Introduction by Marika Pirie

FMSketches is proud to include an introduction by guest writer Marika Pirie, a long time collector of World War 1 postcards, including those by Fergus Mackain. Marika’s knowledge and useful insight can often be found on forums such as the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group and Canadian Great War Project. She has created her own blog for Goldwin McCausland Pirie, a relative who died while serving with the CEF in World War One.

Fergus Mackain’s – “Sketches of Tommy’s Life”
First World War Postcards

- by Marika Pirie

“Sketches of Tommy’s Life” was a popular series of postcards produced during the first World War. The cards were illustrated with delicately coloured sketches showing first World War soldiers in service. They were the creation of illustrator Fergus Mackain and today are included in collections around the world. This article looks at these beautifully drawn and often poignant comic postcards and the secret behind their popularity.

Mackain’s “Sketches of Tommy’s Life” included four series. These followed the path of the typical soldier during wartime: (1) In Training, (2) Up at Base, (3) Up the Line, and (4) Out on Rest. Other sets produced included holiday greeting cards, as well as some other sets which are far less common. A series targeted at American soldiers was called “Sammy’s Life” and examples are still being found.

The different illustrations in the “Tommy’s Life” series were numbered from 1 to 10 or 1 to 8, the latter being smaller set editions. As a result, in some cases the same design appeared with two different numbers. Paper thickness and typeset varied among various publishers as well as printing runs. In the case of the greeting cards, the same illustration could have versions with different captions.

The cards were published by P. Gaultier of Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, and other sets were published by G. Savigny of Paris. The Boulogne cards are marked Imp. P. GAULTIER, Boulogne-s-Mer. – Ed. P. G. Visé Paris 763. There is also a variation of this that sometimes appears:

Imp P. GAULTIER, Boulogne-sur-Mer, – Visa Militaire, 9-10-17. Pierre ISORÉ, éditeur à Bresles (Oise.)

clip_image002The Savigny cards are marked Imp. G. SAVIGNY, Paris. – P.G. Another version was Paris.- Imp. G. SAVIGNY, 80, rue de Cléry.

Right: War time view of Boulogne.

The choice of Boulogne-sur-Mer was significant. The city was an important port for military traffic between England and France. Casualties were sent to the hospitals in Boulogne, and the city was popular as a leave town. This meant that postcards would find a ready market.[1]

Cards depicting the horrors of war were not popular for the purpose of sending home. The Mackain cards were about “Tommy’s Life” at war, but the overall theme was light-hearted. The scenes depicted on the cards had genuine relevance to the men – the petty little jobs at base camp, billets, army food, army “politics”, the rum ration (“One of the bright spots in our life” – Up the Line, No. 7), the officious officers, etc. Many of the men who served had not been in the military in civilian life, and much of the experience was new to them.

clip_image004Among the Mackain designs, there were several particularly beautifully conceived drawings depicting the realities of war. In “We marched into the Trenches…” (see below), there was no attempt at humour. The illustration depicted the type of situation a man may have encountered once at the front lines, marching across a bleak ruined terrain. The drawing on the card told the recipient much more than what the soldier could have explained in writing. There was no “grousing” or complaining about the circumstances, but the drawing told it all.

Left: Postcard from Mackain’s “Up the line” series, circa 1917-18.

Postcard designs were formally affected by censorship in Great Britain on September 15th, 1916 and beginning on this date the cards had to be submitted to the Press Bureau for censorship. This would not affect Mackain’s cards as they were published in France.

The post card was very popular during the first World War because it was a suitable missive to send home. If time was a problem, the small space for writing meant that only a few lines would fill the card. Tommy would be able to send a message home, but his time and literary ability would not be stretched He also didn’t always have the best situation for writing letters, particularly in the trenches, so a quick postcard was a simple matter. Also, mail would be read and censored which limited subject matter. There were many cases where soldiers attempted to write something several times each week to a family member to help stay in touch. Although this might be easier to achieve during a time “behind the lines”, it was not a simple matter in the front line trenches.

Self-censorship affected these personal messages. Soldiers would not want to appear to complain about their circumstances, or suggest anything that sounded unpatriotic. They also did not want to cause worry to someone waiting at home. On the other hand, they did hope to give their family and friends at home a bit of an idea of their new life, especially if it could be done in a humorous format. Mackain’s cards fit all of these requirements.

Handwritten messages were usually brief: a greeting, acknowledgment of receipt of a parcel or letter, or a statement that everything was well. Men frequently wrote about whether they had or had not received any mail, i.e. “I haven’t had any letters from you lately”. As for describing their situation, most wrote that they were doing well, and little else. In addition, many messages included a comment about the drawing’s subject matter – indicating that the soldier had thought about his selection of postcard, and wanted to point out to the recipient what the card meant, and what he wanted the reader to understand from that illustration.

Outgoing mail was censored – blacking out information about locations, movements and casualties. Also, the soldier usually self-censored personal information as he knew someone else would be reading the card. Some cards were sent with the idea of collecting the complete series. Many cards were left blank for this reason. Cards with hand-written messages might bear a Censor’s Stamp, but would not have much in terms of information about life in the trenches, or battle experiences.

For example, Out on rest – No. 9 with caption “Dear Dolly: I am at present staying at a farm, and am in the pink...” shows a smiling soldier with his kit in a barn, working on his correspondence to the light of a candle. The image of a glamorous woman in red coat, fur and large hat is inset - representing his thoughts. This postcard was mailed by “Arthur” who wrote:

“This tommy looks very cheerful doesn’t he and that is what we do in our spare time, can you see the smile on his face, always smiling eh....”

