BRITISH PROPAGANDA AND CENSORSHIP
“The cleanest fighter in the world – the British Tommy” is just one of the wild declarations made by British companies trying to profit from WW1. The above statement was from the Sunlight Soap Company who claimed that there business ideals were reflected in the “clean, chivalrous fighting instincts of our gallant soldiers”. They were so confident of the soap they sent to the trenches that they offered a £1,000 ‘guarantee of purity’ on every bar.
Companies Cash in on WW1
In a speech in London, Lloyd George turned the Great War into a crusade against militarism. The phrase ‘war to end all wars’ was previously used by H.G. Wells (author of ‘The Invisible Man’) but it was its use by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 19th September 1914 that captured the public mood.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 19th September 1914
The 'Great War' Becomes 'the War to End All Wars'
Image: Old Bill continues to be featured on all sorts of merchandise.
The term ‘the man who won the war’ is sometimes applied to both cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather and his creation ‘Old Bill’. So great was their impact on the morale of ordinary British people that there is currently a campaign for official recognition of Captain Bairnsfather. At the time his scruffy, ill disciplined but stoic character met with disapproval from the British establishment who would have preferred him to be a smartly dressed, square jawed hero.
Campaign to Honour 'the Man Who Won the War'
One company took advantage of families desperately hoping their relatives would survive terrifying stints in the front line by using the slogan “Save the lives of our men by sending them – the Anti-Live Barbed-Wire Glove”.
In March 1915, anti-live barbed wire gloves were on sale in the U.K. from Turnbull & Asser. This highly reputable company supplied shirts and suits to royalty and film stars, as well as uniforms and other military paraphernalia to British Army officers. In early 1915 the Germans unveiled a new kind of wire that was made of thick, single strand steel that could not be cut by British standard issue wire cutters. The barbs were not only more densely arranged than on the farmyard wire used by the British, they were also around 2cm long. Alhough barbed-wire was a frequent problem for soldiers on the battlefield, it was never known to be electrified.
The nation was said to be ‘sworn to secrecy’ when the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) was instated in 1914. It imposed numerous restrictions on British citizens including the outlaw of hailing a cab at night, buying binoculars or talking on the phone in a foreign language. DORA also forbade British citizens from talking about any military or naval matters in public and proscribed the use of invisible ink when writing abroad. People could be and were arrested and charged for such offenses.
Sworn to Secrecy
Lloyd George was a charismatic politician whose speeches always attracted attention. Women would often crowd the public gallery in the House of Commons and swoon as he spoke. He was also a notorious philanderer and fathered numerous illegitimate children. On one occasion his son Dick bumped into a man in a pub who looked remarkably similar. They got chatting and the stranger intimated that Lloyd George was his father and that a substantial sum was being paid to him to keep quiet!
The slogan “Super Pen for Our Super Men” was used to sell fountain pens. The Waterman’s Ideal Fountain Pen was offered with the opportunity for loved ones to have it personalised with their soldiers’ regimental badge claiming it as the “ideal gift” for men on active service. It is unclear how many soldiers actually used fountain pens in the trenches as most wrote home with pencil.
“It is a body-builder of astonishing power” – what are they talking about?....Bovril! This advertisement claimed that Bovril gave soldiers “the strength to win”.
Although such outrageous and unfounded claims would never be allowed to go public today, companies advertising during WW1 faced few restrictions. Companies frequently used anti-German sentiment and guilt to sell everything from food and fashion to fountain pens.
Other areas which were covered by DORA were the honourship of pigeons, use of flags, licensing hours and content used within the press. It was also used to cover up details of the Lusitania sinking including the mysterious cargo it was carrying.
Some of these restrictions can still be seen today. Last orders in pubs originates from the Defence of the Realm Act.
The Great War created opportunities for retailers to launch new product ranges. In London, Gamages department store sold all manner of uniforms to fit children from age 6 -12. These were perfect in almost every detail and the Lord Mayor of London’s fancy dress party looked like a miniature troop mobilisation being attended by nurses, infantrymen and even an admiral in a plumed hat. Gamages also saw a market for equipment for troops and in 1915 offered for sale catapults that could launch jam tin bombs, while Harrods were soon selling gas masks. Gamages closed its doors in 1972.
