Picture Postcards from the Great War

Military Terms on ww1 comic Postcards

Tony Allen

Old Terms, New Meanings

During the First World War, many familiar military words and phrases took on new meanings in the minds of comic postcard artists. Words such as ‘torpedo’, ‘front’, ‘rear’, ‘engagement’, ‘reinforced’, ‘shells’, ‘bombs', ‘leave’ and so on, and were all used in such a way to raise a laugh. Soldiers, as well as civilians were eager to purchase postcards which made fun of military life. For service men - in particular -  humorous military postcards of the period, would have helped them in a small way to cope with the often stressful situation around them.


Even before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, picture postcard publishers released a number of sets and single cards that carried amusing illustrated versions of standard military orders and phrases. For example, in 1905 - but perhaps earlier - a set of humorous 'military' cards were released. They were printed in colour in the 'Ducal Series 500 C'  for Modena & Co., 46-48 Sun Street, London. Alfred Hilton was the artist. Each of the six cards was titled "ILLUSTRATED ARMY ORDERS." There was also a caption on each card that related to a particular military command.

"ILLUSTRATED ARMY ORDERS." The card on the left, captioned 'Eyes Right' traveled from Weymouth to Barnstaple on 24th February 1905. 'Bert' wrote a brief message "Hard lines on the soldiers" The centre card, 'Right About Turn', was posted in Bridgwater on 21st July 1907 to Bristol. Much of the postmark on the card on the right - captioned 'Retreat' - is indistinct, but it can just be made out that it was posted on 2nd May 1905. There were six cards in the set. The other three were 'Present Arms' - two soldiers about to exchange blows, 'Dismount' - a donkey dislodges a soldier from its back and 'Quick March' - two soldiers spy two women at a post box.

"My word! If I  Catch you Eloping with a soldier I'll have his Retreat cut off." says the red-coated soldier to his girl. Signed by C.G. and published by the firm of C & H Gurnsey, 22 Walterton Road, Paddington, London, the card was mailed from West Ealing on 10th October 1908. Charles Gurnsey was the artist and Henry ran the business.

Cutting off a soldiers retreat, became a popular phrase used on military comic cards during WW1 too.

The command word "Attention", was probably the most used order in army life. It was also used to good effect on a number of 'military' comic cards. For example, one posted from Tavistock on 30th July 1909, titled 'With the Territorials', carried a caption which said simply 'ATTENTION'. It referred to the attention a girl in the centre of the picture was receiving from a group of eight soldiers and a small dog - which were gathered around her. The artist did not sign the card. It is depicted below.

The two horizontal cards depicted above, also carry the command word 'Attention'.  The top one, titled 'CAMP LIFE.' was posted in Scarborough on 28th August 1908, to an address in Newark-on-Trent. It was in Miller and Langs "National" Series and the message said simply, "Here once again." In all probability, the writer was a Territorial soldier enjoying the annual summer camp on the cliffs near the Yorkshire east coast town. The lower card did not travel through the post but again it was published by 'Miller & Lang Ltd., Art Publishers, Glasgow and London.' and carried the legend 'Printed in Britain.'

The Great War

Right from the start of the war -  and just as in pre-war days - postcard artists were given military terms to work with and the ingenuity in which they applied the terms to everyday situations was often amazing. Of course, it helped that the public were becoming attuned to military phrases which were being displayed everywhere on posters, newspaper placards and in newspapers. The ever popular Donald McGill was a master at double innuendo and led the way.

A McGill card in the Inter-Art  “TWO-EIGHT-ONE Series", depicted a lady of rather large proportions looking at a Daily Snail placard, which said “OPERATION IN FLANDERS, GERMANS RETREAT CUT OFF.” To which the lady retorted, “WELL, I DON’T SUPPOSE IT HURT ‘IM ANY MORE THAN SOME OF THE WOUNDS THAT OUR POOR FELLERS GET!!” This card and two more McGill are shown below

Three cards by Donald McGill, each putting a new slant on certain military terms. The card on the left "Germans' retreat cut off." was published by the Inter-Art Co., Red Lion Square, London, as No. 283 in its "TWO-EIGHT-ONE." Series. It was mailed from Folkestone to Dover on 17th October 1916. The centre card was posted at "Field Post office A.D.5" on 30 January 1917, to an address in County Durham, England. The Inter-Art Company published it as number 162 in its "ONE-SIX-ONE" Series. The card on the right, "ANOTHER BIG DRAUGHT GOING TO THE FRONT." with French and English captions, was carefully chosen by the sender who wrote, "Just a line hoping to find you quite well as it leaves me at present and I am very dry and I should like a little drop of English Beer from the Elms or a small drop of whisky." The postcard was addressed to Walter Clark, Midland Coal Dept, Leytonstone, from "your old friend J.W. Butcher No. 124335 10th T.B.R.E., D Comp, B.E.F., France." The card was number 175 in the Inter-Art Co., "K.A." Series.

