ww1 Poetry and Verse on Postcards - Tony Allen
This small Collection of postcard poems and
verse from the Great War are not from the famous middle-class war poets such as Siegfried Sasson, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden, Robert
Brooke - the public-school officer, or Issac Rosenberg - the working-class
private. Most are from ordinary people, whose only claim-to-fame was the poem
or verse they wrote which was then printed on a postcard and sold – usually in
support of a favourite war charity.
The book, English Poets of the First World War; A bibliography by Catherine Reilly, lists 2,225 British Great War poets, of whom 417 were in khaki. Some of the verse cards featured here were composed by soldiers, but the majority were by civilians. Besides the privately produced cards, commercial postcard publishers released verse and poetry cards in large numbers and some are shown here. Much of the verse was patriotic and over-sentimental.
The majority of ww1 postcard verse is not seen in any other medium and many verses only saw the light of day because they appeared on a postcard.
IntroductionBefore the outbreak of the 1914 conflict, 'working-class' poetry was traditionally published in local newspapers. When war came, the amateur poets willingly contributed to the national propaganda machine by sending their rousing and patriotic verses to local and also the national press.
Another outlet which the amateur poets used for their work, was the medium of the picture postcard. In the early days of the conflict, poetry and verse cards offered a way for ordinary men and women and even children, to express their patriotism. The mood of optimistic fervor with which so many people greeted the outbreak of war, provided the amateur poets an opportunity to compose verse about “heroism”, “self-sacrifice” and “doing your duty for King and Country”.
A Verse Postcard Marking the Outbreak of the War
On 28th June 1914, a young Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip,
assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his consort during a
state visit to Sarajevo. The Austrian government accused the Serbian government
of complicity in the murder and on 28th July declared war on Serbia.
The following day Britain took precautionary measures including the recall of officers and men on leave and the manning of coastal defenses. During the next few days Russia, Belgium, France and Germany all began to mobilize their armed forces. Britain too, reluctantly began plans to mobilize. But it was not until 3rd August, when Germany declared war on France, and then on 4th August when Germany invaded Belgian, that direct British involvement - due to a series of treaties of 1870 - became inevitable.
Most aspects of the war were recorded on picture postcards and some on poetry and verse cards, and one, shown below, heralded the start of the Great War 1914-1918.
The message on this comercialy produced postcard from ‘Robert’ to ‘Alick’ reads; "I am in the pink here, hoping that you enjoyed the smoking out of the fags you got out of my drawer."
"Call to Arms" Verse Postcards
Many of the early verse cards ‘called the nation to arms’ and Harold Begbie, a well known writer, was one of the first to start the ball rolling with a poem in the Daily Chronicle titled “FALL IN!”. It encouraged young men to join the army before the girls disowned them. Within days of its newspaper appearance the poem appeared on postcards.
Two privately produced verse postcards. The poem on the card on the left, titled "To the Day", was composed by Harry Bilsborough on 17th August 1914, in the Pavilion Theatre in Morley in Yorkshire. Proceeds from sales went to the "National Relief Fund." Bilsborough welcomed Germany's declaration of war with these words; ‘"To the Day" for years they have toasted, "To the Day” and its victories boasted, "The Day" has come - the fight has started, And from their hopes Dame Fortunes’ parted.’ However, Bilsborough's poem was a little to optimistic, for less than a week later the B.E.F. fought the Germans at Mons and after a ferocious battle there - retreated back into France with its French Allie. British school children composed verses to help various funds and one fourteen-year old boy saw his efforts appearing in print on the postcard on the right. His name was Harold Huntbach and his poem was titled "RETRIBUTION". The poem called for Germany to be severely punished for starting the war. Profits from the card went to the "Guardian Shilling Fund."
The German Invasion of Belgium
“Your king and country need you. A CALL TO ARMS. An addition of 1,000,000 men to His Majesty’s Regular Army is immediately necessary in the present grave National Emergency, Lord Kitchener is confident that this appeal will be at once responded to by all those who have the safety of our Empire at heart."
Day after day, the recruiting posters and advertisements appeared and as a surge of patriotism swept the country - the recruits came forward. On 25th August, Kitchener informed the House that the first 100,000 were “already practically secured.” Some of the recruits further showed their patriotism by composing rousing verses and displaying them on postcards.
The last verse was a rather optimistic view of when the war would end!
Remembering a Soldier Away on Active Service
'P. E. M.' and the proceeds of any sales of the cards went to a local V. A. D. hospital.
Remembering someone left behind
Some people found in verse cards the sentiment that they wanted to convey to another but could not express it themselves. In addition, if the verse was not signed perhaps it gave more of a feeling to the receiver that their soldier had created it.
The lampooning of Kaiser Bill
Two verse cards titled "The Kaiser's Dream" both expressed the same sentiment - but with some words changed. The card on the left was published by 'E. Mack, King Henry's Road, London, N. W.' There are no publishers details on the reverse of the card on the right, but in pencil was written "This is a good one for Sister F. Lorrie." It seems the verses from one of the cards had been pirated from the other!
Life in the Trainning Camps
Probably the most prolific type of verse card produced during the conflict was those
that gave satirical descriptions of army camps and a soldier’s life in them. In 1914/15, as Kitchener's men trained in the military camps at home, enterprising publishers released a number of cards of verses relating to individual camps - with each named on the top of the card. One publisher used the same poem on a number of cards, with the name of the camp at the top of the card and also placed within the text. Frequently, some of the words were different. Examples for "Sutton Veny Camp" and "Brocton Camp" are shown below. There are no publisher's details on either card.
Some of the text on these two cards was not the same, although the sentiment clearly was. Other verse cards that carried similar text included; "Crowborough camp". "Larkhill Camp", "Southwick Camp", "Rugeley Camp", "Brockton Camp" and "Gooden Camp", A card that could be used from any camp was titled "At Our Camp." There were almost certain to be other named camps in this series of verse cards.
Two privately produced cards. The card on the left carried a light-hearted verse composed by 'F. J. W.' of what life was like at Lathom Park Camp. The card on the right composed by 'Jimmy W.', gave a flavour of life at Tidworth camp and at the end of the poem the soldier was wishing the war was over and that he was "...back at home."
A card from a Series of Verse cards and a message
The card was printed and published by J. Salmon of Sevenoaks, England.
Edith Cavell Remembered
Edith Cavell, the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman entered the London Hospital in 1895 as a probationer and afterwards nursed in England for several years. In 1907, she was appointed matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels, which she transformed into a highly regarded teaching hospital.
After the outbreak of war in 1914, the hospital came under the auspices of the Belgian Red Cross. However, Cavell and her staff not only aided the sick and wounded but also gave sanctuary to escaping allied soldiers. In August 1915, Cavell was arrested by the Germans for "harboring aliens and helping them to escape." In due course, she was sentenced to death, and despite diplomatic efforts to save her was shot by firing squad on 12th October 1915. Just before her death she said, "Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough."
Cavell’s execution was a gift to the British propaganda machine, coming as it
did just a few months after the sinking of the Lusitania. The amateur poets were quick to put pen to paper in their praise of Nurse Edith Cavell and many of their verses appeared in local and national newspapers and some, inevitably - found their way onto postcards.
The verses on the card on the left were by Archibald MacCallum and first appeared in the Glasgow Weekly Herald in November 1915. The name of the publisher of the card is not given. However, we are told that the card was in the 'Dixon-Shaw Series.' "To the Memory of Edith Cavell." The verses on the card on the right were composed by a serving soldier - Lewis V. Baker who served in the 'Third Field Bakuy (sic) Bakery ?
