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First World War Christmas cards show stiff upper lip and dark humour of serving soldiers

postcard with a First World War Tommy marching a German prisoner

© York Museums Trust

The growth of Kitchener’s volunteer army in World War One saw an increased market for regimental cards full of steely humour

Wit and spirit are a consistent theme of Christmas cards from the First World War, but there’s always an underlying sense of unease, bleak humour, propaganda and defiance, not least in the bulldog, teeth gritted by a globe and the Union Jack, next to the message “our banner unfurled, shall proclaim to the world, that there’s life in the old dog yet”.

One soldier, of the 11th Division bearing a blood-soaked bayonet, is stumped by the sight of Father Christmas – a large German soldier with a beard and a large sack delivering alcohol to his comrades in a trench in 1917.

Another features a winking Tommy with a souvenir pickelhaube helmet slung over his bayonet walking behind a German prisoner of war with the words Wishing you a Merry Christmas

“Happiness, humour and fortune, keep with you,” reads another simple yet stirring depiction of a marching unit of khaki clad British soldiers of Kitchener’s army with a union jack fluttering among them.

a photo of a Christmas card with a French and British soldier with an Christmas pudding shaped bomb

© York Museums Trust

The back of a postcard with merry Christmas, love from Pat written on it

© York Museums Trust

A comical Christmas card featuring a Tommy peering over a trench at a large German soldier with a sack

© York Museums Trust

a Christmas card with three hiills from a battle field resembling Bethlehem

© York Museums Trust

back of a postcard with basic information from the soldier

© York Museums Trust

One of the more colourful cards features a ‘Somme Pudding’, which is in fact a large ‘toffee apple’ mortar bomb, which is exchanged between a pair of jaunty French and British Commonwealth soldiers in 1916.

Another card, sent by a Prisoner of War, tries to wring positivity from a holiday spent in captivity, with a picturesque festive “view from the camp”.

“Regimental cards were not new to the First World War,” points out Faye Prior, the collections facilitator at York Museums Trust, where the cards are held.

“But the growth of the regiments and the recruitment of Kitcheners’ new armies meant the market for regimental cards grew exponentially.

A Christmas card with soldiers marching on the front

© York Museums Trust

inside of a Christmas card

© York Museums Trust

a photo of a Christmas card with a soldier marching to Berlin

© York Museums Trust

a photo of a Christmas card with a picture of a bulldog on it

© York Museums Trust

“These cards often portrayed the dark humour and stiff upper lip attitude which were strongly associated with British trench warfare.

“Cards were also produced by German Prisoner of War camps to try to convince British families that imprisoned soldiers were being treated well.

“In both cases the cards portrayed images that each side wanted to be put into the public domain.”

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