Collage of an embroidered French postcard and Italian poster featuring photographs of troops

Ephemera and the First World War

From troops’ entertainment programmes to Christmas menus, Ann-Marie Foster explores the rich array of ephemera in circulation during the First World War.

Ephemera is hiding away in many archives around the globe. But what is this elusive material? In essence ‘ephemera’ describes (mostly printed) paper goods that were designed to be used only for a short period of time, thrown away, or even destroyed.[1] During the First World War, it included all manner of ‘everyday stuff’, from labels that were wrapped around war posters, to certificates and programmes created by soldiers to accompany the entertainment they were organising in the trenches.

It is only recently that historians have begun to take interest in this material, and it is very difficult to estimate how much of it has survived. The collection of ephemera at the British Library mostly seems to have been sent in by troops as a way of preserving regimental history and the outputs that the men themselves made. A 1914 Army Regulation states that Commanding Officers could, if they wanted to, send ‘copies of all historical records and regimental magazines and newspapers which may be privately printed'.[2] These items were originally sent to the British Museum, the forerunner of the Library.[3]

Due to the sheer amount that was produced, First World War ephemera can prove difficult to categorise. Typical themes, however, include propaganda, patriotism and loss.

Official ephemera

The First World War, from its inception to end, was warfare on an unprecedented scale. Because of the complex logistics needed to ensure the smooth running of men and supplies from one base to another, an enormous amount of paperwork was produced.

Much of the printing of official British Army paperwork was produced for the military by commercial printers at home.[4] But this was not enough. In 1914 nine men accompanied Captain S G Partridge to France in order to form the British Expeditionary Force Base Stationery Depot. Their brief was to liaise with local printers who would produce army regulation books and forms, which would then be sent out to troops. By 1918 this single depot had been renamed the ‘Army Printing and Stationery Services’ and had expanded by a hundredfold. By the end of the war there were 921 men working for the service, and it had offices in France, Africa and the Middle East.[5]

The types of official documents that survive are highly varied. There are top secret directives, standard army forms, and field postcards given to soldiers so they could let their families know they were safe. Sometimes, we discover items that it seems almost bizarre that someone would have kept. One example of this is a simple label, in bright red ink, proclaiming ‘Recruitment posters. Urgent.’[6] Other examples are more unique, such as this beautifully detailed certificate made for a vegetable show in Le Havre.[7] It was officially commissioned and most likely printed somewhere in France.

Vegetable Show certificate

Blank Le Havre Vegetable Show certificate, with banner at the top with the text British Expeditionary Force

This certificate was produced for the 1917 Vegetable Show in Le Havre, run by the British Expeditionary Force Base Camp that was situated there.

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The troops take charge

One of the most common forms of ephemera found in archives and created by the troops are programmes. Often, boredom meant that – when not on the front line – soldiers would put on entertainment shows for each other, which needed programmes to accompany them. Like the ‘official’ programmes they were modelled on, they had a decorative front cover, with a list of the acts and performers inside.

Programmes varied in artistic style and the quality of the finished product differed wildly based on the resources available. The troops were typically inventive, however, using whatever tools they had at hand (including artistic talent). Some were printed commercially in bulk, often by officers who could take home a more sophisticated souvenir of the event. Others were hand-drawn, so may have been individually produced and pasted to a communal wall for everyone to read. Christmas and other holiday seasons typically increased the amount of ephemera produced. A high number of decorative menus were created around Christmas, for example.

Programme for a literary and musical evening

Cover from a programme for a literary and musical evening, with text in French and Dutch and a photograph of a man

This programme for a literary and musical evening is printed in both French and Dutch.

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Commercial gain

Printers still needed to make a living throughout the war years, and largely continued in their work. The range of ephemera produced by commercial printers was immense. Individuals could purchase small booklets filled with psalms, French phrase guides, or magazines to send to someone they knew who was fighting abroad. Labels that adorned small tins of food – and even matchbook covers – had to be printed by someone, and printers in all countries continued to decorate small items with their designs.

Postcards remained immensely popular throughout the war. They were produced in every country, and there were hundreds of thousands of designs created. They could include photographs, portraits or illustrations. Silk postcards, sold by women in France for the troops to send home, were particularly common. They normally comprised of an embossed card border that was produced elsewhere (even a different country, depending on the manufacturer), which was later embroidered by women in French villages and then sold to passing men.[8]

Postcard from Marius Rousselet

Postcard embroidered with flowers and French text 'Porte Bonheur'

An embroidered postcard sent from Marius Rousellet, a corporal in the French Army, to his sister Georgette.

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Both commercial and official war printers also helped those whose loved ones did not make it back from the fighting. Commercial printers produced ‘In Memoriam’ cards with customised verses for the bereaved. They made programmes of services for funerals and for town and village memorial services that were held during the aftermath of the conflict. The War Office produced Next of Kin Memorial Plaques to be sent to the family of every fallen soldier from British and Empire forces. Accompanying the plaque was a printed scroll, which was often framed alongside the plaque and hung on a wall in the home. These memorial items helped families to grieve and remember their lost ones, and were often passed down to younger relatives.

Soldiers of the Magre who fell for their country in the world war 1914-1918

Page containing small circular photographs of soldiers with Italian text, commemorating soldiers of the Magre who fell for their country in the world war 1914-1918

Publication printed in 1919 in Italy commemorating the soldiers from the small town of Magrè who died in the war.

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These small items, quickly produced and often forgotten, linger in the basements of many museums today. Collected for posterity, so people and events would not be forgotten, some pieces are remarkable, some commonplace, but all help paint a better picture of the day-to-day life during the war.

Further reading

Rickards, Maurice & Moody, Michael, The First World War: ephemera, mementoes, documents (London: Jupiter Books, 1975)

Tomczyszyn, Pat, ‘A Material Link Between War and Peace: World War One Silk Postcards’ in N. Saunders (ed.) Matters of Conflict: Material Culture, Memory, and the First World War (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), pp. 123–133


[1] Maurice Rickards, Collecting Printed Ephemera (Oxford: Phaidon Christie's, 1988), p. 13.

[2] The King’s regulations and order for the army. 1912. Re-printed with amendments published in Army Orders up to 1st August, 1914 (London, 1914) p. 399. British Library 8820.aa.2.

[3] The British Library was formed in 1973. It was an amalgamation of several existing libraries, including the library departments of the British Museum.

[4] Michael Twyman (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Ephemera by Maurice Rickards (London: British Library, 2000), p. 29.

[5] Peter T. Scott, ‘The Army Printing & Stationery Services, 19141918’ in Antiquarian Book Monthly Review Volume VI, 3:59 (March 1979), p. 91.

[6] British Library Tab.11748.aa.4.(12).

[7] The British Library holds a collection of ephemera relating to these shows at Tab.11748.aa.4.(88117). Also see a blog on Untold Lives.

[8] Twyman (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Ephemera, p. 300.

  • Ann-Marie Foster
  • Ann-Marie Foster is a PhD student at Northumbria University, funded through the AHRC Heritage Consortium. Her thesis is entitled The Ephemera of Remembrance in the Wake of War and Disaster, c. 1899–1939 and examines personal and family responses to death during war or disaster (mining, sea, and railway) through ephemera and objects. She was with the British Library for three months during the summer of 2016 working on a PhD placement project, First World War Ephemera.