Depicting the Enemy as Cowards on Postcards
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.
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."