"Sketches of Tommy's Life" Postcards
By the artist Fergus Mackain
The soldier artist Fergus Mackain, is particularly known today for his wartime postcards titled "Sketches of Tommy's Life." Full of humour and pathos they showed in
some detail what an infantryman's life could be during the Great War. The
40 cards were published by G. Savigny of Paris and P. Gaultier of Boulogne as four series of ten cards,
with each card numbered in its respective series. Superbly done in watercolours
and printed on thin card, the series were subtitled ‘In Training’, ‘At the
Base’, ’Up the line’ and ‘Out on rest’ and were aimed at British troops, who
were urged to,
"LET THEM KNOW AT HOME ABOUT YOUR LIFE IN
FRANCE by sending from time to time cards of the series…There will come a time
when you may be glad to have something of this sort to remind you of the bright
or funny side of the war."
Here is an example of the wrapper in which the first set of "Sketches of Tommy's Life" appeared.
As the war progressed the shortage of paper seems to have affected the production of picture postcards as the small print on this wrapper reveals.
"Notice.- Owing to the great shortage in the supply of paper, and the great increase of its price, the number of cards in each set has being reduced to 8 cards instead of 10."
The Sketches of Tommy's Life cards were not often sent through the post by serving soldiers. The card on which they were printed was rather flimsy and in any case, they were extremely popular with soldiers who wanted to save them in good condition as mementos of their war service. Frequently, men would collect the cards when on rest and take them home when on leave. But sometimes a card which traveled through the military and then civil postal systems does turn up - usually in a battered condition. Such a card is the one shown below.
This rather battered card was posted at "ARMY P.O.1" (Havre) and carried a 'Krag' machine cancellation from that office. It was posted on 14th August 1918 and stamped with a "PASSED BY CENSOR No. 2625". The censor also signed the card. It was addressed to Private Stanley Crooks of the 2nd Royal Scots - who was possibly a patient at the named hospital in Chelmsford. The sender of the card was his father - presumably a serving soldier. He wrote, "Dear Stan, I expect you have done your toilet many times as shown on the reverse side. Keep this card, as I shall send you some more...hope to see you soon . love and best wishes, Dad."
"At the Base - No. 8. We left the base in great style and in cattle trucks. We must have averaged a good mile an hour. The juvenile population along the way made earnest enquiries concerning our iron rations." The card is unused..
Private Fergus Mackain served with the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers - landing in France in April 1915. Mackain captured accurate depictions (in a humorous and gentle manner) of a soldiers first experience of training and trench warfare. The cards show a deep understanding of what it was like to be a soldier serving on the Western Front and were based on the artists first hand experience.
"Up the line - No. 3. We marched onto the trenches, late in the evening, going across fields on duck boards. There is nothing to be seen but shell-holes, and wintry looking trees." A young soldiers introduction to a bleak landscape devastated by shell-fire. Many of the Mackain cards have humour in them, but not this one. This scene has drawn comments that it resembles images taken during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele. The card is unused.
"Up the line. - No 4" Surrounded by trench equipment, personal belongings and trench water and mud a soldier laments the wasting of two hours work. The card is unused.
Each series sold for 1 franc 50. In later reprints this notice appeared
on the wrappers; "Owing to the great shortage in the supply of paper, and to
the great increase in its price, the number of cards in each set has been
reduced to 8 cards instead of 10." Changing the number of cards in a set
probably caused confusion among collectors at the time and maybe still does
today, as the same number does not always appear with the same picture in the
This is another battered Mackain card addressed to Private Stanley Crooks from his father serving on the Western Front. It carried a "ARMY POST OFFICE 1" (Havre) date stamp of 16th August 1918 and the writer again commented on the cards. " Dear Stan...I think you will smile at this series of cards, they will help to swell the collection in the album. Love and best wishes, Dad." Again, Censor 2625 passed the card and signed it.
