As it is approaching Christmas I thought it might be appropriate to put a few of the Christmas themed sources I have accrued to some use. Considering naval men were (as they still are) often away from home at Christmas, it comes as no surprise that they often sent home Christmas cards to family at home. The first example, shown below, is a nice example of a postcard sent back by a sailor, Percy, to his brother, Freddie, in the early twentieth century (the postal mark perhaps suggests 1910). The card, although it features ‘Christmas Wishes’ in the corner, is not particularly seasonal. In fact, it is little different from any other postcard featuring navy and empire in this period (a phenomena which I think is important in itself, but will have to wait for another blog!).
The message is brief – perhaps necessitated by the small space allowed – but relays a seasonal greeting to his brother. Perhaps interestingly for those who study masculinity, the message ends with kisses. The choice of cards is interesting. Certainly, we shouldn’tread too much into it – we don’t know why it was chosen. Yet, it is a potent reminder, for his brother and for others who saw it, that he was absent from familial celebrations for Christmas and New Year, because he was away serving Britain, the King and the Empire.
Other cards were less serious. The second example, which was featured in the Navy and Army Illustrated, is a card sent from the officers of HMS Torch, whilst stationed in Australia.
The use of the ship’s cats, pictured inside a pair of officers’ boots perhaps exemplifies the more relaxed and fun side to station life in the early twentieth century. Pets were a common sight on board warships, and cats had long been employed as both rat catchers and as pets. Unfortunately for the historian, the message on the other side of the card is not shown.
The Final card is somewhat of a mystery. It appeared, like the second in the Navy and Army Illustrated, but this time also appears to be directly addressed to the magazine. It depicts a rather strange looking dog (is it stuffed?) holding two flags – one American and one with the Christmas message. Again it is from the turn of the twentieth century. The card is from a German ship, SMS Brandenburg, stationed in Wuhu, China. Quite why they are sending a Christmas card to a British military journal is unclear, and why the American flag in the picture is another mystery. Any suggestions are most welcome.
We can see in these cards the human side to the global nature of empire and navy. Just as we see our forces abroad sending Christmas messages home on TV and radio today, sailors were able to send home Christmas wishes from exotic and alien climes at the turn of the twentieth century through cards. It is easy to forget that empire and maritime power required sailors to spend extensive time abroad away from home. Although this meant time away from friends and family at home, it also meant that those receiving letters and cards from these sailors had a direct connection with those far flung places which constituted European empires.