The correct use of the bayonet was considered an essential skill to be be mastered by recruits and British Army training manuals insisted that "all ranks must be taught that the aim and object is to come to close quarters with the enemy as quickly as possible so as to be able to use the bayonet. This must become a second nature." 

Postcard artists often depicted British soldiers sticking bayonets into sand-bags during training and also into the enemy during hand-to-hand fighting. Both practices were usually seen as having great fun by comic artists. For example, a McGill card published by the Inter-Art Company, depicted a smiling Tommy sticking his bayonet into the huge stomach of a German soldier The caption below the picture read, "THE BRITISH FORCE IS NOW OPERATING ON AN EXTENDED FRONT."

Archibald English, on card number 411 by 'C.P.C. of London', had two portly soldiers in camp saying "It's astonishing how quickly some of the fellows here get OUT AT THE FRONT."

Elderly women and their misunderstanding of military terms was often displayed to hilarious effect by postcard artists. For example, card number 458 in the 'W.H. Series' had an old maid saying to a soldier who was dressed in a blue hospital uniform, "WHAT, INJURED LIKE THAT DURING A RECENT ENGAGEMENT? WELL, WHAT A SPITEFUL YOUNG WOMAN SHE MUST HAVE BEEN."

This card, although not depicting a military order, is worth including here. It was number 572 by ‘W.B.' and illustrated by W. Shaw, It depicted a group of khaki soldiers buying oysters from a French street vendor. They asked; 'What's the damage?' to which he replies '6d. a dozen to the troops.' The caption below the picture says; "The Shells are falling fast here. Damage to troops very slight."

Depicting a soldier patching the seat of his trousers, was frequently an excuse for postcard artists to come up with a humorous double meaning in their captions. Here are two examples.

 "DON'T WORRY! I'VE GOT A JOB AT THE BASE."  The artist of this card was Dudley Buxton.

Card number 506 by 'B. & C. London.' and titled; 'LATEST WAR NEWS' carried an illustration - by an unnamed artist - which depicted an army tailor sewing a patch on the seat of a soldiers' trousers. The caption said, 'The rear, which was somewhat exposed, is now being strongly REINFORCED!'

During the army recruiting campaigns of 1914/15, much was made by comic postcard artists of the phrase "Kitchener gets half a million men in a month." One  artist created an image of a plain middle-age spinster looking at a newspaper placard and complaining that she could not even get one man - never mind half a million. There were a number of postcard variations on this theme.

The card on the left was published by Brown & Calder of London - in their 'Savoy Series'. It was sent from Ryl to Manchester on 9th August 1915. The artist is not named. The centre card with the poster "KITCHENER WANTS YOU" was printed and published by J. Salmon of Sevenoaks. Lawrence Colborne was the artist. The card on the right was number 625 in the H.B. Series. On 7th October 1916 ,'Maggie' sent the card to Private F. Robinson who was recovering from wounds St. Thomas's Hospital, London. Maggie wrote "...hope you are getting on alright."

These three cards were signed by the master of double innuendo - Donald McGill.  The card on the left was number 1784 in the Inter-Art "COMIQUE" Series and mailed from Lancashire to Yorkshire on 23rd June 1919. The centre card was number 1666 in the "COMIQUE" Series and was unused.  The card on the right was mailed from the Western Front on 20th August 1918 to an address in Sheffield. It was number 1476 in the "COMIQUE" Series.
Here are two cards each carrying quite plausible newspaper war-time headlines. The artist 'Esmond' used his imagination to give the captions his own humerous interpretations. He signed the pictures in 1914 and the cards were probably released that year too.
Published by the "PRINTING-CRAFT LTD., LONDON AND MANSFIELD." in its "NEWS FROM THE FRONT (UNOFFICIAL) SERIES." both cards were posted in the Summer of 1915.
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