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 - from a motor cycle dispatch rider - 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, Archibald 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.
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?
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 McGill, 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 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 designs.
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 would be 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 three 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.' Centre: Another Doug Tempest card published by Bamforth - number 666. 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 - but the shells they made went to France.
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 left displayed Buxston'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 in the centre is another Buxton one from the
popular "COMIQUE” series and 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. The card on the right was
another depicting trench life and was also from the "COMIQUE" series. As the soldier writes to his mother an empty tin of plum pudding floats by.
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.
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.
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 - but not always.
During the Great War, Gothard 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 four more cards initialed by Fred Gothard. 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! It was number 1400.
The card on the left was number 127 in the Fred Gothard series and posted to Aldershot on 15th June 1917. The recipient was Gunner A.G. Trevillian who was billeted on "Line 1, Room 6, 401 Siege Battery R.G.A., Martinique Barracks, Bordon Camp." The message on the reverse reads, "My Dearest, Just a line to let you know we are all safe after the raid thank God and hope you are the same...what lovely weather we are having. I wish we could block out this terrible war..." Centre: Mailed from Skegness to Boston this card was number 1290. Right: Card number 1398 posted on 23rd July 1918 from Tiverton to Tunbridge Wells. The writer was "Having a good time in Devon."
Verse and illustrations laughing at the Army
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.
During the Great War, humour was frequently aimed at diffusing tension and satirising fears. Humorous picture postcards provide an insight into the ways in which soldiers dealt with their fears and the ways in which they tried to cope with the situation around them.
The cartoon postcards of the front-line soldier Captain Bruce Bainsfather, are a good example of this - he countered fear by making light of it. Good morale was essential to the troops and comedy was an outlet through which frustration, anger, fear, and even terror could be expressed.
Soldiers serving in the trenches desperately needed something to laugh about and in addition to postcards, several humorous publications were started to cater for their needs. For instance, on 20th March 1915 a magazine called The Passing Show was launched. It was a cheaper version of Punch and cost one penny. A popular trench publication was The Wipers Times.
On 31st May 1916, another publication appeared - it was Blighty. Subtitled 'A Budget of Humour from Home.' Blighty was distributed free to members of the forces and subsidised by private firms. It carried cartoons reproduced from magazines and newspapers and original contributions from servicemen who were advised by the art editor to "be as funny as you can, but do not ridicule Fritz too bitterly; you might be captured with a copy of the paper in your pocket." A contribution to Blighty showed an exasperated N.C.O. and his disdain for raw recruits, when he bawled; "Why, I've seen hofficers what 'ad more brains than some of yer."
In times of adversity the British could laugh at themselves and were not afraid to do so and these three postcards make the point perfectly. The centre card was by the artist Archibald English and was his comic interpretation of the fearlessness of one of
'Kitchener's Men.' Posted on 5th August 1915, it was number 156 in the 'H.B.
Series.' The card on the right was printed in Saxony before the outbreak of the
war - for an unnamed British publisher. The picture was unsigned by the artist
but was No. A415 in the series "Our Terriers" and was mailed from
Cricklewood to March on 7th January 1913. Would the picture of the territorial
soldier displayed thereon and the words he said, have instilled fear into the
German printers? - probably not! The artist did not sign the card on the left.
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 humorous picture postcards played an important role in achieving this and could therefore be considered as significant historical documents.
Links to other postcard artists on this site