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How Were Propaganda Posters Used in World War 1?

Judith has a long standing interest in World War 1 and has spent many hours researching the lives of the men of her town who fell in WW1.

Lord Kitchener Wants You . . . The most famous and enduring recruitment poster image from WW1. Designed by Alfred Leete.

Lord Kitchener Wants You . . . The most famous and enduring recruitment poster image from WW1. Designed by Alfred Leete.

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! Painting by James Montgomery Flagg for US Government 1916/17

. . . and Uncle Sam Wants You Too! Painting by James Montgomery Flagg for US Government 1916/17

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.

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.

A recruitment poster outside a church in Toronto, Canada, 1914.  The message is direct:  Don't stand looking at this:  GO and HELP!

A recruitment poster outside a church in Toronto, Canada, 1914. The message is direct: Don't stand looking at this: GO and HELP!

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.

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 newfound 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.

US Navy Recruitment Poster 1917

US Navy Recruitment Poster 1917

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.

Poster produced by Sackett & Wilhelms Corp. N.Y. C. 1917.

Poster produced by Sackett & Wilhelms Corp. N.Y. C. 1917.

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 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 the Statue of Liberty. "Duty", "Freedom" and "God Save the King" were all recurring themes.

A vengeful Britannia, brandishing a Union Flag, leads the men of Britain to war.  Scarborough burns in the background.  Artist:  Lucy E Kemp-Walsh

A vengeful Britannia, brandishing a Union Flag, leads the men of Britain to war. Scarborough burns in the background. Artist: Lucy E Kemp-Walsh

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.

A pitiful scene to appeal to kind American hearts.  Artist:  Boardman Robinson c. 1918.

A pitiful scene to appeal to kind American hearts. Artist: Boardman Robinson c. 1918.

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 also helped justify the war; the good people of the USA and Britain helping the victims of the dreadful Germans. In contrast to 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.

Gordon Grant's 1917 poster invites Americans to help the Navy.

Gordon Grant's 1917 poster invites Americans to help the Navy.

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 undertook to return the items where possible, and asked people to tag them accordingly.

By John E Sheridan (illustrator) for United States Food Administration (Scan of 1918 Poster) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By John E Sheridan (illustrator) for United States Food Administration (Scan of 1918 Poster) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Promoting Acceptable Wartime Behaviour

Soldiers expect to conform to strict discipline, but during wartime 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 wartime. 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.


Zandile on April 29, 2015:

This posters are very interesting and i really enjoyed reading them.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on February 24, 2015:

hi poetryman6969 - I've just been looking at some IS propaganda posters this afternoon - yes, propaganda posters are still around, unfortunately.

poetryman6969 on February 22, 2015:

It's always interesting to see history through the eyes of propaganda posters. What's also interesting is some communist countries still use propaganda posters. I guess because they can.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on April 01, 2014:

Thanks Nell Rose, DMCA coming up!

Nell Rose from England on March 31, 2014:

Hiya, I am chasing up plagiarists, this is your hub found on here:

Judi Brown (author) from UK on January 03, 2014:

Hi not sure - well done on the quiz. I'm afraid I don't know anything about German propaganda posters but perhaps it's something I could research in the future. Thanks for commenting.

not sure on January 03, 2014:

i took the quiz at the end and ididn't even read any of the info and i got 100% could you please try to make it more hard and more questions and mabey try adding some posters from the German side

Poldale on November 12, 2013:

I'm currently taking a WWI history course. Tonight's lecture was on propaganda posters. The USA made extensive use of "Lady Liberty" during this war. I would like to know more about the background of this choice, particularly interested in knowing why she was NOT used in WWII and after.


Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 09, 2012:

Hi Will - I haven't seen "Parades End" - but then I don't seem to see very much TV these days! War is beastly, there's no way around it - the ideals behind it may be noble, but the front line is always going to be awful. Yes, you are right - many of the posters are there to make you feel that you ought to do what you know you really ought NOT to do - ie kill people.

Thanks so much for commenting, I appreciate it.

Will Apse on October 09, 2012:

The current TV show 'Parades End' is a distillation of Ford Maddox Ford. It really shows how war made people 'beastly' (to use their term). I don't see how it could be any other way.

The posters here are really so much based on pointing accusing fingers at those not inclined to slaughtering others or getting slaughtered themselves.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 05, 2012:

Hi KateWest - wasn't originally planning on WWII posters, but if people keep suggesting it, I guess I might give it a go!

Thanks for taking the time to comment, much appreciated!

KateWest from Los Angeles, CA on October 04, 2012:

Keep Calm and Carry On. Part two of your series, I suppose? :) Thanks for the education!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 04, 2012:

Hi Janis - I think it's an interesting angle too, a great piece of social history. Thanks for taking the time to comment, it's appreciated.

Janis Goad on October 04, 2012:

Fascinating topic, and you analyzed the posters with insight. These posters were a look into the daily life and values of the times. Hadn't seen them before.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 04, 2012:

Hi Docmo - yes, the posters are beautiful, I love the look of them. Glad you enjoyed this hub and thank you for the kind comments - I really appreciate them.

Mohan Kumar from UK on October 04, 2012:

Judi- this is a beautifully illustrated history lesson in the form of posters. what best way to learn history and war propaganda than through your wonderfully readable writing and these posters that show a slice of life in those troubled times... well done! voted up/tweeted.

Judi Brown (author) from UK on October 04, 2012:

Hi DJProfessorK - very pleased to hear that you found this hub interesting. Absolutely, WW1 crushed a great many romanticised ideas about war and on a massive scale too. I've wondered about writing a hub about WWII posters, and I could well get around to it - thanks for giving me a nudge in that direction!