Transatlantic passengers were routinely required to check departure times in the press. Those who were about to embark on the Lusitania were surprised to find a second notice alongside the ship’s sailing times. This was posted by the German government and it warned them that they were about to sail into a war zone and that this carried great risk. More than two months had passed since Germany had declared that allied ships caught in British waters would be sunk without warning but influential Americans (of German extraction) cautioned that such callousness could not be applied to a passenger liner without recrimination.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 1st May 1915
Lusitania Sets Sail for Liverpool
On 7th May 1915, passengers and crew on board the ‘Lusitania’ felt a dull thud followed by an ear-splitting explosion – or two. The passenger liner was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland with the loss of 1198 souls. The Lusitania was carrying a large amount of ordnance for the British army including 4.2 million bullets but whether or not this could be labelled as contraband was disputed. The British government exploited the sinking as a propaganda gift and set up an enquiry into the disaster. However the prominent legal figure who chaired the enquiry described the affair as ‘a damned dirty business’ and his report has never been published and no copies can be found.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 7th May 1915
"A Damned Dirty Business"
In May 1915, the Germans endured a public relations disaster when Karl Goetz, a Munich sculptor brought out a limited edition medallion. His biggest mistake was to date the sinking of the Lusitania as the 5th instead of the 7th May prompting cries from Britain and America that this outrage was a callous, premeditated attack. Goetz later expressed regret that his medal had drawn international condemnation upon his homeland. If that was disappointing, so too were his sales as he only shifted 500 units, while a British copy sold 250,000. The latter were neatly packaged in a commemorative case that also held a leaflet condemning German barbarity.
Commemorative Medal Brings Condemnation
Lord Kitchener (who was honoured on a commemorative £2 coin in 2014) was roundly attacked in the press on this day in 1915. Four days after the munitions crisis was first exposed, the ‘Daily Mail’ laid the blame squarely at the door of Britain’s Secretary of State for War. Its headline screamed ‘The Shells Scandal, Lord Kitchener’s Tragic Blunder’ and the accompanying article was written by the paper’s owner Lord Northcliffe. The reputation of Britain’s most famous soldier was shattered. The article blamed his lack of foresight in recruiting all manner of skilled tradesmen who should have been retained in the U.K. to work in essential war industries.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 21st May 1915
The Press Turns on Kitchener
Anti-German feeling spiked during the second week of June 1915. In London and other cities bombed by Zeppelins, local people reacted with fury and attacked shops and businesses bearing German names. In Hull a butcher’s shop was stormed and a policeman who tried to intervene was chased away by an angry mop. These air raids also boosted recruitment to the forces and on 13th June 1915, Albert Harvey was one of many young men from Hull who enlisted in the army. Albert was only 14 years old.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 13th June 1915
Zeppelin Raids Prompt Reprisal
Britain contained many thousands of people of German extraction including poet Robert von Ranke Graves and George Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (generally known as His Majesty, the King). Liverpool had an especially large immigrant population and there were ugly scenes after the sinking of the Lusitania. Even though the symbol of the city – the famous Liver birds – was created by a German immigrant, the local populace turned on anyone with a Germanic name. Newspapers demanded that they should be locked up – not the assailants but the victims. The government was forced to act and in the course of 1915 thousands of males between the ages of 17 and 55 were detained. Conditions varied and some of the 32,000 internees were put up in hotels while others were accommodated in horseboxes at Newbury racecourse or in hulks anchored off the English coast. Women and children were not interned and Britain was careful to protect its international reputation as a civilised nation in its treatment of its captives.
Lock Them Up!
In July 1915, a French newspaper (Le Matin) printed a chart which showed that France was responsible for over 543 miles of trenches compared to only 31 ¾ miles held by the British. The Daily Mail reprinted the graphic and described the imbalance as ‘ignoble’, calling for more volunteers to step forward. Britain was however increasing its share of the front line as Kitchener’s divisions crossed the Channel, allowing the French to concentrate their forces further south. The upshot was that from May to August, the British took over that part of Picardy that in 1916 would become the Somme front.