The First World War in Postcards

Calum Henderson explores fascinating examples of postcards from the First World War which feature in John Wilton's latest book.

The humble postcard saw a variety of uses during the First World War. As well as being a standard type of communication, it also became a minor art form. A new book by historian John Wilton takes a tour through the history and diversity of these pocket-sized paper souvenirs from a century gone by.

As Wilton explains, the primary role of the wartime postcard was to deliver messages. Soldiers posted at the frontlines would send them back to their wives, sweethearts, families, and friends at home, often doing so if they had no time to write a longer, more private letter.

Whatever form these messages took, privacy was still limited. All troop correspondence had to go through a censor, whose job it was to strike out offending passages in blue pencil. The later pages of Wilton’s book contain some fascinating examples of postcards that failed to make the censor’s cut.

‘Don’t worry, we’ll soon be back’ The card was not dated or postmarked, but on the reverse a soldier named Dyson wrote to his mother about the pleasure of returning home.
‘Wanted — general repairs’ This card was posted in Queenstown, Ireland (now Cobh) on 24 December 1914, wishing a Miss K Dinan a ‘very happy Christmas’.
‘He won’t be happy till he gets it’
The German military leadership, particularly Kaiser Wilhelm and his son ‘Little Willie’, were often singled out for ridicule by British postcard artists.

On the reverse, images were often bleak. Wartime postcards frequently showed scenes of destruction and ruin – particularly in France – rather than the expected pleasant coastal spots or snapshots from a village square. The more valuable silk postcards, produced by a cottage industry that sprung up in northern France in early 1915, were less reflective of the horrors of the fighting. Around 10 million were produced by the war’s end.

Troops also received postcards, largely as a result of campaigns launched by British newspapers. The Daily Mail issued a total of 176 photographic postcards in sets of eight, which were sent as part of packages intended to enliven Tommies’ lives. They also included food, cigarettes, and other home comforts.

But undoubtedly the most important role of the wartime postcard was that of propaganda. As with posters and tabloid campaigns, they served to remind the country that the war was just. Britain had obligations to protect neighbouring Belgium, whose sovereignty had been trampled over by the expansionist German Empire.

The pompous and bombastic German Kaiser was a gift to postcard cartoonists, who used their compact canvases to portray him enduring all manner of humiliating fates, including being chased by rabid dogs, swatted like a fly by Allied troops – and even strangled by Lord Kitchener.

‘Hurrah for the Royal Berks!’ This card has also been seen with the caption ‘Hurrah for the 11th Yorks’. Neither was typically posted, and they were perhaps instead collected by the regiments themselves.
‘Is blue your favourite colour?’ The sentiments expressed in this card showed the fears of frontline troops that those on leave might steal their loved ones.
‘Forget me not’
Silk postcards were by far the most cherished of those sent from the front. Intricate designs were hand-embroidered onto strips of silk mesh, then sent away for mounting on postcards.
All images: Unicorn Publishing
Go further
It’ll All Be Over By Christmas: the First World War in postcards by John Wilton is published by Unicorn Publishing (£20) and is available to buy from all good bookshops from September 2022.