The Art of Visual Persuasion: Powerful Propaganda and the Great War

14 October 2013

With the centenary of the Great War on the horizon, the second resource within our First World War digital portal, Propaganda and Recruitment, is due for release later this month. Building on the rich and extensive material within our first resource, Personal Experiences, this new collection offers a vast and fascinating array of primary documents relating to various forms of propaganda, censorship, public opinion, recruitment, training and morale, all drawn from world-class libraries and archives.

Propaganda was, and still is, used as an incredibly effective tool on multiple levels: to exploit existing beliefs; establish authority; create fear; use humour; appeal to patriotism; to be selective and create a ‘version’ of the truth; to name but a few. Among the diverse range of material within this collection, a personal highlight is the visual propaganda, notably the illustrations and caricatures; some of which are daringly bold, and others intricate in detail, but equally significant in their desired effect on the civilian, soldier and enemy. Alongside the boom in commercial advertising during the Great War, the turbulent period offered artists a fertile ground, as their talent became an essential cog in the wheel of the propaganda machine.

This resource showcases the work of many war cartoonists and illustrators, featured in books and periodicals, as well as on posters and postcards. Striking examples of differing illustrative propaganda methods can be viewed in the works of Harry Furniss and Bruce Bairnsfather. Furniss’s work, which featured in Punch magazine and the periodical The Cartoon, often used the powerful propaganda weapon of demonising the enemy. The Kaiser (often representing ‘the Germans’) is depicted in a devilish form; Belgium is literally crushed by the hand of Germany’s ruler; a personification of ‘Truth’ is held captive, never to be freed unless his enemies are victorious.From stereotyping the enemy to illustrating the glories of combat, the propaganda machine only strengthened as mobilisation spread. In contrast to the demonic depictions in the work of artists such as Harry Furniss and Louis Raemaekers, many works employed a comedic approach in an attempt to soften tensions and displace fear on the home front and on the battlefields. Bruce Bairnsfather achieved significant recognition for his humorous artwork within The Bystander’s Fragments of France series, six volumes of which feature in our resource. Whilst a huge number of cartoons took the form of political satire to hit home certain messages, Bairnsfather, on the other hand, turned to his fellow soldiers as the subject of his art, rather than the enemy.
This approach was highly effective for morale and patriotism at home and in the trenches. The editor notes in the fourth volume, ‘Bairnsfather has seen in [his characters] the simple man caught in the vortex of a war of unaccustomed complexity, and shown them to us in proof that human nature and humour survive in the heart of horrors’. The editor also stresses in an earlier volume, ‘Those who would have us simplify ourselves upon the continental model, and present to the world a picture of sombre seriousness, are asking us to change our national character. Cromwell asked the painter to paint him, “warts and all”. Bairnsfather sketches us – smiles and all.’ Similar to many propaganda posters at the time, artists had to strike a delicate balance of positive messages in order to maintain continual recruitment and morale, and revealing only small (and often light-hearted) snapshots of the soldiers’ experiences in order to stabilise the domestic war effort. Perhaps the key to Bairnsfather’s success was that his characters were ‘seriously comical and comically serious’. 

Other illustrated products were directed at children, who were also essential to the war effort at home. Entertainment value was key for the effective promotion of children’s books such as The Peek-a-Boos in Camp, Belgian Relief Fund: A Children’s Painting Book and Nursery Rhymes for Fighting Times, where art was the prominent feature throughout. Such material empowered the government to encourage children to donate money to the war effort, whilst the illustrations themselves often served to conceal the grim reality of war in a cute, warm and humorous fashion.

Illustrative propaganda is only a snapshot of the fascinating and unique material featured in The First World War: Propaganda and Recruitment. Other material includes aerial and atrocity propaganda, diaries, photographs, newspapers, documents from the Kriegspresseamt showing the German effort to control public opinion, parliamentary recruiting items, military files, dissemination of enemy propaganda, papers of the Official Press Bureau, Kitchener Papers on manpower, morale and recruitment, and much more. The resource also features a wealth of foreign language material, providing an essential international dimension and promoting in-depth, comparative research.

The previously published first instalment, The First World War: Personal Experiences, presents captivating personal collections through photographs, diaries, trench maps and journals. These are complemented by innovative and thought-provoking features such as a 360° object viewer for digitised artefacts, featuring soldiers’ kit and an array of other personal items. Panoramas and a virtual walk-through of the Sanctuary Wood Trench System are among several significant features that are integrated alongside the fantastic primary source material.

‘The Kaiser’s Monster Carnival of Terrorism as Arranged by Himself in Heaven, on Land, in the Air, and Under the Sea’ © Cambridge University Library
‘Fragments of France’ © The Robert Opie Collection
‘The Peek-a-Boos in Camp’ © The Robert Opie Collection
Binoculars with Case © Hooge Crater Museum