10 comic World War I postcards that helped keep Britain fighting

If pushed to offer only ten comic cards I would chose the following for many and varied reasons that include: the ingenuity of the comic design, the witty caption, the insight into what life was like during wartime conditions on the Western Front and the experiences faced by women adapting to new occupational roles, normally reserved for men, back in Blighty.

The speed and frequency with which postcards were sent prior to and during the war meant that in various parts of Britain you could post one in the morning to forewarn of your arrival to a friend, relative or shop in the afternoon of the same day. The postcard’s combination of words and image made them immensely popular in early 1900s and they were avidly collected, swapped and scrutinized by all social classes making them a precursor to modern-day social media, albeit in a rudimentary form.

Pack Up Your Troubles – How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War I by James Taylor is out now from Bloomsbury.
Pack Up Your Troubles – How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War I by James Taylor is out now from Bloomsbury.

One of Arthur Butcher’s cards captioned ‘Straight From My Heart To You’ published by Inter-Art highlights the importance of the social medium of postcards. A seated lady holds an outsized postcard. The design is light-hearted and romantic but it has a tragic ending. The girlfriend of Private William Soane sent this card on 19 October 1916. A week later it is recorded that he died of his wounds sustained on the Somme. His body like many others was not recovered and so his name can be found on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ Thiepval Memorial.

Collectively the cards demonstrate the remarkable multi-layered nature of postcard humour that in Britain drew upon a long and rich satirical tradition and reflected the memorable catch-phrases, the cheeky, cutesy and quirky comic turns, the banter, innuendo, double-entendres and wit of the phenomenally popular music halls. Backed by government support they bolstered morale and stiffened resolve and helped Britain to win World War I.

© James Taylor

1. ‘Come On Now And Do Your Bit!’ by Arthur Butcher (1889-death date unknown), published by Inter-Art Co.

London-born Arthur Butcher was part of a circle of artists who favoured glamorous subjects influenced by Winifred Wimbush and especially William Barribal, the latter was a leading member of the London Sketch Club who worked for various magazines including Vogue. Butcher’s card depicts a quirky close-up view of an alluring lady’s lipsticked lips with a caption specifically designed to encourage recruitment.

© James Taylor

2. ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile’, by B. Simpson (dates not known), published by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

This is the full title of the popular World War I marching song written by George Asaf (the pseudonym of George Henry Powell) and set to music by his brother Felix Powell in 1915. It still strikes a chord today with people who have never experienced war. At the time it helped to bolster morale on the Western Front and was played and sung across Britain in clubs, pubs, parks and music halls. B. Simpson has created a fun card depicting a bow-tied black cat seated on a Gladstone bag with two kittens peering out from behind. The bag in inscribed ‘Blighty’ the soldier’s slang term for Britain and also a superficial wound that would ensure that a soldier would be sent home to recuperate. Note that the bow-tie is a twist on the French Tricolour.

© James Taylor

3. ‘Don’t worry about me, I’m all right’, by Thomas Gilson (1885-1971), published by the Alphalsa Publishing Co.

Children were an immensely popular comic device used during the war. This may seem odd today, but both male and female postcard artists depicted children in adult situations on occasions drinking, smoking and sometimes fighting. Bromley-born Gilson was one of the best known practitioners who designed the cards to bolster morale across the adult population both abroad and at home. This design features a boy dressed as a Tommy reclining in a barn-like billet smoking a cigarette with his gun by his side, whilst two curious rats look on.

© James Taylor

4. ‘There Are Some Fine Openings In Kitchener’s Army!’, by Donald McGill (1875-1962), published by Inter-Art Co.

The gargantuan mouth of the recruiting sergeant is the main focus of this wacky composition. The caption and posters on the wall reaffirm the government demands spearheaded by Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War. London-born and for some time Blackheath-based McGill has become synonymous with cheeky and saucy seaside postcards, although he was also one of the most prolific and versatile card artists of WWI. His love of music hall links with his marriage to the daughter of the owner of the Rose & Crown in Greenwich who also owned the music hall located next door. A boyhood injury precluded him from active service, but his contribution was considerably greater as an unofficial Home Front artist whose comic designs were also experienced in Europe and parts of the British Empire.

© James Taylor

5. “Dear……, At present we are staying at a farm….”, by Captain Bruce Bairnsfather (1887-1959), published by The Bystander.