In Memory of the Girls with Yellow Hands
Working in munitions during the conflict was obviously extremely dangerous and during the war there were explosions at several factories in Britain. There were other health risks too. For example, recommendations were made that no woman under 18 years of age or over 40 should work with Trinitrotoluene (T.N.T.). T.N.T. produced in those handling it, a strange discolouration of the skin and hair which turned bright yellow and sometimes the latter turned bright ginger. It could "not be washed out but just wore off" - said a worker and those affected in this way were commonly known as "Canaries." Other medical disorders attributed to working with T.N.T. included loss of memory, delirium, convulsions and even coma. In 1916, a postcard of verses was published which was dedicated to "THE GIRLS WITH YELLOW HANDS".
Verse and illustrations laughing at the military
The card on the left was by an unknown publisher - but signed 'T.P.' by the artist. The card on the right was anonymous.
The Death of Lord Kitchener
On Monday 5th June 1916, Lord Kitchener sailed from Thurso to Scapa Flow aboard the destroyer H.M.S. Royal Oak. He was on a mission to St. Petersburg to persuade the Czar and his generals to remain in the war. On arrival at Scapa Flow, Kitchener was met by Admiral Jellicoe and other officers of the Grand Fleet and dined on the Admirals flagship before he and his staff boarded H.M.S. Hampshire.
Hampshire set sail for Russia at 4.40pm accompanied by two escort destroyers H.M.S. Victor and H.M.S. Unity. As a storm began to rage, the two slower destroyers were unable to keep up with Hampshire and returned to base, leaving the faster vessel to plough on into a force nine gale. Just a few miles into her voyage, Hampshire hit a mine and within ten minutes had sunk.
There were only twelve survivors from a crew of 655 and Kitcheners' party of seven. Kitchener was not among them.
Later, it was reported that a week before the incident the German submarine U75 had laid 36 mines in the area.
For some time after Lord Kitchener’s death there were a number of fanciful rumours circulating that he had not gone down with the Hampshire when it sank in June 1916, but had survived. One even suggested Kitchener had been spirited away to a secret place, from where he was planning a master-stroke which would end the war.
Verse cards for the Home Front
Fund-raising through Verse
Many of the privately produced cards that carried just a poem appeared
rather bland and some publishers got over this by placing above the poem,
crossed union jack flags or flags of the Allies, which added a little colour to the
card. Examples are shown below.
Zeppelin Raids and the Gordons at Hooge
The card on the left carries the title “The Zeppelin Raid.” and mentions in verse an incident that occurred in the month of September. Which year of the war- it does not mention. One of the most famous Zeppelin raids that took place over Britain was on the 3rd September 1916, when pilot 2nd Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson shot down the airship SL-11 over the village of Cuffley. The blazing wreck landed behind the Plough Inn and was the first airship shot down on British soil. Robinson received a Victoria Cross for his actions that day. A number of artist’s impressions of the incident also appeared on picture postcards. Could the above incident be the one commemorated on the verse card – Perhaps! There were other Zeppelin raids in September of other years too. For instance, on 7th September 1915, an airship dropped several dozen small bombs on Cheshunt and destroyed a row of greenhouses which had probably been mistaken for factory roofs. Could this have been the raid commemorated on the postcard? The raid on Hull on 2nd September 1917 – is another example. The defenders of this northern port on the East Coast were ready for the Zepp when it approached the city on 2nd September and opened fire on it, forcing the airship to retreat without dropping a single bomb. But three weeks later on the 24th September the Zepps returned. The night visibility was bad and the anti-aircraft gunners were unable to fend off the attack. Forty-four bombs were dropped on Hull and 16 people were killed that September night. It seems fair to suggest that the verse card referred to the Hull raid, because printed at the bottom of the card is this, “Waller, Printer. Queen Street, Hull.”
Verses Dedicated to the Amy Service Corps
The Cross at Neuve Chapelle and the Battle of Cambrai
Occasionally, verse cards from the Great War told of battles or actions in which the British Army was involved. Two such cards, one commemorating the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the second the battle of Cambrai in October 1918, are illustrated below.
Verse in Aid of Funds for the Blinded
On Christmas Day 1915, The Illustrated London News informed
its readers that, "in a corner of London's most beautiful park is a house where
miracles are worked." It was to this house that soldiers and sailors were
brought who had suffered the cruelest injury that war could inflict ‑ they had
been blinded. The house was in Regent's Park and it was St Dunstan's Hostel.
The world famous organization housed in the park issued a number of fund‑raising
picture postcards during the Great War. Many charities and individuals supported St. Dunstan's and the work it did and one of the methods they used was to compose a verse or poem, print it on a postcard and sell it for one or two pence.
The fund-raising verse card on the left was sold "IN AID of THE FUNDS of ST. DUNSTAN'S BLINDED SOLDIERS' & SAILORS' HOSTEL." The card on the right carried verses by L. Jones of Sileby and the proceeds from sales went to "...our blind Soldiers and sailors."
Verse in support of the Y.M.C.A.
In November 1914, the War Office permitted the Young Men's Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) to join the British expeditionary Force on the Continent and the Red Triangle appeared at the great bases at Havre, Rouen, Calais, Boulogne and Etaples and the advanced base at Abbeville. In those areas it organized sports, lectures and concerts for the soldiers on rest there. Once the Y.M.C.A. was established on the Lines of Communication, it began to prepare for the inevitable call that would take it into areas near the front. By 1916 over 180 centres had been constructed near the front line. One centre - the Treopwood Hut - was within one mile of the enemy and was hit by shell and shrapnel over 50 times before it was eventually destroyed by German artillery. Perilous though their position was, Y.M.C.A. workers continued to serve and maintain the huts near the battle-zone. The Y.M.C.A.’s ‘open-door’ policy and the ‘home for home’ atmosphere it cultivated in the huts, played a major part in helping to keep morale high among the troops and its contribution to the war effort was of monumental importance. The compoiser of a poetry card shown below obviously thought so too.
Verses in Support of Prisoners of War
The plight of prisoners of War was not forgotten by the verse composers and their efforts appeared on cards which were sold by private individuals and charities in support of the prisoners.
The Aftermath of the War
At 11.00 a.m. on 11th November 1918, hostilities came to a sudden end. On 24th November, the Prime Minister Lloyd George told the British people his task was now "to make Britain a fit land for heroes to live in." As the military forces demobilised, returning soldiers boosted the economy with their gratuities, but the post-war boon lasted only until the end of 1919, and the vision of the land fit for heroes began to fade. The 'twenties' were a period of industrial unrest; the General Strike of 1926 was only one of a series of strikes in the early post-war years.
The disability of war wounds and rising unemployment forced many desperate ex-servicemen to turn to begging on the streets or knocking on doors hoping to be given a few hours manual work. Some ex-soldiers earned a few coppers selling bootlaces and matches, and - of course - postcards!
"I heard my country calling."
The poem, "I heard my country calling" first appeared in the Hackney Spectator on 7th May 1917. The same verse was printed on each of these three postcards and the accompanying message was the same - but presented differently on each. In addition, the name of an ex-soldier was printed on the bottom right hand corner of each card. The card in the foreground was offered to the public for two pence - by Charles Booth, ex-West Riding Regiment, who was out of work and in desperate need of help!
Ten Years After
At the outbreak of the Great War, Sir
Douglas Haig was given command of 1 Corps and was one the few who believed
that the conflict would be long and bloody. In December 1915, he succeeded Sir
John French as commander of British forces. In 1916, Haig was in charge of the
offensive with which he is most often associated, The Battle of the Somme. Much
has been written since, both for and against Haig's military tactics during the
conflict, but after the war and for the remainder of his life, he put all his
energy into the welfare of ex-servicemen. Winston Churchill later said; "although he [Haig] might have been unequal to the task he had been given,
there was probably no General who at the time would have been a more obvious
Douglas Haig died in January 1928 - "BELOVED BY ALL EX-SERVICEMEN."