Many thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it.

Kyle Ilgenfritz from York, PA on October 04, 2012:

I find this hub to be very interesting. This was at a time where war was glorified and romanticized...that would change when the war started. I've been reading "Krieg dem Kriege" by Ernst Friederich and it graphically lays out the horrors of war.

Just as a point of discussion Judi, would you be willing to do a comparison between posters from WWI and WWII? Is there also a sense of glorification of war in the second set of posters? Granted, this is putting war bonds and aid posters aside but it's something that I've been curious about.

jellygator from USA on September 10, 2012:

Great hub! My husband and I recently toured and joined the Liberty Memorial Museum in Kansas City, which is all about WWI. They have a WONDERFUL collection of these posters there if you ever get a chance to visit.

Angie Jardine from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on May 03, 2012:

Hi Judi ... great hub.

I am most impressed with not just the amount of research you have done on this subject but also that you thought of the subject in the first place.


Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 03, 2012:

Hi spartucusjones - great to hear that you liked this hub!

Thanks for your comments, glad to hear from you again :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 03, 2012:

Hi sofs - glad you enjoyed this one, I think the pictures are great.

Wishing you a great day too, and thanks for your comments :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 03, 2012:

Hi angela_michelle - the problem turned out to be what to leave out, there are so many fantastic posters I wanted to put in, but I could have gone on for too long!

Thanks for commenting, I appreciate it as always :-)

CJ Baker from Parts Unknown on May 02, 2012:

Very insightful hub! I found it to be very informative.

Sophie on May 02, 2012:

Great Hub! The thorough research and the pictures make it an interesting read. Have a great day!

Angela Michelle Schultz from United States on May 02, 2012:

Wow, when I read your title, I wondered what you would have to write, but a lot! This was very interesting!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi UnnamedHarald - I shall really have to look out a poster on "The Perils of Cynicism" for you - questioning our glorious departed leaders is really rather a poor show!

Great to hear from you, thanks for your comments!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi James - just look at the man's eyes, they tell their own story - totally cold! I haven't seen the documentary you mention, but I do remember reading that he was more than unpleasant. I've seen lots of WW1 newspaper adverts along the lines you mention - prospective father-in-law telling daughter's intended to prove himself a man by enlisting before he can marry the girl. Different values for different times.

Thanks for your comments, always great to hear from you :-)

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on May 02, 2012:

Great article. With all that patriotism flying about, surely no one actually profited from the war...

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi GoodLady - thank you very much, I like the posters a great deal too. As well as having three great-uncles who died in WW1, I research the men from my town who fell, so I am always very aware of the human cost and it makes me angry too.

As always, I appreciate your comments and support :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi Lisa - it's great to hear that you enjoyed this hub, it was time consuming but rewarding to find the appropriate posters for each section.

Thanks very much for your kind comments, very appreciated :-)

James Kenny from Birmingham, England on May 02, 2012:

Great article Judi, seeing the iconic poster of Lord Kitchener reminded me of a documentary that explored his actions in the Boer War. Apparently he was a vile butcher, who decided to keep the Boer civilians in concentration camps, apparently some 40,000 died in captivity. Strange to think that he's still largely perceived as a hero.

Getting back to posters, I remember seeing a WW1 poster, informing the young men that they'll have no chance of marrying a sweetheart, unless they go to war, talk about blackmail eh!

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi theraggededge - some of the posters are very well illustrated and yes, I like that rather glamorous Naval Yeoman too. Can't imagine that the average recruit looked quite so good in her uniform!

Thanks very much for your comments, they mean a lot :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi pinappu - hope you enjoyed your trip back in time! Thanks very much for your comments :-)

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi Carmen - I'm delighted that you found this hub interesting and you are right that we can be so manipulative. But isn't that what the advertising industry relies on!

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, I appreciate them :-)

Penelope Hart from Rome, Italy on May 02, 2012:

Fantastic research, well done. Really like the collection of posters and your pithy, diabolical comments throughout. Powerfully interesting and visual and sadly thought provoking. Makes me angry.

Voting up and across.

Lisa from WA on May 02, 2012:

This is a really fascinating read. I especially liked how you used specific examples with different posters that helped to show the reader exactly what you're talking about. Voted up and interesting :)

Bev G from Wales, UK on May 02, 2012:

Cracking hub, Judi Bee. Those posters are beautifully done (love the Model Navy Recruit) and some are extremely guilt-inducing.

pinappu from India on May 02, 2012:

This hub is a time machine which took me to that good old days.

Carmen Beth on May 02, 2012:

A very wonderful hub on a very interesting topic. You have your facts neatly presented in small sub-topics and there's plenty of related images to peruse. At the bottom of these posters, they have proven how manipulative and persuasive our human nature can be. Some posters had positive influences but many painted a distortion of reality. And hey, is not the aim of the Coldstream Guards' poster similar to the films 'Top Gun' and recently 'Act of Valor'? (rhetorical question)

I totally agree these posters are an art in their own right. Voted up, awesome, useful, and interesting apart from sharing. Soon to write about WWII's propaganda posters I hope?

Judi Brown (author) from UK on May 02, 2012:

Hi denisemai - I don't get tired of World War One and I enjoyed researching this hub. I'm so glad you enjoyed it too.

Thanks for your comments and support, always appreciated :-)

Denise Mai from Idaho on May 02, 2012:

This is a great topic and I enjoyed reading it. Well done! Voted up.