The best known of the serving soldier comic artists Bairnsfather was a master of gallows humour and absurd comic situations who could raise a smile in the bleakest, darkest of days as evidenced here with the soldier writing his letter in front of a bombed-out building in a desolate landscape with upturned dead cows. He was and remains celebrated for his comic creation of the curmudgeonly balaclava wearing Tommy Old Bill whose sardonic wit and stoicism also found fame on stage across Britain and in the USA. Published initially as illustrations in The Bystander and then issued as postcards hundreds of thousands were sold throughout the war. Born in what was then part of Pakistan to British parents he was educated at Westward Ho! School in England. He was influenced by the work of John Hassall who prior to the war established the New Art School and School of Poster Design in Kensington that encouraged several well-known artists including: Mabel Lucie Attwell and Henry Mayo Bateman.

© James Taylor

6. ‘It’s All Very Well Mother Saying You’re A Farmer. But How Will I know Whether I’m Talking To Dad Or You With Them Things on?” by an unknown artist (signed with monogram WF), published as part of the ‘HB Series’.

The change of gender roles and the wearing of trousers, normally worn by men, caused confusion to some children according to this comic card. Women were forbidden from fighting, voting and were paid less than men for their work, but without them Britain would not have been able to win the war. Many other comic wartime cards were produced with women proudly wearing trousers and dungarees. One example by Fred Spurgin shows a young woman in a munitions factory with the caption “Nervous? – Not In These Trousers!’

© James Taylor

7. ‘The Salute’ by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964), published by Carlton Publishing Co.

Attwell’s imaginary toy-land world briefly diverts attention from the real hardships experienced by wounded servicemen. If Donald McGill is the ‘Master’ of the artist-drawn comic postcard then Attwell is the ‘Mistress’. She was a brilliant illustrator too who created a cutesy (the first use of that word dates from 1914) imaginative world of children in adult situations derived from her adolescent experiences growing up in the east end of London among many siblings and feeling isolated and unloved. She worked for various publishers but had a very long and lucrative relationship with Valentines of Dundee.

© James Taylor

8. ‘We All Love Jack’ by Fred Spurgin (1885-1966), published by Inter-Art Co.

A show of Royal Navy unity with Jack (Jack Tar being the popular name of the British sailor and the equivalent to Tommy Atkins for the soldier) dancing alongside allied partners of Japan, France, Russia and Belgium. Russian-born Spurgin is arguably second to McGill in terms of his range and skills as postcard artist. By 1911 the England Census lists him as aged 26 living in Brixton, London with his father, a watch-and-jewellery repairer, along with three brothers, one sister and a servant. The professions of Fred and his brother Maurice was both listed as ‘Artist & Designer’.

© James Taylor

9. ‘Coming down!’ by George Edward Shepheard (1869-death date unknown) published anonymously.

This card was one of many different anti-Kaiser designs that formed part of a hard-hitting government backed campaign to unite citizens at home against Germany. The first raid took place on 19 January 1915 by two Zeppelins of the Naval Airship Division that dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn and surrounding villages, killing four people. Norfolk-born Shepheard who signed his cards ‘GES’ had by 1911 moved to Paddington in London. He was married with one son and his profession was listed as ‘freelance artist (Painter’. Shepheard collaborated a series of quirky black-and-white silhouette designs depicting army camp life published by Photochrom Co.

© James Taylor

10. “Yes, Boys, It’s a Hard Climb, BUT WE’LL GET THERE”, by Dudley Buxton (1885- death date unknown), published by Woolstone Bros.

In a design postally used on 18 November 1918 (one week after the Armistice of 11 November) John Bull, the personification of Britain is depicted with a Union Jack waistcoat climbing up the rock face of a mountain without ropes. Below him, red fires and plumes of black smoke billow up with the word ‘WAR’ overwritten in bold, jagged letters. Bull is almost at the top, where shafts of bright yellow sunshine are inscribed with the words ‘Peace and Happiness’, although they are not yet as bold as ‘WAR’. London-born Buxton’s first love was the cinema, followed by magazine illustration (he worked for The Tatler) and comic postcards.

Pack Up Your Troubles – How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War I by James Taylor is out now from Bloomsbury. For more on World War I, pick up new issue of History of War or subscribe now and save 25% off the cover price.