Join us as a guest at one of our ZOOM meetings. Here’s our schedule of UPCOMING  MEETINGS which are monthly except for the summer.  Or, become a TPC Facebook friend to stay connected!

Postcards and the Music of the Great War: Seeing the Dear Old Home Again

The First World War was among the first to be fought in the era of the popular song, which had been born in the music halls and came of age with the phonograph. Sentimental, romantic, humorous and religious tunes form a significant part of the war’s cultural legacy and are well known to collectors as the themes of countless series of postcards that were sent by and to the soldiers.

Typically, early twentieth-century “song” postcards were produced in series of three or four, with a different verse of a popular tune (or well-known hymn) printed and illustrated on each. The foremost publisher of these cards was Bamforth & Co. of Holmfirth in Yorkshire. This source estimates that 600 sets of song postcards were published by the company between the early 1900s and the end of the war. As the linked article notes, once war was declared, Bamforth reissued some of its song sets with new military-themed illustrations.

In this post we’ll look at four complete song sets.

I Want To See The Dear Old Home Again

In the first scene, the soldier dreams of his home, his young children and the faithful family dog.

English village life is emphasized in the second stanza, complete with thatched cottage and chiming church bells.

Finally, with all that out of the way, we come in the third postcard to the most heartfelt loss of all, experienced most strongly when he wakes “a soldier still”.

The first song, “I Want To See The Dear Old Home Again”, dates from around the year 1900, although no recordings of it appear to be online. It was written by Frank Dean (1857-1922) under the pen-name “Harry Dacre”. Dean/Dacre is well remembered today for his 1892 composition “Daisy Bell”, one of the most enduring pieces of early popular music, with its famous refrain “But you’ll look sweet / upon the seat / of a bicycle built for two”. For its part, “I Want To See The Dear Old Home Again” is in the voice of a soldier off on some Imperial sojourn, and recounts his dreams of home and postponed love. The final line, “Then I wake — a soldier still”, would have resonated with most of the soldiers in the seemingly interminable conflict.

The three Bamforth postcards are numbered 4800/1, 2, 3 and were produced, as noted, with the permission of Frank Dean & Co. in London.

This set of postcards — like the other sets we will look at — was sent by a soldier, likely a Canadian in France. They are apparently from the First World War period although no specific mention is made of any dates or wartime events. Unfortunately, information about the soldier and his experiences was apparently left for the letters that accompanied the postcards. Without the letters, it hasn’t been possible to identify the sender.

The message the anonymous soldier has written on the backs of the three cards is as follows:

(1) This card for mother — more to follow. This card speaks my sympathy and the set will follow in future letters so be learning and singing this one till more comes; they are very nice if you … set a air at [to?] sing them by. DADIE. (2) Dear Mother, my sentiments are in this card. In my dreams I can see it all — home sweet home, but smile smile all the while — it’s some trial, but the Better will come and I’ll be going to my dear old friends at home. DADIE to MA. (3) For mother. This is the last of this series and I am a soldier still. There is more of these series. I send more for a change. Hope you enjoy my silly ways. But if I stay for years my love is for my dear old home and last of all MOTHER, only mother. From DADIE. Over the mighty deep.*

(*Note: I have added some punctuation and made other minor typographical and wording changes for the sake of clarity in the extracts from this soldier’s letters in this post. The original has virtually no punctuation, as was common in postcard messages of the day, and contains a number of abbreviations and many idiosyncratic spellings.)

Fight the Good Fight

The second Bamforth series includes four postcards, numbered 4870/1, 2, 3, 4, each illustrating a stanza of the Victorian hymn “Fight the Good Fight”, with words by the Rev. John S. B. Monsell (1811-1875), an Anglican clergyman in Ireland. The first card, shown below, depicts soldiers standing before a priest near to the front lines, as a biplane passes above them. There are explosions in the distance, presumably at the front line. These are the evidently the final words of spiritual encouragement that the men will hear before entering the fray. The remaining three cards focus on just one of the soldiers, depicted first in prayer, then in great despair, and at the last (see below), in the arms of Christ — the artist leaving it somewhat unclear whether our subject has been struck and is dying, or whether he is only in need of religious comfort on account of what he has had to endure. 

The same serviceman sent the “Fight the Good Fight” set to his family, but in this case he wrote only the names of his wife and (presumably) children on the backs of the cards: “Ma” (2 cards), “Albert” and “Cecilie”

The men at an informal service prior to entering the fight that rages behind them.

