Picture Postcards from the Great War

Depicting the Enemy as Cowards on Postcards

Tony Allen

Some British postcard artists helped the anti-German propaganda machine by depicting German soldiers as fools and cowards. The British called the Germans “Fritz”, “Boche”, and “Hun” - after the fierce Mongol people who entered Europe in the fourth century A.D. and occupied Germanic lands with a reputation for barbarism and cruelty. Postcard publishers were quick to stereotype the Germans in the way they thought the public viewed them – hugely fat (due to the large amount of sausages they ate) incompetent, wore spectacles, and spoke in broken English.

In November 1914, a set of comic cards, published by E. Mack of London and illustrated by Lawrence Colborne appeared in the postcard racks. The pictures thereon, depicted German soldiers running away or hiding from the enemy. A theme perhaps not appreciated by some British soldiers who had already fought against the enemy in the opening months of the war and knew from bitter experience that German soldiers did not behave in the way Colborne had illustrated.
The 27th Canadians ww1 postcard
ww1 East Yorks postcard
Published by E. Mack, the above type of cards were sold in large numbers in the garrison towns and military camps all over the country. The publisher found a way to appeal to individual regiments and even down to battalion level by printing the names of different units on cards often carrying the same picture. The card on the left dedicated to the "27th Canadians", also appeared as "Hurrah for the 4th WELSH!"  The card in the centre was aimed at  members of the Royal Naval Division, but any regiment or unit could be substituted - as the card on the right demonstrates.

Depicting German soldiers as overweight and incompetent, who quickly surrendered to the Allies - would have been a gift to the British recruitment campaign. If enemy soldiers were thought to behave as those depicted on Colborne’s cards, then perhaps more young men could be encouraged to join and fight. In 1914, the next best thing to hate was ridicule.
ww1 postcard no caption

Two more cards depicting German soldiers as incompetent. The card on the left was number 741, and - rather unusual for these cards - was not over-printed with a unit caption. Two captions which did appear on cards carrying this particular picture were, "For gootness sake go back! Here kom der British.""For gootness sake go back! Here kom der Canadians." and "For gootness sake go back! Here kom der RANGERS." The card on the right was posted on 7th April 1917 with this message: "I am quite well. This German has just seen me passing - What!" The card is number 683 and other versions of it had the words "Grenadier Guards" substituted with "14th Battalion" or "4th Cheshires".

However, the above form of illustrated contempt for the enemy was soon realized by the propaganda authorities as having a negative effect. Arthur Ponsonby said, people were soon asking, "Why, if this is the sort of material we are fighting against had we not wiped them of the field in a few weeks?"

In reality, most British soldiers looked upon their enemy counterpart as an equal and there are recorded incidents when they expressed admiration for German heroism, valor and decency. For example, during the British advance towards Passchendaele in August 1917, Signaller Randell Heffer was amazed to see that German prisoners volunteered to stretcher wounded British soldiers back to the dressing stations after no one else could be spared to do the task. Heffer said later, "People are always ready to speak ill of Fritz but I hold him with all respect and so would anybody else if they had seen the way the German prisoners worked…they kept it up all day."

Even before Heffer had seen German prisoners helping wounded British soldiers from the battlefield of Passchendaele in 1917, other PoW's had done the same thing during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The very first card in the Daily Mail Battle Pictures series of 176 cards featured German prisoners carrying a wounded British soldier. The caption on the reverse of card number one said: "A wounded “Tommy” being carried to camp by four German prisoners, suddenly sees the photographer and shouts to him, “Hullo! I’m not a German.”'

There were many instances when British soldiers acknowledged respect for their German counterpart and knew the demonisation by the propagandists and the cowardice suggested by Colbourne’s postcard paintings was not true. In the aftermath of battle, wounded enemies sometimes helped each other to survive. For instance, a lance corporal of the Liverpool Scottish, badly wounded in No-Mans-Land, owed his life to a German soldier, himself wounded - but less so than the lance corporal. The German helped the Englishman into an abandoned dug-out and on four consecutive days ventured out to find water for them and each time got hit.  Eventually, British stretch-bearers found the two wounded men. The lance corporal said to them, "Take him first as he has saved my life." Another time, stretcher-bearers found, in a shell-hole already waist deep in water, "an Englishman and a Fritz with their arms around each other’s necks trying to comfort each other."

After the war, the respected war correspondent Phillip Gibbs perhaps summed it all up when he said, "At the close of the day the Germans acted with civility, which I was not allowed to tell at the time."

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