Christmas and the war effort

'The Sydney Mail' Wednesday 13 December 1916, Christmas Number, War Issue. ANMM Collection 00040698

‘The Sydney Mail’ Wednesday 13 December 1916, Christmas Number, War Issue. ANMM Collection 00040698

A woman watches her two young children, as they play in the sand at a beach, happily enjoying the Australian sunshine and thought that Christmas is near. A familiar image you might say? On 13 December 1916, The Sydney Mail published an illustration depicting this scenario in the ‘Christmas Number’, with one crucial difference…

The Sydney Mail was a weekly magazine edition of The Sydney Morning Herald that ran from 1860 to 1938. It featured a range of topic areas including news and current affairs, ladies interest pages, fictional stories and poetry, photographs and illustrations.

At the time this edition was published, World War I had been underway for two years and the Gallipoli Campaign had been a disastrous failure, with horrific losses on all sides. The mood at the time would have been tense and fearful, with no end in sight for the many families who had loved ones fighting at the front.

Contained in magazine’s pages are fresh reports from the battlefront, an illustration of a soldier saying goodbye to his sweetheart and one of an injured soldier reuniting with his child, portraits of soldiers who have died and anti-German war propaganda.

This brings us back to the scene of the woman with her two children at the beach. She looks forlorn as her two children play with toy soldiers placed in mini trenches, some of them strewn over the top lying on the sand acting as casualties of the battle. She holds her shawl and just next to her stands a ghost, that is, her husband the real soldier. The viewer is left assuming her husband recently fought and died on the front. Or perhaps he hasn’t died, and is represented with his family ‘in spirit’, as the saying goes, during this important festive occasion. What do you think? In any case, it must have been a sobering and striking image for readers.

This edition of The Sydney Mail demonstrates the power of the war effort and its strategic aims of supporting armed forces as well as maintaining public morale on the home front. The emotive nature of the cover illustration is designed to connect with readers who have lost loved ones at the front. But it also communicates one of the key messages of the war effort: without each soldier’s sacrifice, ordinary Australians would not be able to enjoy the simple things in life such as going to the beach or celebrating Christmas.

American war bonds poster with the slogan 'For Liberty and Peace on Earth'. ANMM Collection 00033871

American war bonds poster with the slogan ‘For Liberty and Peace on Earth’. ANMM Collection 00033871

During the Second World War the designer of this American propaganda poster took a similar approach. By employing familiar images such as the iconic Liberty Bell and Christmas paraphernalia, the poster is able to connect with the viewer and concurrently push a message of support for the war effort through the purchase of war bonds.

Most countries, including Australia, utilised war bonds schemes to help fund the nation’s involvement through both world wars. The schemes worked by encouraging the public to buy war bonds which would mature with interest after the war. Significantly, the purchase of war bonds allowed those who were not fighting a way in which to actively and productively contribute to the war effort. Although initially aimed at financing the war, the greatest accomplishment of the bond drives was the positive impact they had on the morale of home-front Americans.

Scenes of poverty, fighting and invading armies were the basis for most war bonds posters which harnessed drama and emotion in order to get their patriotic message across. Examples held in the museum’s collection include soldiers running to attack with guns in hand and sky ablaze, and merchant marine hero William M Thomas pulling his wounded colleague from a dark sea.

This Christmas war bonds poster consciously departs from the frequently-used scenes of death and violence, however with its grounding in the Christmas spirit the poster still achieves a sense of patriotism and empowerment. Beneath the poster’s appealing and comforting aesthetic is a subtle reminder that a contribution to the war effort is a contribution to the preservation for future generations of an entire way of life, including much-loved traditions such as Christmas.

Nicole Cama and Penny Hyde

Curatorial assistants

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