The fourth postcard, interpreting the hymn’s closing lines.

A modern interpretation of the piece, which is set to the tune “Pentecost” (1864) by William Boyd, is provided on YouTube by the choir of Brigham Young University‘s Idaho campus. A simpler version, together with the sheet music, is available via hymnal.net

God Keep You Safe

In contrast with the previous examples, “God Keep You Safe” appears to have been composed during, and with specific reference to, the First World War. Only a little information is available online about this piece, and unfortunately there is nothing to give us an idea of how it sounded. This catalogue entry from Australia’s national archives, which presumably hold a copy of the sheet music, says that it was written by one Kate Hill Salter, with music for piano accompaniment by Edward Cuthbertson. An online catalogue that is selling a copy of the score gives the name as Kate Hitt-Salter (not “Hill”), and a check of ancestry.com does reveal an Alice K. Hitt-Salter being married to a John C. Wood in Dover in 1931. Whether “Alice K.” is Kate or a relative is hard to say, but at least we now know that there was someone with the unusual surname “Hitt-Salter” out there, even if she seems to have made no mark on history other than this half-forgotten composition (half-forgotten but for deltiology, that is!). Nothing at all turned up online for Edward Cuthbertson. 

Unlike the others, this song takes the point of view of the soldier’s wife, left at home to worry about the fate of her “dear heart”, lamenting: “The hours apart from thee / Drag by on leaden, lifeless wings”. This was undoubtedly a sentiment shared by millions of family members across every one of the combatant countries. The three postcards are numbered 4960/1, 2, 3, and sport fancier lettering than is found on the other Bamforth series discussed here. Card 3 is particularly beautiful, with the soldier’s round portrait cleverly placed on the wall by the artist in place of a “thought bubble” (as appears on Card 1, also shown below).

Imagining the battlefield.

The conclusion of “God Keep You Safe”, by Kate Hitt-Salter.

The sender again writes a long letter across the backs of all three cards, concluding as follows: “This is the last series. Don’t you think it’s nice and very appropriate to its calling? I have about 30 or so of “odds and ends” cards to send anything I write on [i.e. that he can use anytime he needs to write something]. The cards can be raffled off. These cards have come from all across the Dominion — a very large collection.”

Little Grey Home in the West

The final song set consists in four cards illustrating the ballad, “Little Grey Home in the West”. Of the songs presented here, “Little Grey Home” has the most tenuous thematic connection with war. It’s really just a sentimental piece. The lyrics were by one D. Eardley-Wilmot (a member, it appears, of an aristocratic family by that name but about whom little else is known), with the tune by the famous British composer Hermann Lohr (1871-1943). Recorded as early as 1912 by Peter Dawson (and also by John McCormack and others) it appears in newspapers across North America and the U.K. as a massively popular recital piece in 1914 and afterward. The Dawson version as it appears on YouTube uses the four Bamforth postcards as illustrations. Since the song isn’t really about a soldier, the illustrations on the cards simply show the soldier thinking of the sentimental scenes that the song recalls. Much like “I Want To See The Dear Old Home Again”, “Little Grey Home in the West” works its way up to the thing the singer misses most: his true love — or, here, “the two eyes that shine just because they are mine”. 

There are lips I am burning to kiss … And a thousand things other men miss.

The fourth and final card in Bamforth series 4871.


Card no. 3 seems to have hit home with our anonymous soldier, who writes on the back: “Dear Mother, This shows the mental telephone working between the soldier and the friends at home and the other thousand things he misses, but we must all keep smiling — no coldness out here –, and our wives at home and everybody smile. There is no use getting disordered as it is no use and only makes matters worse, don’t you think so? DAD”

Not all soldiers were quite so enthralled by the sometimes mawkish sensibilities of the songs. Parodic revisions of lyrics were common as the Great War servicemen creatively attempted to “keep everyone smiling”. On 22 April 1915, the Montreal Gazette reported on a version of “Little Grey Home” of which the librettist was a Captain Frost of the 14th Montreal Battalion. In his possibly somewhat more realistic take, the song went as follows:

There’s a little wet home in the trench,
That the rain storms continually drench,
There’s a dead cow close by,
With her heels in the sky,
And she gives off a beautiful stench.
Underneath us in place of a floor,
There’s a mess of cold mud and some straw,
And Jack Johnsons tear,
Through the rain-sodden air,
O’er my little wet home in the trench.

(Andrew Cunningham)


The Canadians Are Coming! Postcards of Our Great War Soldiers

As the hundredth anniversary of 11 November 1918 — the end of the Great War — approaches, we will take a look back at what postcards of the time tell us about the four long years that took such a toll on the people of Canada, Newfoundland and many other countries. Coincidentally, the war years brought down the curtain on the “Golden Age of Postcards”; while the medium continued to be popular, the postcard industry as a whole no longer exhibited the vitality and variety of its pre-war heyday.

Keeping the old flag flying

Postcards mailed in the summer of 1914 can provide us with insights into how ordinary people in the sedate turn-of-the-century world responded to the sudden intrusion of war into every aspect of life. Exhibit 1 is the Stedman Bros. “patriotic” shown below, which depicts departing Canadian soldiers while assertively proclaiming: “Canada Will Do Her Duty To Keep The Old Flag Flying”.

Stedman Bros. no. 2539, with an added photographic image.

On turning the postcard over, we find that it was posted at Toronto on 13 September 1914, barely a month after the state of war officially began. In fact, things had unravelled so quickly that the Canadian National Exhibition had no opportunity to re-think its 1914 theme of “PEACE YEAR”, neatly incorporated into the special CNE “slogan cancel” that we see here.

Verso image of the card as posted to Wimbledon, Surrey on 13 September 1914.

One might wonder how Stedman Bros. managed to print up World War I cards such as this so quickly. The answer is that they didn’t, really — this example, numbered S.B. 2539, was in fact an old Stedman card on which the small photograph of the departing soldiers was pasted (the card originally featured a coloured illustration of an R&O ship). To complete the metamorphosis, the caption about “doing her duty” was overprinted on the image in silver lettering. (Indeed, since Stedman Bros. are thought to have exited the postcard trade in 1914, it is possible that the refurbishment of these cards as World War I souvenirs was someone else’s handiwork.)

The message itself is, of course, another place where we might hope to find  reference to the big news from Europe. However, even though her words were destined for England, the writer didn’t acknowledge that anything out of the ordinary was going on. By the end of her note she had apparently run out of things to say — or so we might surmise, given that she filled the rest of her space in the time-honoured way, with bland observations about the weather!

The 79th Cameron Highlanders

The story of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada is well told on the regiment’s own website. The Camerons, from Winnipeg, were the first Highland regiment in the West, having been founded on 1 February 1910. It is unlikely that the original members would have anticipated the sacrifices that they and their mates would be required to make within just a few short years. Even at the Decoration Day festivities on 10 May 1914, as depicted in the Maurice Lyall real photo postcard below, it is unlikely that the kilted marchers imagined that before the summer was out, some of them would be halfway across the country, and then halfway around the world, fighting for real.

10 May 1914. The building in the background was the University of Manitoba. The Broadway Armoury stood directly across the street, on the site of what is now the Manitoba Legislature.

We encounter the Camerons again on the Valentine & Sons postcard below (106,330), which may well have based on a photograph taken the same day (and perhaps by the same photographer) as the postcard above. Posted on 22 September 1914 by a Royal Bank of Canada employee to a colleague who had evidently been transferred to the Bank’s Vancouver branch, its message does refer, indirectly, to the War:

To Mr. J. A. Noonan, Royal Bank, Campbell Ave., Vancouver, B.C.:

“Hello Mr. Noonan, Just to remind you we have not quite forgotten you in the exciting times we have been having. Glad to hear you have not much to do but don’t get too fond of doing nothing and forget all about Winnipeg. Every body happy in the R. B. of C.”

Valentine & Sons card showing the soldiers standing on Broadway, looking out from the Drill Hall.

The 79th trained first at Camp Sewell, near Brandon, and were then sent out to Valcartier, Quebec, just outside the city of Quebec. The following “John E. Walsh” postcard was acquired simply as a handsome Quebec “patriotic” but turned out to have some interesting Cameron Highlanders content on the reverse:

Grande Allée, Quebec City. Patriotic postcard published by John E. Walsh, a Quebec stationer.

The first thing to note about the back of the Grande Allée card is that it is cancelled with a slogan cancel for the Quebec Provincial Exhibition (31 August – 5 September 1914). Unlike Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition, the 1914 theme in Quebec was not “peace” but “health” (“l’année de la santé”).

Back of the card, with a message from “R. M.”, then in training at Valcartier. The message is transcribed below.

As the Camerons’ website notes, only a limited number of the 79th’s members were sent to Valcartier and then on to England in the summer of 1914. At Valcartier, the Camerons were merged with others from across the country as the 16th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. While it is brief, the card’s message provides at least some information about the Highlanders’ life at Quebec:

“E Company,
79th Cameron Highlanders
Valcartier Camp, Quebec


Having a good time down here up at 5:30 in morning. Drill all day. Getting quite thin. Remember me to Overseas bunch if you see them on Tuesday. R.M.”

As the sender is identified by initials (“R. M.”) only, the only significant clue is the recipient, J[ohn] France Hughes of the Great-West Life Assurance Co. of Winnipeg, who turns out to have been an actuary with Great-West. Hughes was born in England around 1885, had emigrated around the turn of the century, and by the time of the postcard was married and living at 609 Spence Street, a house that still stands at (what is now) the corner of Cumberland Avenue. The “Overseas bunch” sounds as though it might have been an informal weekly gathering of British immigrants — as R. M. probably was (although, given his regimental affiliation, he may have been a Scot rather than an Englishman like Hughes). From the handwriting and the fact that his social circles included a well-paid insurance professional, one might also conclude that R. M. was likely well educated.

In any event, this is a good example of what we can learn from postcard messages about the very earliest days of the Great War.

Canadian soldiers in other countries’ cards

Canadian First World War collections often include postcards from other countries that depict the Canadian war effort. One scarce example is this collotype showing the 48th Highlanders — cousins of Winnipeg’s 79th — as they leave “Torento (Canada)”. One supposes this scene to be somewhere in the vicinity of Union Station, with the departing men parading in the pouring rain. Produced by Le Deley, imprimeur et éditeur (printer and publisher) at 127, boul. Sébastopol in Paris, this particular example was not used.

A rainy day in Torento.
“And very good reason to be” … indeed!

Our final example is a British card celebrating “Canada’s Men”, poetically, as “the Bravest Men — we’ve seen of late / That have crossed the Atlantic Sea”. The quality of some of the verse suggests that the poet may have been working to deadline, but overall the expression of Britain’s appreciation comes through clearly enough and, I’m sure, was much appreciated by its recipients. The card — the British publisher of which is not identified — was posted within the U.K. on 26 December 1916.

Future posts

We’ll try to post some other World War I postcards over the next few weeks, as the hundredth anniversary nears. 

Andrew Cunningham

Soldier Stan (1916)

By Andrew Cunningham

Borrowing an idea from the Kitchener Waterloo Cambridge Regional Post Card Club‘s informative newsletter, we are going to feature postcards dating from exactly 100 years ago (we’ll make it 110 years, or some other round number, if there’s a good candidate from an even earlier era).

Given that we’re the Toronto Postcard Club, let’s start with a card with a great local postcard from a relatively rare publisher. The chief interest of this card is its message about a recent First World War enlistee whom the writer regarded as just about as unlikely a warrior as there could ever be.

Postcard published by H. H. Tammen Co. Ltd., Toronto (No. 5141)

Early Morning on the Water Front, TorontoPublished by H. H. Tammen Co. Ltd., Toronto (No. 5141)

On July 18, 1916, a young lady named Florence, resident at 506 Dundas Street in Toronto, posted this card to Miss Lizzie Kinmond of Tiverton, Ont., with the following message:

Dear Lizzie, I know you will feel very sorry to hear my news. Stan our old friend has enlisted. I saw him in Kahki [sic] last night + it was a great shock. Perhaps you knew all about it though. But you can imagine him sailing off in one of these boats. Do you suppose he will take his opera glasses? He may sing The Gold Fish when he gets to the trenches to entertain the Germans on a cold night.

“The Gold Fish” may refer to the romantic song of that name by the Russian composer Mily Balakirev (1837-1910); perhaps the unfortunate Stan was known to be partial to it. However that may be, it is certainly interesting that at this stage of the War, when many Canadians had already been killed in action, Stan’s forthcoming departure for the front would be treated with the insouciance exhibited in Florence’s message.

The card, by the rarely encountered publisher H. H. Tammen Co. Ltd., presents an evocative image of steamboats on the Lake Ontario waterfront, preparing for their first customers of the day. The Toronto skyline is reduced to a silhouette, effectively focusing the eye’s attention on the ships.