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Your country needs you: propaganda a potent weapon in ‘total war’

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As the bombs and grenades ripped through the trenches, the Great Powers were also waging another deadly battle, using the power of words and images to recruit, cajole and shock in "the first modern propaganda war".

"Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?" wholesome children ask a red-faced father in one of Britain's most famous propaganda posters, playing on the shame that would haunt men who failed to sign up in their country's darkest hour of need.

And hundreds of thousands rushed to enlist, entranced by the brooding image of Lord Kitchener starring expectantly down at them with piercing eyes and bristling moustache and insisting: "Your country needs you."

While British propaganda, at least in the early stages of the War before conscription, was focused mainly on recruitment, Germany and France sought to bolster morale on the home front and in the trenches as thousands perished daily.

Propaganda in Germany tended to portray a battle between the brave and "superior" German soldier and an enemy caricatured as morally degenerate and physically inferior.

"Euch wer'n wir laufen lassen" ("We'll teach 'em how to run") splashed one typical poster, depicting muscle-bound German troops dispatching pygmy-sized, beret-wearing French soldiers at the point of a bayonet.

A comic card depicting a Poilu  French World War I infantryman  saying
A comic card depicting a Poilu, French World War I infantryman, saying "keep quiet, beware, enemy ears listen to you !"
, Historial de Péronne/AFP/File

Meanwhile, on Bastille Day 1915, French daily Le Matin told those at home that "Boche (German) bodies smell worse than the French". "Germans shoot really badly and really low," another paper claimed.

"The authorities calculated that patriotic lying was better than the raw and terrifying truth when it came to keeping up a country's morale and controlling public opinion," World War I historian Jean-Yves Le Naour told AFP.

Bayoneting babies

The Great Powers quickly realised the importance of controlling information about the slaughter and scrambled to set up whole government departments to disseminate propaganda, influence opinion-formers and win hearts and minds both at home and abroad.

The Germans were first off the mark with the Zentralstelle fuer Auslandsdienst (Central Office for Foreign Services) and the British were not far behind with the War Propaganda Board, which became known by its main office "Wellington House". Propaganda ministries also sprung up in France and Italy.

As the war dragged on, propaganda efforts concentrated on demonising the enemy, disseminating stories, often wholly invented, about "war crimes" committed on the battlefield or in occupied territories.

Tales of German soldiers bayoneting babies or gang raping young girls at gunpoint were legion and widely believed, providing a powerful recruitment tool and bolstering the determination of the Allied populations to "defeat the monster."

Much of this "atrocity" propaganda was later proven to be either greatly exaggerated or wholly fictitious. Many historians believe this led people to be more sceptical when they were told of the horrors of World War II, including the Holocaust.

Uncle Sam is shown on a US Army recruiting poster used extensively in World War I and World War II
Uncle Sam is shown on a US Army recruiting poster used extensively in World War I and World War II
, HO/AFP/File

Propaganda was also instrumental in maximising efforts on the home front. Posters sprung up exhorting families to eat less bread so the soldiers would have more. "Sign up for the 6th war loan," demanded a German poster, again showing enemies fleeing a soldier's bayonet.

And as the war got increasingly bogged down in the trenches, both sides turned their propaganda weapons towards other countries -- notably the United States -- in a bid to win them over to the cause.

Germany "blanketed the US with continuous, blatant propaganda," wrote historian Jonathan Epstein who added that the British were quick to cut the communication cable between Germany and the United States, realising how vital it was to have a free run in the propaganda war.

- 'Civilisation against barbarism' -

In order better to focus the propaganda effort, authorities scoured letters sent home from the front, excising compromising passages but also gauging the spirits of those fighting the bloodiest war ever seen.

"It was more of a check on the post. The aim was not to censor the thoughts of the troops but to gauge their morale. It was a sort of opinion poll," said historian Le Naour.

And in this "total war", no aspect of life was exempt from the propaganda drive -- even the classroom.

"School exercises might consist of writing letters full of praise to soldiers or calculating artillery production," says French historian Andre Loez.

All sides mobilised philosophers and intellectuals to pontificate on the moral righteousness of their cause.

French philosopher Henri Bergson said that "the struggle against Germany is the struggle of civilisation against barbarism."

German thinker and economist Werner Sombart retorted that "Germany will see its cause prevail because it is the cause of civilisation."

And in the propaganda battle, as in many so other areas, what took place in World War I had a profound impact on the horrors of 20 years later.

Historians generally agree that German military leaders believed the Allied propaganda effort superior to theirs in the Great War and that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler sought to ape the British techniques in World War II to turn the tables.