Mackain’s war era artwork today provides insight into what the men thought of as relevant to their own circumstances. John Laffin wrote:

Mackain’s series were popular because they enabled the soldier to illustrate something of his life more clearly than he could perhaps explain for himself. When shown these cards in later life, many old soldiers have laughed in real nostalgic delight.[2]

clip_image012A look at the messages written on the back of the cards supports this idea. Many men wrote a comment about the content on the front of the card, and how it was appropriate to their own circumstances. In Training. – No. 4 (see left) is a comic card with the caption “First time you got out on the parade grounds and forgot to say “sir” to the Sergt.-Major, the man with the big silver headed stick.” This card has a drawing of a skinny worried looking Tommy facing an angry grey whiskered Sergeant Major with a gleaming silver topped swagger stick thrust in Tommy’s direction. The message on the back is dated August 13th, 1918:

clip_image010My Dear Joyce – One would think to look at this card that the S.M.’s were very hard men, some may be, but they are few and far between. Love from Daddy xxxxxxxx

clip_image016A card from the Out on Rest series shows men washing up in the morning and has the caption: “A wash up in the rest trenches.” Arthur wrote a note on the back indicating that the men did actually wash up using their steel helmet to hold the water as shown in the photo and added “…so don’t laugh.”


clip_image020Another card from the same series shows a pair of men in a dugout. One soldier is relaxing and smoking a pipe, while the other is reading. Both are not wearing their steel hats – one has his hat hung up on the sandbagged wall, and the other has his next to him beside his rations. However, directly outside their open doorway are numerous explosions. The caption for this card was: “As you are supposed to be resting in a quiet spot, a little light literature goes well.” The message on the back was undated:

clip_image018I bet these cards make you laugh. I have posted the other 5 at the same time. It is nice to be resting in a dug out in a quiet spot and have a read ... Everloving son, Arthur xxx

The above comment suggests that this soldier felt that the cards were special and meant to be saved and collected. Most cards found today have no messages, and were likely sent home to share the illustration or build a collection.

Some messages indicated that the soldier was trying to collect a series, for example, on the back of In Training. – No. 9, there is a message dated August 28th, 1918:

Dear Joyce – This is the last of the series, “In Training”. After this the following series will start. “At The Base”. Love from Daddy xxxxxxxxxxx

clip_image022Mackain’s postcards often reflected a deeper understanding of the nature of the war. One of his most beautiful designs was of a soldier marching into a gloomy landscape following distant figures:

We marched into the Trenches, late in the evening, going across fields on “duck boards”. There is nothing to be seen but shell-holes, and wintry looking trees. (Up the Line, No. 3)

Another well-composed card from “Up the Line” showed shells bursting above the trenches at night (see left).

clip_image024Standing out from the usual patriotic type with fearless heroes, as produced in quantity by other artists, another drawing showed Tommy behind a row of sandbags. The caption was: “Waiting for the barrage to lift. It makes you feel small and sort of lost!” (Up the line – No. 8). Before Tommy is a fierce bombardment, shells flying, explosions and destruction. Mackain has coloured the card with muted colours – pinkish sandbags, orange red flames, and a bright blue sky. This soldier stares bewildered into the face of the recipient of the postcard. The sender has marked his name on the back of the card, S. W. Doney, and just one word - France.

Up the Line. – No. 6 has the simple caption: “On Sentry Go at Night.” There is no attempt at humour here. The men stare nervously over heaps of sandbags and barbed wire, eyes bugging out, into the distance. Their rifles are at their sides, bayonets fixed. Both are covered in their ground sheets, and a driving rain surrounds the men. Star shells burst in the distance.

Thousands of these postcards were mailed home from the war zone, and were carefully preserved by family members for decades. Collectors today are able to assemble full sets of the “Tommy’s Life” series, including the original wrapper. Other cards such as the greetings, and lesser known sets are more difficult to find, and it is likely that new examples not previously seen are waiting to be discovered.

It is hoped that this website will further interest in the story of Mackain’s life and highlight his talents as a war artist.

Marika I. Pirie, October 2005. Updated August 2013.

Recommended reading:

Tonie and Valmai Holt, Till the Boys Come Home / The Picture Postcards of the First World War (Pennsylvania, Deltiologists of America, 1977).

John Laffin. World War I in Post-Cards (U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1988).

Ian McCulloch, Ian, “The Postcard War 1914 – 1918,” The Beaver (April/May 1998): 4-9.

[1] John Laffin. World War I in Post-Cards (U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1988), 23.
[2] Laffin, 23.


  1. Excellent new report by BBC on the military postal system during the first World War, the delivery process, censorship, and the importance of mail.

    How did 12 million letters reach WW1 soldiers each week?

    A discussion on self-censorship is included in this report.

  2. Fergus Mackain’s postcards remind me very much of Bruce Bairnsfather's work - at least his WW1 drawings, not the artwork he produce for the US Forces in WW2, that is.

  3. I am interested in another WWI postcard which was posted by Marika Pirie on another sire. It was by Donald McGill and showed a clergyman exhorting the ladies in his flock to "lay an egg in the font" on leaving church.This would have been in aid of the charity "Eggs for the Wounded", which was very well supported by the public at large. I would very much like to know if there is any date on the card, for example a postmark.