Happy birthday? 10 birthday cards from World War I

We often can think of times of war as huge upheavals in humanity. Life can be put on hold. But for many people, day-to-day life does go on with great changes and stresses. 

Birthdays during World War I were not always happy times. Loved ones were distant, and the means of communicating with them difficult.

Here, we share some birthday cards and their messages from Europeana 1914-1918. Some sent from the front line, some sent to it, some bought, some hand-made, some heart-warming, some heart-breaking.

Sent with love – five printed cards

Coming to Europeana from The Army Children Archive, in the card titled ‘Many Happy Returns of the Day’, we see a young girl holding a photograph of her soldier-father.

This card was sent to a 13-year-old girl in October 1916 with the message ‘To dear Gertie, With fondest love, from Mam and Dad’.

From the same archive, this card – ‘To my Dear Daddy away on Duty’ – includes a handwritten message in black ink: ‘Wishing our Dear Daddy a very Bright and happy Birthday with the Best of Good luck and a speedy Return. From your Dear Little Daughters Annie & Nora’.

a woman in a green dress holds a small bunch of flowers
FRATERNAL GREETINGS | ALG SANDERS

On the other side of the card depicting a lady in green with flowers, a hand-written message reads ‘My Dear Min, Just a little card to wish you everything you wish yourself, + may the “Great Peace” be proclaimed before your next Birthday comes along. Trusting you and Vera are quite well. With kindest thoughts, your affectionate Brother Alg.’

sepia photograph of a man wearing protective clothing holding a large hammer
Geburtstagsgruß im Krieg | Oeckermann Mathilde

Perhaps an unlikely birthday card, ‘Durchalten’, is a card sent to Mathilde Oeckermann from her friends in favour of the association ‘Welfare of Female Youth’. In the third year of the war, this card calls for the home front to ‘STOP’.

a postcard with greeting text and illustration of flowers and a view of a house in the countryside
Birthday card | Kay Hodgson

‘The Best of Birthday Wishes to my Brother’ came to us in a collection from Kay Hodgson, and was sent to George Atkinson Sharp. The poem on it reads ‘By this card I would convey, More than all my heart can say. By this love-sent token true, Comes my Birthday wish to you, May good luck your footsteps guide, Health, wealth, joy and love abide.’

Crafted with love – hand-made from the front

hand-drawn card showing a piece of machinery
Geburtstagsgrüße von Gustav Müller aus den Vogesen | Emil Arnold

A painter by profession, Gustav Müller was a member of the 2nd Replacement Battalion of the 4th Company of the 165th Infantry Regiment. This is a homemade birthday card, made it appears with foliage and straw, sent from Gustav from the field in the Vosges to his sister-in-law in 1918.

Sadly, not every card made it to the recipient in the manner intended.

Flyer Rudolf Dreher drew this card for his father, Otto-Hugo Dreher, who would be 50 on 3 September, 1918. The card was discovered and sent to Rudolf’s father, along with other items belonging to his son following his death on 30 May 1918.

The luxury of silk embroidery

Silk embroidered cards were made in France and Belgium during the war with thousands bought by soldiers to send home to their loved ones.

an embroidered card with words 'a kiss from your daddy' and flower design
A kiss from your daddy.’ | The Army Children Archive

‘A kiss from your daddy’ includes violets, the Union Jack and the French flag (the ‘Tricolore’).

The central flap lifts to reveal a small rectangular card on which is printed a terrace scene surrounded by four-leafed clovers, along with the legend ‘A Loving Birthday Greetings [sic]’. On the reverse a message written in pencil reads, ‘Dear Daughter,  Just a line to let you know I have sent a P.C. to your Uncle John so with Best of Luck I remain your loving Dad good night tell Mamma’.

Another silk embroidered card shows the French and British flags, flowers and the words ‘Happy birthday’. This one has a handwritten message on the back which reads, ‘To Cyril with fondest love From Daddy.’

embroidered card with words happy birthday and a long-stemmed purple flower
Embroidered birthday card | Mrs C L Caulfield

The final card here is from a collection shared by Mrs CL Caulfield. Inside the card is a printed poem that reads ‘I send a card to wish you joy, Good health, wealth and success, And any other thing that may lead to your happiness.

By Beth Daley, Europeana Foundation

‘Birthday card’ – Kay Hodgson, and ‘Embroidered birthday card’ – Mrs C L Caulfield are shared under a ‘sharealike CC BY-SA  licence. The remainder of these images are shared under a free reuse CC0 licence.

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