As the bombs and grenades ripped through the trenches, the Great Powers were also waging another deadly battle, using the power of words and images to recruit, cajole and shock in “the first modern propaganda war”.

“Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?” wholesome children ask a red-faced father in one of Britain’s most famous propaganda posters, playing on the shame that would haunt men who failed to sign up in their country’s darkest hour of need.

And hundreds of thousands rushed to enlist, entranced by the brooding image of Lord Kitchener starring expectantly down at them with piercing eyes and bristling moustache and insisting: “Your country needs you.”

While British propaganda, at least in the early stages of the War before conscription, was focused mainly on recruitment, Germany and France sought to bolster morale on the home front and in the trenches as thousands perished daily.

Propaganda in Germany tended to portray a battle between the brave and “superior” German soldier and an enemy caricatured as morally degenerate and physically inferior.

“Euch wer’n wir laufen lassen” (“We’ll teach ’em how to run”) splashed one typical poster, depicting muscle-bound German troops dispatching pygmy-sized, beret-wearing French soldiers at the point of a bayonet.

A comic card depicting a Poilu  French World War I infantryman  saying

A comic card depicting a Poilu, French World War I infantryman, saying “keep quiet, beware, enemy ears listen to you !”
, Historial de Péronne/AFP/File

Meanwhile, on Bastille Day 1915, French daily Le Matin told those at home that “Boche (German) bodies smell worse than the French”. “Germans shoot really badly and really low,” another paper claimed.

“The authorities calculated that patriotic lying was better than the raw and terrifying truth when it came to keeping up a country’s morale and controlling public opinion,” World War I historian Jean-Yves Le Naour told AFP.

Bayoneting babies

The Great Powers quickly realised the importance of controlling information about the slaughter and scrambled to set up whole government departments to disseminate propaganda, influence opinion-formers and win hearts and minds both at home and abroad.

The Germans were first off the mark with the Zentralstelle fuer Auslandsdienst (Central Office for Foreign Services) and the British were not far behind with the War Propaganda Board, which became known by its main office “Wellington House”. Propaganda ministries also sprung up in France and Italy.

As the war dragged on, propaganda efforts concentrated on demonising the enemy, disseminating stories, often wholly invented, about “war crimes” committed on the battlefield or in occupied territories.

Tales of German soldiers bayoneting babies or gang raping young girls at gunpoint were legion and widely believed, providing a powerful recruitment tool and bolstering the determination of the Allied populations to “defeat the monster.”

Much of this “atrocity” propaganda was later proven to be either greatly exaggerated or wholly fictitious. Many historians believe this led people to be more sceptical when they were told of the horrors of World War II, including the Holocaust.

Uncle Sam is shown on a US Army recruiting poster used extensively in World War I and World War II

Uncle Sam is shown on a US Army recruiting poster used extensively in World War I and World War II
, HO/AFP/File

Propaganda was also instrumental in maximising efforts on the home front. Posters sprung up exhorting families to eat less bread so the soldiers would have more. “Sign up for the 6th war loan,” demanded a German poster, again showing enemies fleeing a soldier’s bayonet.

And as the war got increasingly bogged down in the trenches, both sides turned their propaganda weapons towards other countries — notably the United States — in a bid to win them over to the cause.

Germany “blanketed the US with continuous, blatant propaganda,” wrote historian Jonathan Epstein who added that the British were quick to cut the communication cable between Germany and the United States, realising how vital it was to have a free run in the propaganda war.

– ‘Civilisation against barbarism’ –

In order better to focus the propaganda effort, authorities scoured letters sent home from the front, excising compromising passages but also gauging the spirits of those fighting the bloodiest war ever seen.

“It was more of a check on the post. The aim was not to censor the thoughts of the troops but to gauge their morale. It was a sort of opinion poll,” said historian Le Naour.

And in this “total war”, no aspect of life was exempt from the propaganda drive — even the classroom.

“School exercises might consist of writing letters full of praise to soldiers or calculating artillery production,” says French historian Andre Loez.

All sides mobilised philosophers and intellectuals to pontificate on the moral righteousness of their cause.

French philosopher Henri Bergson said that “the struggle against Germany is the struggle of civilisation against barbarism.”

German thinker and economist Werner Sombart retorted that “Germany will see its cause prevail because it is the cause of civilisation.”

And in the propaganda battle, as in many so other areas, what took place in World War I had a profound impact on the horrors of 20 years later.

Historians generally agree that German military leaders believed the Allied propaganda effort superior to theirs in the Great War and that Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler sought to ape the British techniques in World War II to turn the tables.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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