World War One propaganda

What kind of propaganda techniques were utilised during the World War One? Professor Jo Fox provides fascinating insights into this topic, using unique historical sources from the British Library’s collection and other archival footage.

How did both sides go about depicting the enemy and why did propagandists balance terror and humour? How was gender used as a propaganda technique and why did this lead to often contrasting depictions of women? With the advent of cinema, how was film propaganda utilised and how did the public respond to films like the Battle of the Somme? What techniques were employed by recruitment posters and to what extent were all these propaganda efforts successful?

There were a variety of techniques that propagandists used to depict the enemy and there were real tensions in that propaganda. Because on the one hand you don’t want to minimise the power of the enemy because ultimately you want to prove that you are beating a formidable foe. But equally you don’t want to demonise the enemy to the extent that you induce terror in your fighting and producing peoples.

These postcards are a good example of the variety of propaganda images concerning the Germans. If we start with the postcard here, it brings out the idea of German culture and really contrasts the idea of what the Germans see as culture and what the Allies see as culture. As if this propaganda were not clear enough, we have an interesting contrast between the German soldier and who is showing how cruel they are to animals and this depicts their slaughter of Red Cross dogs that they’re going to roast for dinner. Contrast that to the Allied soldier who is caring for this billy goat here and that caring attitude. It’s a very good contrast between the culture of and civilisation in the Tommy and the barbarity of the Hun.

The Germans on the other hand depicted the British as using power politics in Europe to assert their dominance over other European powers – that while the British empire was enabled to expand unchecked, that the German empire was being confined unnecessarily. This was all about imperialism and imperial powers fighting it out. And the Germans also depicted ‘Perfidious Albion’ – the idea of British hypocrisy. That while the British were condemning the Germans for their suppression of peoples, the British empire was suppressing their peoples, in Ireland, in India, in Egypt, across the Middle East. So German propaganda really pointed their own civilisation, moral superiority, superiority in culture, while pointing to the hypocrisy of British imperialists.

Gender was a very important component of First World War propaganda. First of all the national symbols tended to be gendered. For example Marianna in France, The Spirit of Australia, Britannia, and these really set national patriotic overtones in gendered terms.

These postcards are representative of women as symbols of the nation. In this first postcard we see a woman representative of Britain offering the soldier a symbol of good luck. It says here “good luck for Tommy”. And here again, capturing the spirit of America – “We’re coming brothers, coming 100,000 strong”. This could also translate into representing the suffering of the nation. Here the old woman represents the pity, the sorrow, of Belgium. And here, that German honour has become a shame.

There were a number of postcards from the First World War just depicting women as something to fight for, something, idealised the hope embodied in the future. And of course the converse aspect of this was that if you didn’t enlist that you were not worthy of these women, that you would be spurned by your sweetheart, that you didn’t live up to the expectations of the nation and you didn’t live up to the expectations of your loved one.

All of these postcards depict the woman as sweetheart. And here she is the promise of what awaits when the soldier returns home – here’s the pipe dream – he’s imagining her at home waiting for him. And again, he who serves wins the girl – the VC for valour pinned on here by the girl. And here again, Khaki is the style for men, khaki, to be in the army, attracts the woman. The hope that love could bring to the soldier on the front lines is captured beautifully in this postcard here. Here the soldier is happy when his sweetheart loves him but sad if she does not.

There were a number of tensions in the propaganda depicting women in the First World War. First of all there’s a tension in the propaganda that depicted women as vulnerable and in need of protection but also as active participants in the war. As combatants in some of the Serbian propaganda for example. And also one of the most profound tensions of course comes out in the role of the munitions worker. Because on the one hand these women are manufacturing the weapons, the bullets that men are going to fire at other men, these are the weapons of destruction and death but on the other hand they are also the mothers of the next generation. So they are simultaneously responsible for life and death in the propaganda of the First World War.

Cinema in the First World War was a noisy affair. It was full of participation, noise, people speaking, agreeing, disagreeing, booing, shouting, so it wasn’t just something to sit back and consume – this was something to be active with, something that audiences could participate with. And therefore, gradually the authorities realised that it could be a very powerful means of communicating with mass audiences.

The Battle of the Somme film, made by Malins and McDowell in 1916 was an important film for British propaganda. It was the first film that really showed what life was like on the front lines and for this reason it was hugely popular among British audiences. Millions of people flocked to see it and that’s because there was a certain humanity in this film. You could see in the faces of the soldiers the pain, the anguish, the difficulties  of the struggle at the front lines. And this was also a highly controversial film – the Dean of Durham for example, wrote to The Times to question why people were going to see the film. Were spectators simply revelling in the spectacle of war? But others challenged that and said well what matters about this film is that it gives a human face to what our boys are suffering on the front lines.

There were a number of different types of recruitment propaganda that were used by official sources to try to help with enlistment and the first really concentrated on protecting your family, protecting what was dear to you so it was very personal in nature. And the others took moral high ground, so “look at the atrocities in Belgium”, “look what we have to defend, it’s our moral duty to go and help the people of Belgium and France”.  It also focused on your duty to one another, to your community, to the country, that if others were going, why were you not going? And you can see the image of the soldier here directly fixes the gaze of the viewer. Note the language here, “follow me”, “your country needs you”. This type of personal language was a very effective propaganda device. Propagandists found that if language was used in the abstract, people tended to think that it was addressed to someone else. Well there is no mistake here – you are being induced to follow this soldier – follow me – and your country needs you.

This poster suggests that there’s still time to enlist, there’s still a place in the line for you. And this is actually important when we think about placing the viewer within the poster. Again this is a form of direct address – you, you. And there is many others here, many others that have gone before you. He who stands aside from this, he who doesn’t fill this place will be regarded as a social outsider.

The impact of propaganda is extremely difficult to work out. The general consensus is that propaganda only serves to sharpen or crystalize views already present. And in that sense the propaganda of Britain, of the Allies in the First World War was successful in that it took pre-existing beliefs of the Germans, of the developing power relations in Europe and sharpened them and they took ideas about the justification for war and sharpened them, propaganda set the war in a comprehensive moral explanatory framework. But quite how far propaganda, individual aspects of propaganda succeeded in completely turning people’s views is much more contentious, much more debatable and much more difficult for historians to say with any real certainty.

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