Picture Postcards from the Great War

"Sketches of Tommy's Life" Postcards

 By the artist Fergus Mackain

Tony Allen

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."

sketches of Tommy's life packet
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.
washing in the trenches
ww1 sent through the post mackain card

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. ww1 postcard
"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
"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.
Mackain ww1 trench life postcard
"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 reduced sets.
ackain Out on rest
ww1 mackain card used
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.

Mackains rum ration ww1 postcard
"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.
Mackain ww1 postcard

"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

Perhaps less well known, and certainly not as plentiful as the aforementioned cards, was a set by the same artist and published by Savigny. They celebrated Christmas in 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 even more.
Mackain ww1 postcard
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 season."

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 cheerful."

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 them." 

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". 

Best Thanks ww1 postcard
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."

Fergus Mackain's Wartime Sketches  An excellent and informative site on the Great War illustrations of Private Fergus Mackain.

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