"Out on rest - No. 7. It looks rather pretty to see a picture of us at dinner in the yard of one of our billets, doesn't it?" On 26th August 1918, a soldier sent this card to an address in Essex. It was was "PASSED BY CENSOR No. 2625". The message reads, "There are ten in a series price one and a half francs, so including this you should receive four more, I have posted them. There are four sets I have got two. I may get the others later. Dad."
"Up the line - No. 10. Sometimes you get so far in the rear, marching in, you are as good as lost when you come to a spot where different trenches branch off." Who else, except someone who had been there, would have expressed the comment displayed on his card? The card is unused.
"Up the line - No 7. One of the bright spots in our life." Introduced in the winter of 1914, the
rum ration was initially given to soldiers to combat the chill and discomfort of the trenches. Rum was also offered to men detailed to undertake unpleasant tasks
such as recovering and burying bodies and those about to undertake a trench raid
and of course to give 'Dutch courage' to men about to go ‘over the top’. The card is unused.
As previously mentioned, "Sketches of Tommy's life." were published by Gaultier of Boulogne - who was well placed to sell these cards - the town
hosted the main port for British forces arriving in France and nearby was the
huge British base and training camp at Etaples.
Boulogne was also a leave town and therefore an excellent
outlet for Mackain's cards. They were eagerly snapped up by troops because they
illustrated various aspects of a soldier's life in France and were ideal images to sent to family and friends at home. Mackain's realistic
illustrations have been likened to Bainsfather’s drawings – "but without the
noise and confusion".
"At the Base. - No.9. You might one day put on all your stuff, and say to yourself 'It is impossible to carry all this'. But all the time the Q.M. department is getting together a lot more to hand you as a parting gift !" This card displays the wry humor that could only be illustrated and written by someone who had been there. The card is unused.
Mackain's cards were extremely popular with the troops because they enabled the sender to express certain aspects relevant to his present circumstances, without the need to go into great detail writing about it. And all the better if it could be done in a slightly humorous manner and depicted in a way more clearly than he could explain for himself and at the same time mirror the everyday struggles that he endured.
"Up the line - No. 2. The first trench I ever saw was an old communication trench where we were taken one night on fatigue. We did more star shell gazing than trench repairing that night.! " The card is unused.
As mentioned before, most Mackain cards were set home in envelopes or taken back to the UK when the soldier went on leave. But occasionally, soldiers sent the cards through the post individually. However, as Private Stanley Crooks father found out - it was not always a good thing to do so. This was the messages he wrote on another card, "You only seemed to have received five cards, I have sent you a full set of ten."
Festive and greetings cards
well known, and certainly not as plentiful as the aforementioned cards,
set by the same artist and published by Savigny. They celebrated
the trenches and other forms of greeting. Unlike the cards from the four
series, they were not numbered but are thought to form a set of 12 or
The set was probably released in 1917, and one of the cards was a superb
watercolour illustration which depicted an 'Old Bill' type character warming
himself before a trench-brazier. His mug of tea was raised in festive greeting
as he said, "Merry Christmas! here's looking at you!"
Another in the greetings set was headed; "All GOOD
WISHES" and featured a Tommy throwing a holly-covered grenade into a German trench as he said; "Merry Christmas! The compliments of the
Another had two
soldiers writing "Merry Christmas" on holly-covered trench bombs as one said to
the other; "Remember the day Bill; Lets make these look a bit
Another card in this fine and colourful set was headed; "HAPPY
CHRISTMAS". In the picture a German shell had just exploded, nearby, a dozing
trench-fighter looked up and said, "The same to you, and many of
Another, captioned "GREETINGS
From Somewhere in France", depicted a Tommy with a sack of rations and as he
struggled along a snow‑filled trench he looked up and said, "I feel like father Christmas without the whiskers".
None of these Greetings cards were sent through the post
As already mentioned, the majority of "Sketches of Tommy's Life" postcards are found in an unused
condition because front-line troops and others took the cards home on leave or sent them home in an envelope for
their relatives to keep and save for them until their return. The cards were a light-hearted record of the everyday trials and tribulations soldiers endured "In Training", "At the Base", "Up the Line" and "Out on Rest."