Time for some seasonal greetings from the front. The traditional Christmas message of charity, reconciliation, and peace on earth now ensured through violence and exploding Christmas puddings.
MERRY XMAS From the book, A Tommy’s Life in the Trenches A Soldier Artist on the Western Front by Fergus Mackain, William Mackain-Bremner and John Place. Two soldiers are painting a holiday greeting on a trench mortar. Nicknamed the “Toffee Apple” or “Plum Pudding” it was in use from mid-1915 to mid-1917. Its primary use was in cutting barbed wire defenses and attacking enemy front line trenches.
These first are from Fergus Mackain – an advertising illustrator who grew up in Canada and the USA. In 1915 – leaving his wife and children – he worked his passage across the Atlantic on a horse transport – the SS Lancastrian – in order to enlist. He arrived in London in October 1915 and signed with the 30th Royal Fusiliers – the reserve unit the Sportsman’s battalion.
Only those used to outdoor sport, who are thoroughly sound and fit, need apply.
After training Private Fergus Mackain was sent to replace losses in the 23rd battalion in France in June 1916.
He was almost immediately thrown into the maelstrom of the Somme where he was wounded at the battle of Delville Wood in late July. He returned to the battalion in November but was again hospitalized for illness in the spring of 1917.
It was after he had been transferred to the Army Service Corps that he began to produce his postcard cartoons of his experiences at the front.
The printing firm of Gaultier in Boulogne began publishing them in October 1917. Everyone and everything on the way to the front and home passed though Boulogne. Soldiers bought the cards to send home as greetings and souvenirs.
In London, Mackain may have seen this recruiting poster
‘The latest despatch “Send More Men!” from the Sportsman’s Battalions’. Chromolithograph recruiting poster 1915. A motorcycle despatch rider, with bandaged head, stands by his Douglas motorbike and points towards a burning village. By that time the terrible toll of the war – and the losses at Loos – were depressing recruitment.
Here are some examples of Mackain’s work for Christmas – lighthearted greetings from the front lines to reassure the folks at home that Tommy was keeping cheerful and doing his bit.
Compliments of the season – a Mills bomb with a sprig of Christmas holly.
A hapless enemy is about to get the gift of that grenade -lobbed as a greeting from the trench beyond no-man’s land. Over 75 million Mills grenades were manufactured between April 1915 and late 1918.
“Don’t worry! We’re winning.” “Ten to one it’s over by next Christmas anyway!” Tommy and his pal are launched into the air as a result of an underground mine.
Greetings from Cheero trench. “Cheerio” – common term of greeting and encouragement in WW1. Trenches were often signposted with familiar – and ironic – landmark names of the troops who occupied them – Piccadilly, Fifth Avenue, Sackville Street. Names were painted on wooden boards and placed like street signs throughout the maze of trenches. Some names were less cosy – Dead Man’s Alley and Hellﬁre Corner for example>
Intha Pink staying cheerful.
Mackain died in 1924 and is buried at Asheville, Buncombe County, North Carolina.
Here are a few regimental and division cards sent as greeting for Christmas 1917:
Soldiers illuminated by a Very light while crossing no-man’s land in a Christmas card made by the 46th (North Midland) Division in 1917
Christmas card souvenir of the occupation of Jerusalem by British forces on December 9, 1917
Christmas was the only time personal messages could be written on field service postcards of the type shown here. The sender was usually only allowed to delete the text not applicable to his situation, sign and date the card — otherwise it would be destroyed..
From a 1917 POW camp – a card wishing ‘Hearty greetings’,
This regimental shows a British soldier going over the top declares ‘By Gum! Father Christmas!’ and is about to capture the sack of goodies and the booze before they are delivered to a German dugout.
The 21st Division card lists the battle honors and proclaims “Born 1914 and still going strong.”
‘Postcard sent by Gunner Ernest Powell (4th Battalion, Tank Corps) to his mother. This item is from The Great War Archive, University of Oxford
Clearly life is cushy and victory is assured. The unhappy enemy surrenders and Tommy has a cheerful nonchalant grin, a fag on and the helmet souvenir to prove it.
Here’s another card with the same theme
Morale boosting propaganda for Xmas 1917. The picture shows a tall British soldier speaking to a short surrendering German. The caption reads, “Ullo little ‘un, compliments of the season”. The card was sent from ‘Frank’ to ‘My dear sisters Daisy and Elsie’.
This is one of three Christmas cards that the artist James Prinsep Beadle produced for the 7th Division BEF during the First World War.
New Zealand Camel Corps Christmas card. 1917
4th Canadian Division, Christmas card 1917
Christmas card 1917 sent by Rev and Mrs Pippet
This Christmas card was sent from the 16th Irish Division in 1917 with a note reading ‘I haven’t had time to write to you all’. William Wilby was killed in October 1918.
In December 1917 thousands of American soldiers were in training camps This is the 1917 Camp Hancock Christmas Postcard
Norman Rockwell, “They Remembered Me,” 1917.
Here’s the cover of the Saturday Evening Post for Christmas week 1917.
Solders Christmas J.C. Leyendecker December 22, 1917
And one final card for Weihnachten – Christmas Eve – 1917: