How Were Propaganda Posters Used in World War 1?
Lord Kitchener Wants You...
The Growth of Propaganda
Propaganda was being used long before the outbreak of World War One, but the use of posters, rather than handbills, was pioneered during the war. Almost from the outset, the British government, through the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, set about producing posters to swell the ranks of Britain's small professional army with volunteers.
The first posters relied simply on text to get their message across; as the war progressed the posters become increasingly sophisticated with artists using striking images to convey pro-war messages. Although recruitment was the initial focus for posters, they were also employed to:
- promote patriotism,
- justify the war,
- raise money,
- procure resources, and
- promote accepted standards of behaviour.
Often these themes crossed over, for instance with patriotic images being woven into efforts to recruit men and raise money.
... and Uncle Sam Wants You Too!
J M Flagg's Propaganda Posters
James Montgomery Flagg, who designed the Uncle Sam poster above, was one of America's most celebrated propaganda poster artists. Find out more about J M Flagg and his work for the war effort.
The Recruitment Drive
When the British entered the war on 4 August 1914 they had only a small professional army by European standards. Including its reserve, Special Reserve, Territorial Force and various militias, the British could muster a total force on mobilisation of just over 733,000. By contrast, Germany's standing army was about the same size and they could count on this rising to 3.8 million on mobilisation. Clearly, Britain needed more men.
Although it was envisaged that the war would be over quickly, the British set about urging volunteers to join up. Between August and October 1914 five New Armies were sanctioned, requiring vast numbers of men. The Parliamentary Recruitment Committee swung into action, commissioning posters to complement the mass recruitment parades, newspaper advertisements and pamphlets.
Even after conscription was introduced in Britain in 1916 there was still a place for propaganda posters in raising both money and morale.
Posters Brought the Front Line to the Home Front
World War One Recruitment Posters
At first the posters were little more than a notice giving details of how and where to enlist and there were plenty of men who rushed to join the colours. Within days of the outbreak of war extra recruitment offices had to be opened. When news of the British Expeditionary Forces' retreat at Mons reached London the rush to enlist was huge; in the last week of August 63,000 men joined up. On Thursday, 3 September 33,203 men enlisted, setting a record.
By 1916 the scale of casualties on the Western Front (for instance, nearly 60,000 men lost on the first day of the Battle of the Somme) meant that the British had to introduce conscription. Recruitment posters were still used, but less widely, and the propaganda moved into new areas.
One of the most iconic British images of World War One is that of the Secretary for War, Lord Kitchener. Alfred Leete's close shot of Kitchener's face stares directly at the viewers, finger pointing at them, making it a personal appeal from Kitchener to them. This poster had several different versions and was adapted by the Americans who substituted Uncle Sam for Kitchener.
WW1 Military Recruitment Poster for the Coldstream Guards
The Man Who Didn't Fight
Glorious Patriotism versus Emotional Blackmail
Some posters, like the Coldstream Guards' poster to the right, painted a rosy view of army life. The Coldstream Guards, wearing various dress and parade uniforms, stand between laurel leaf decked columns displaying their battle honours. The message is clear; join up to look smart, be brave and be a part of an illustrious tradition.
The reality would have been rather different with new recruits lucky to receive ill-fitting battledress, much less, dress uniforms. However, young men were generally keen to enlist, some because they were patriotic and saw it as their duty and others because it really did offer them a better life. The slums of Britain's major cities were full of under-nourished people and it was reported that recruits often put on weight and improved their health once in the army. Sadly, many had precious little time to enjoy their new found health.
For those not seduced by the glamour of a redcoat or Navy blue and gold braid, the Parliamentary Recruitment Committee (PDC) had more insidious messages. Artist Savile Lumley's well-known poster is rooted in guilt and anxiety rather than glory and bravery. Whilst her brother patriotically plays with his toy soldiers, a little girl asks her father what he did during the war. His tight jaw and empty eyes tell us his guilty secret. What man would want to have to admit that he did nothing to his children? The message is clear: better to face the wrath of the Germans than the disgust of your children.
The Model Naval Recruit
Women at War
Not all recruitment posters targeted all men. Often they were designed to appeal to a certain group, for instance athletes, civil servants or miners. Sometimes, they weren't designed to appeal to men at all - their audience was women. As the war progressed women were needed not just to act in their traditional roles as nurses, but also to step into roles previously held exclusively by men. In civilian life they were needed to work in factories and on the land. The armed services also started opening up to them. Women did not serve in active roles, but they were accepted in auxiliary positions.
Howard Chandler Christy's poster of a young Navy Yeoman (to the right) depicts her looking confident and modern. She gazes out from the poster and invites other young women to join her, apparently having written her message to them in her red lipstick. If anyone takes her up on her offer, not only will they get a smart uniform, but they will earn an instant promotion!
Yeoman in the Navy could expect to undertake clerical work, freeing up men to take up posts overseas.
Rampant Patriotism During the War
One of the keys to success in any war is maintaining morale, both on the front line and on the home front. During the World War One, there were constant rallying calls around patriotism and nationalism, reminding people that they were fighting for a greater cause than themselves: their country, its freedom and all that it held dear. Posters were often awash with patriotic stereotypes and stirring slogans.
British Empire posters naturally featured images of the British lion, Britannia and John Bull, often adorned with a Union Flag. The US posters depicted Uncle Sam (see above), American Pit Bull Terriers (how times change), the American Eagle and Statue of Liberty. "Duty", "Freedom" and "God Save the King" were all recurring themes.
Vengeance WW1 Style!
Justifying the War
Allied governments attempted to justify the war by stressing the need to defend freedom and decency from the aggressive actions of the enemy. The atrocities committed by the Germans was a popular theme. Early in the war there was outrage over alleged crimes against women and children in Belgium.
The sinking of RMS Lusitania, en route from the UK to the USA, in 1915 by a German U-Boat with the loss of over 1,000 souls, provided plenty of scope for the poster artists to show why a war against Germany was justified. Their efforts were not in vain as public opinion was revolted by the use of military action against a civilian target, although Woodrow Wilson stopped short of joining the war.
Similarly, the bombing of Scarborough in the north of England by the German Navy, with the loss of many women and children, featured in British recruitment posters, but equally served to remind people why Britain had to fight back.
Relief Fund for Serbia
Raising Money During World War 1
Wars are costly in terms of people and money. Recruitment posters took care of the former, but as the war dragged on governments increasingly advertised to raise funds. Often these urged people to buy government bonds and were sometimes linked to a patriotic duty message, like the poster above, targeting immigrants to the USA.
As well as raising money via government savings schemes, some posters appealed for money to help refugees. This was also helped justify the war; the good people of the USA and Britain helping the victims of the dreadful Germans. In contrast the brash colours of the patriotic recruitment posters, these images are subdued. Boardman Robinson's poster for the Serbian Relief Fund in New York shows a group of Serbians in muted tones, as though their ordeal has bled them of all colour.
A First World War Naval SOS
From Socks to Spy-Glasses
Finding men and money for the war effort wasn't enough. With factories understaffed many essentials couldn't be manufactured so the government had to appeal for donations. One area that was lacking was clothing. Troops were short of socks, so the womenfolk left behind set about knitting them and sending them to the lads at the front.
Perhaps more odd was the appeal for spy-glasses and binoculars for the Navy. Gordon Grant paints an alarming picture of a blind-folded captain on the deck of his ship, unable to see the enemy. A crewman tries to direct him from the background to no avail. The people of America are invited to help by donating their unused binoculars and spy-glasses, for which they will be paid a dollar. Amazingly, Franklin D Roosevelt also undertakes to return the items where possible, and asks people to tag them accordingly.
Food as Ammunition
Promoting Acceptable Wartime Behaviour
Soldiers expect to conform to strict discipline, but during war time governments also try to extend their influence over the lives of civilians too. People were exhorted to get out of bed an hour earlier to keep production up, save fuel and set traps for rats that might eat vital food supplies.
Food is always an issue during war time. With men away at war and imports disrupted, production inevitably falls. There were many posters advising people on how to use their rations sensibly. John E Sheridan's poster is a reminder of why rationing was vital, drawing a comparison between food and ammunition. His message is simple but effective; soldiers don't waste their ammunition, don't let them down by wasting your food.
World War One Posters as Art
The posters used in World War One were designed to be a cheap, mass produced source of short term propaganda. They have become more than that. A few are iconic (who does not recognise that pointing finger, whether it is Kitchener's or Uncle Sam's?), many of the images are beautiful in their own right, some capture an era that fascinates many and others provide a record of a time that will not be forgotten. Nowadays, many people appreciate the appeal of these posters and collect them as art.
The tragedy is that these were not the last propaganda posters to roll off the printing presses; World War Two was to produce its own catalogue of propaganda posters.