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Strange Maps

Keep Calm and Come Die

The famous Keep Calm and Carry On poster had a First World War antecedent.

Less than two dozen original copies are known to survive of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, produced by the British government in 1939 as the Second World War approached. The posters were to appear when bombing raids and military defeats threatened public morale. But few ever made it out onto billboards and shop windows. Most of the 2.45 million copies were pulped in a paper drive. When the bombs did start falling, the message was judged too condescending and out of touch.

(Image, taken here, in the public domain)

But when a copy of the poster was rediscovered in 2000, it became a design classic virtually overnight, and a textbook example of the British “stiff upper lip” in the face of adversity. It has also been widely, over-exhaustively spoofed.

As it turns out, the now-famous exhortation has an equally phlegmatic antecedent. One world war earlier, another poster cheerily asked the common Britlander to do his duty — again carefully sidestepping all the blood and gore involved. 

Come Lad Slip Across and Help, proclaims this poster from 1915. This very congenial call to arms shows a soldier and a civilian shaking hands across the English Channel. The civvy has his feet firmly parked on English soil, colored in the comforting crimson of Empire. His left hand is planted in his side, in a wait-and-see attitude.

(Image found here at the Imperial War Museums website)

The soldier, an artilleryman, is making all the effort, reaching over the water to shake the doubtful civilian’s hand. The map and the handshake underline the proximity of the battlefield to England. The soldier is standing on northern France and western Belgium, the scene of some of the worst carnage the world had seen until then. Yet the landscape is evenly, invitingly yellow. Nor does the soldier’s demeanor show any sign of the trauma of industrialised killing, unleashed at that time on trenchfuls of terrified teenagers and 20-somethings. He looks rather embarrassed, as if he’s almost ashamed to ask this one favor, this trivial thing of his pal across the Channel:

Sorry, old chap, but could you step across and help me give these Gerries here a Big Push? I can’t seem to move them on my own. Ta very much. Oh, and mind that puddle. That’s your brother Wilfred.


Strange Maps #730

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