beagles & Co., and The Regent Pub. Co. In 1908
Spurgin began placing his work with the ‘Avenue Pub. Co.,’ but by 1911 it seems
that the ‘Inter-Art Co.’ had became exclusive publishers of his postcard
In 1916, his brother Maurice established the ‘Art and Humour Pub. Co.’ as an outlet for Fred’s work and like Donald McGill, many of Fred’s wartime comic postcards were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and tastes. There were cards on patriotism, politics, women at work, comments on government policy, and a host of other topics.
The card on the left, titled "GETTING STOUT AND BITTER, AS USUSAL." was a comment on the Governments increasing control of the liquor trade. It was thought that munitions workers were drinking far too much and "seriously retarding the work of production." In some areas 'opening hours' were drastically reduced or licenses withdrawn altogether. The first of the two 'things' the card on the right referred to was the Derby Armlet.In 1915, it was obvious that volunteers alone would not be enough to fill the army's needs and in the near future some form of conscription problem necessary. Men who wore the armband (it was a voluntary scheme started by Lord Derby) promised to join the Army when called upon to do so.
Doug Tempest, born in Norfolk in July 1887, was the son of a schoolmaster. After leaving school, Dougie went into office work but soon gave it up and went to study at the Leeds School of Art, where he impressed his teachers and won several prizes. When he left art school, he worked as a freelance artist for several fashion magazines and in 1912 joined Bamforths the postcard publishers.
When war broke out and unable to join the army because of
a heart defect, Tempest decided to help the war effort in the best way he could
- he used his artistic talent to make people laugh.
His wartime comic illustrations capitalized on the British ability to laugh at themselves in times of hardship and he produced cards to encourage recruitment, made jokes about food shortages, made fun of munitions work and poked gentle fun at convalescent soldiers.
These two cards display typical Doug
Tempest humour. The card on the left was published by 'Bamforth & Co. Ltd.'
and was number 627 in its 'WITTY Series.' The card on the right was another
Bamforth one and was number 386 in its 'COMIC Series.' According to the notice
on the fence, munitions workers were not allowed to take any holidays.
When people at home looked through the postcard racks, what did they think of the numerous pictures there, which made fun or joked about the discomfort and miseries of trench life? Most people, no doubt, would smile, but others perhaps would think of their loved ones fighting at the front in conditions, which in truth, were often very similar to those depicted on 'comic' cards, and perhaps would not be too amused. Dudley Buxton illustrated such scenes perfectly and two of his laconic illustrations are shown below.
The card on the left displayed Buxton's whimsical sense of humour as two Tommy's momentarily forget the danger and discomfort of their own situation and comment on that of someone else. The card was number 2158 in Inter-Art's "COMIQUE" series. The card on the right was another by Inter-Art in the "COMIQUE" series and was number 2032. Again, it displayed a trench fighter's regard for someone else despite the appalling conditions in which he found himself. Another Buxton card in the popular "COMIQUE” series depicted a soldier just out of the trenches and in safer surroundings. As he sewed a large patch on the seat of his trousers he said, with a one-eyed smile, "DON'T WORRY! I'VE GOT A JOB AT THE BASE!" It was card number 1774.
Reg Carter was born in 1886 in Southwold, Suffolk, where he lived for most his life. He was a member of the North British Academy and contributed to magazines like The Sketch and The Tatler. A versatile and prolific comic artist, his postcard work was produced by a number of publishers - including himself. Below are two comic cards by Reg Carter, both were published by J. Salmon of Sevenoaks.
The reference to submarines on the card on the left was Reg Carter's comic reaction to a German menace, which was taking its toll on British shipping. The U-boats were gaining a stranglehold on the country and forcing food prices to rise and according to the old lady in the fishmongers - even the North Sea fish were looking depressed. The card was number 1426. The card on the right with the boy's comic response to the old man's question, was number 652.
The postcards of Reg Carter - like those of
Donald McGill - were sometimes quite saucy. For example, "The Khaki Boys" depicted an attractive large-bosomed girl sat on a park bench next to her
soldier boyfriend. His arms was clasped around her upper-body. The caption said "The British Army has never had it's hands more full than now, but we can rely
upon it to attend successfully to the matter in hand."
Before conscription into the army was introduced, a certain class of young men existed, for whom everything was "to much bally trouble" or "too much fag." They were the "Nuts". Some artists in their comic postcard illustrations attempted to persuade these young men to do their duty and join the army. Reg Maurice thought that if any of the Knuts refused to become soldiers, then at least they should be willing to could join the munitions workers instead, as a card shown below demonstrates.
The card on the right refers to the young men known as Nuts. It was Number 2251 in ‘The Regent Series’. A 1917 account of the activities of a Nut described him as "…the finest flower of youthful male fashion. He was an elegant idler…smoked incessant cigarettes…cultivated a manner almost effeminate. He made harmonies of neckties and symphonies of socks…His chief attitude to life was to be "fed-up" with everything that imposed any strain, physical, moral, or mental." But as the war intensified the Nut vanished and "the young Britain leapt to life and the call of his race was answered in his blood, and his fripperies dropped from him. He now lies under many a white cross in the fair land of France." The card on the left was Maurice's comic interpretation of a soldiers daily ablutions in water filled trenches and was 2569 in ‘The Regent Series’.
Born in Holmfirth in 1882, Fred Gothard went into banking after he left school and with an interest in art, began working part-time on postcard illustrations. His first commercial card appeared in 1904, it ridiculed the upper-classes and was titled; "The Flower of the family, the blooming idiot." Gothard began working for the publisher Thomas Hind of Huddersfield and as well as signing his work “F.G” he also used the alias “Spatz” - probably to protect his job, which at that time was a junior bank clerk. (At the end of his working life he was manager of a large city centre bank in Manchester.)
Whilst working for Thomas Hind, Gothard produced two series of humorous cards. The first consisted of 85 and the second 45 and poked gentle fun at many aspects of life in the first decade of the 20th century. Typical “F.G.” postcard humour depicted a diner in conversation with the waiter at dinner, “Where’s the lamb?” – “Under one of the peas, Sir.” - “Which, this one?” – “No Sir, The other one.” The captions on the cards usually appeared in Gothard's own distinctive handwriting.
During the Great War he put his artistic talent to good use and in 1916 produced a series of postcard illustrations for the company of E. Mack. Examples are shown here. Gothard was conscripted into the army in 1917, but nevertheless continued with his drawings.
This card, published by E.Mack displayed typical Fred Gothard humour in his distinctive style.
Here are three more cards initialed by Fred Gothard. Teasing the army, they were produced in the typical bright colours which he frequently executed his work.
The above card was mailed to Eastbourne
on 8th November 1918 - three days before the end of the Great War!
The Gothard card on the left, was printed and published by both. Salmon of Sevenoaks and E. Mack of King Henry's Road, Hampstead, London, . It was number 1399. The card on the right, printed by E. mack and mailed from Lincoln to Scotland on 16th April 1917, was number 1282.
Lawson Wood was born in Highgate in 1878
into a wealthy family already well established in the art world. A private
education and then training at Calderson’s School of Animal Painting, gave him
a grounding for his intended career. His first job was with the publishing
company of Arthur Pearson, where he stayed until 1902 and then went freelance.
By 1906, his comic style was at its height and his sense of humour biting and
witty. Between 1906 and 1909 many of his postcard illustrations were published
by Valentine's, most in sets of six - including the superb "Rules for Rollers".
When the Great War broke out, Lawson Wood joined the Royal Flying Corps and served with gallantry in the Kite Balloon Wing. In 1915, his illustrations appeared on a set of patriotic postcards in the "St. Clair War Series", which praised the stoicism and devotion to duty of the British soldier. The following year, the Inter-Art Company published a series of comic cards bearing the artist's work and although they depicted only mildly humorous wartime themes - the artwork was superb!
The card on the left captioned "After you Mother !" was number 1596 and one of Lawson Wood's contributions to Inter-Art's 'ARTISTIQUE' series. The card on the right was another of Wood's contributions in the 'ARTISTIQUE' series. The centre card depicted a rather confused and short-sighted elderly lady approaching a sailor in uniform and asking him why he was not in the army yet.
Here is Bruce Bairnsfather's page
Here is Fergus MacKain's page
Humour was vitally important during the Great War in bringing groups of people together and although the conflict was really no laughing matter, comic and humourous picture postcards played an important role in achieving this and could therefore be considered as significant historical documents.