British First World War Recruiting Posters

Publicity Department, Central Recruiting Depot, Whitehall, Poster, [1914-1918]

Although the technology to enable the relatively inexpensive mass production of high quality images had been in existence for over a century, the First World War saw the first extensive use of posters for propaganda purposes.

Mass-produced posters have been used to advertise commercial products and propagandize political and social causes since the invention of the lithographic process at the end of the eighteenth century. The poster acquired some artistic respectability by the late nineteenth century due to the design work of artists like Alphonse Mucha and Toulouse Lautrec. However, it was during the First World War that the recruiting poster became ubiquitous within the British urban landscape.

More than fifty of the British First World War posters in the William Ready Archives collection were authorized by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) in the first eighteen months of the war. The PRC was a thirty member body organized by political party organizers, under the supervision of the War Office, with the express aim of aiding the raising of troop numbers in Britain’s volunteer army. The main modes of appeal were through mass recruiting rallies and through posters and pamphlets that encouraged enlistment. For designing the latter, the PRC drew on the expertise of Hedley La Bas and Eric Field of the Caxton Advertising Agency.

The earliest recruiting posters tended to be blown-up versions of handbills, usually with text in one or two colours, and sometimes simply provided the technical terms of enlistment. They contained no visual images and relied on block-printed slogans such as “Your country needs you” and “No price can be too high when honour and freedom are at stake” to grab attention. These early posters were designed to appeal to both general audiences and particular constituencies. One example from the collection was targeted at employers – “3 Questions to Employers” – calling on them to release “un-needed” men from work so that they could enlist.

00000875.jpg Within a few weeks of the outbreak of the war the designs of poster began to incorporate striking graphic images. Perhaps the most famous British image of the entire war came from Alfred Leete’s characterization of Lord Kitchener. This highly realistic representation shows the military leader in uniform, coldly staring, his finger pointed, calling on Britons to join up. This depiction was copied and emulated in numerous subsequent posters. Later variations of this poster are included in McMaster’s collection, including one from 1915 of the stern-faced Kitchener, musing on the possible need for compulsion should voluntary enlistment dry-up. Many of the early posters made reference to the German invasion of Belgium in terms of its abrogation of international treaties – the tearing up a “scrap of paper” – and comparing the realities of German actions with their claims of superior Kulture. An example of the latter is the poster “Remember Scarborough” a reference to that seaside town’s bombardment, along with the towns of Hartlepool and Whitby, by German battleships on 16 December 1914. The attack caused 137 fatalities and left 592 wounded, almost all of them civilians.

Over time the poster campaign became ever more sophisticated and psychologically manipulative. Appeals to duty were replaced or supplemented by three additional elements: appeals to young men’s desire for adventure, camaraderie and masculinity (“He’s happy and satisfied, are you?” “There are three types of men” 'What will your pals think of you?”); by thoroughly demonizing Germany and Germans; and by social shaming techniques. Posters that tried to provoke guilt in the general populace were later considered to be especially invidious. Perhaps the most famous example of the latter is the Savile Lumley poster “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” This poster features a middle-aged man in silent repose in his postwar armchair – likely overcome with shame – his son playing with toy soldiers on the floor. His daughter, resting on his knees and obviously reading an account of the war, asks, in all innocence, the damning question. Guilt was also used in posters that urged women to persuade their men-folk to enlist, by both questioning their men’s masculinity and questioning the patriotism of women who hesitated to give up their husbands, fathers and sons to the service of the nation (“Women of Britain, persuade them to go”).

00001758.jpg Fifty-four million copies of some two hundred different posters were produced and distributed by the PRC over the course of the war. Millions more were produced by other wartime (often private) organizations. As one Londoner observed in January 1915: “Posters appealing to recruits are to be seen on every hoarding, in most shop windows, in omnibuses, tramcars, and commercial vans. The great base of Nelson’s pillar is covered with them.” Yet, despite or perhaps because of, this ubiquity and the psychological bullying evident in many of them, the poster campaign was increasingly criticized over the course of 1915, such that by October 1915 its effectiveness in the recruitment effort was being seriously questioned. Propaganda posters continued to be issued over the course of the war, but the implementation of conscription in 1916 led to a drastic decline in posters urging army recruitment, and an increase in posters calling on home front service – in munitions factories or the Land Army – and for the restriction of food consumption and the buying of war bonds. McMaster has a significant collection of the Parliamentary War Savings Committee series.

War posters were intended to be ephemeral and never meant to be archival or historical documents. Yet, because of the content of the messages they projected they have become an important resource by which we can today explore the mindset of those who believed passionately in the rightness of the cause and the necessity to wage war between 1914 and 1918.

Further resources

Darracott, J. The First World War in Posters (New York: Dover, 1974)
Hiley, N. “‘Kitchener Wants You’ and ‘Daddy, What did You do in the Great War?’ The Myth of British Recruiting Posters,” Imperial War Museum Review 11 (1997): 40-58.
Rickards, M. Posters of the First World War (London: Adams & Mackay, 1968)
Robb, G. British Culture and the First World War (New York: Palgrave, 2002)

Archival descriptions

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