Card games as war pastime, and strategic tool


A new exhibition at the National Playing Card Museum in Turnhout explores the propaganda powers of card games in the First World War trenches

German soldiers playing cards on the Western front in the summer of 1916

Armed with hearts and spades

As the centenary of the start of the First World War creeps ever closer, the pain and suffering experienced by soldiers and citizens alike is increasingly taking centre stage in the arts. The National Playing Card Museum in Turnhout offers some welcome relief in its war-themed exhibition, which focuses entirely on the role of playing cards in the trenches, hospitals and war strategy rooms.

Although kings, queens and jacks couldn’t fire rifles, they gradually came to be seen as “cardboard weapons”. According to Filip Cremers, curator of the National Playing Card Museum, metaphors based on card game terminology always become popular in the run-up to wars and armed invasions.

“What Russia is doing right now in Ukraine, you could call a brag,” he says. “We can only guess what card they’ll play next. Similarly, the European superpowers that set the world on fire 100 years ago didn’t realise that some of them were playing bluff poker.”

In August of 1914, the countries’ diplomatic game of poker resulted in the outbreak of the First World War. By the end of that year, playing cards made an appearance in the muddy trenches.

The exhibition in Turnhout explores the role of playing cards at the front. For ordinary soldiers on either side, decks of cards often represented their only pastime. “War can be boring,” says Cremers. “We very often remember wars because of their battles and their victories, but the fact is that the First World War consisted of long periods of waiting. In trenches, hospitals and camps, the days were pretty long. To pass time, soldiers played games.”

Cardboard weapons

But the generals in the war rooms and the politicians at home saw another reason to embrace the soldiers’ beloved hobby. Sure, the card games were an easy way to provide occupational therapy, but they also proved a convenient tool for more weighty issues like the soldiers’ morale, perception of the enemy, and a (limited) form of internationalisation.

The fact is that the First World War consisted of long periods of waiting

- Museum curator Filip Cremers

The Germans were the first to recognise these special powers of playing cards. When their large army couldn’t advance beyond a 600-kilometre network of trenches at the Western front, they began promoting playing cards as kriegswichtig, or strategically important.

German hearts and spades became the cardboard equivalent of ammunition – hence the exhibition’s title Kartonnen wapens, or cardboard weapons.

“The Germans produced three of these propaganda decks,” Cremers explains. “They depicted German war heroes, famous generals and battle scenes. Production of these decks reached the astronomical number of one million by the final year of the war.”

Although playing card production boomed during the First World War, the playing card industry in Turnhout – sometimes dubbed the world capital of playing cards – experiences sharp blows. Cremers: “Workers were claimed and deported by the Germans; the supply of raw material such as paper was limited, and of course there was censorship. After the war, the presses were again turned on, but the world was changed, and important markets like the United States were permanently lost.”

New technology, new cards

The exhibition highlights another interesting fact about the “trench cards”. As the war dragged on, seemingly endlessly, new combat technologies came into play, so new decks had to be designed, produced and sent to the front. In 1918, just a couple of months before the war ended, a new card game depicting the just-established German air force made its debut at the frontline.

Production of these decks reached the astronomical number of one million

- Filip Cremers

But good propaganda doesn’t just glorify one’s own party, it also discredits the opponent. The Germans developed a set of “counter-propaganda decks”. On view in the exhibition are cards with caricatures of Serbian King Peter; Russian Tsar Nicholas, or “Nicky”; and Winston Churchill, the not-yet-so-famous First Lord of Admiralty of the British Empire.

Luckily for the card-makers, the Germans had so many enemies they could fill an entire deck without the same figure having to be used multiple times.

Although the Germans started the “cardboard war”, the Allies quickly caught on. The French eventually proved the undisputed masters of counter-propaganda. In a 1915 satirical cartoon, German Emperor Wilhelm is shown playing his last card … the jack of spades. The card depicts the Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand, a Germany ally – but not a very strong or reliable one.

For the Allies, card games also served another goal. With the English soldiers – and from 1917 on the Americans – fighting side by side with the French and Belgians, cards were also used to teach the English-speaking troops basic French vocabulary.

In one deck, made especially for American soldiers, a popular soldiers’ song was translated into French. Other decks depicted the banners and colours of the allies’ regiments and fleets so that the soldiers learned who they were fighting with – and against.

The images weren’t the only aspect of the cards to change during the course of the war. As the situation in the trenches worsened, the cards were given an extra layer of varnish so they would better withstand the harsh conditions.

Miniature cards that fit in soldiers’ uniforms were also produced – “pocket decks” avant la lettre. And last but not least, some armies even developed accessories to ensure that soldiers who lost a hand or arm on the battlefield could still play cards in the hospital.

Until 31 December at the National Playing Card Museum, Druivenstraat 18, Turnhout

Photo courtesy Speelkaartmuseum

A new exhibition at the National Playing Card Museum in Turnhout explores the propaganda powers of card games in the First World War trenches.

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First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres