Did World War One and British government propaganda affect the culture of publishing during the War?


Esmond Collins

(student at Oxford Brookes University, UK)



The aim of my investigation is to decide whether World War One affected the culture of publishing. I will be concentrating on how the government affected publishing by monopolising the publishing industry with propaganda against the enemy during the war years. The government would use commercial companies to cover up atrocities and to promote the image of war that they wanted. By doing this the culture of published may have changed because all of a sudden publishing companies are doing things differently, and perhaps against their will. Not only would this have affected publishers, the general publics buying would have altered because they would be getting biased books and views. However, people might not have realised this due to the fact there was no television and radio, so all the government had to do was censor the written word, and to prevent soldiers from revealing what went on.

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World War One occurred between 1914 and 1918 between the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and allies, against the Triple Entente of Britain and the British Empire, France, Russia, and allies such as the USA which entered in 1917. The War was a great tragedy and waste of lives, taking an estimated 10 million, and leaving 20 million wounded. It started on the 28th June when the heir to the throne of Austria was assassinated in Serbia. In anger, Austria declared war on Serbia. In response Russia retaliated, giving Germany the chance to declare War on Russia, in protection of its close neighbour, and France. They took Belgium whilst invading France. Britain got involved on the 4th August, the day War was declared.

Propaganda is the process of altering the way people think and feel about society. It affects how they look at values and priorities. It covers up what is basically ugly, repulsive, immoral or otherwise unacceptable and showing it as attractive and acceptable. This method is probably used the most in war, as it has the ability to deceive and make things acceptable to the public. There is also the suppression of material, such as the war photographs I write about later. It is also a way of promoting something which will be easily accepted by the general public because it is easy to understand, and uses reliable sources, such as the government use of publishers as I describe in the WPB section.

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Book Publishing

Book publishing was effected by the War to a certain extent. There was paper rationing at a time when there was a great demand for light reading from the armed forces. The sales of books increased greatly during the war, causing books to have poor quality bonding and paper. These books would have been a major problem after the war because the quality of books returned to pre-war standard after. The publishing would have found it hard to sell them. Employees of the publishing industry also themselves found affected - it was not until 4 months from the end of the war that they were allowed not to take part in compulsory national service.

Writers were also affected by the war, especially from those that fought or saw the events. Rupert Brooke saw the beginning of the war; Sassoon and Gurney saw the anger that built and the feeling of waste. Rosenberg, Owen and Blunden all saw the war first hand, being in the trenches.

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War Propaganda Bureau

Soon after the outbreak of War, the British government discovered that Germany had a Propaganda Agency. Realising what an effect this could have on the War, the British Government assigned the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, David Lloyd George to set up an equivalent. The British War Propaganda Bureau (WPB) was formed, with Charles Masterman appointed as the head of the WPB.

The purpose of the WPB was to create ways to keep people's morale high and to give the impression that Britain was in control of the War. Charles Masterman, who was a successful writer and Liberal MP, decided to gather the thoughts of some of the best British authors to decide what to do. He invited 25 authors who all agreed to keep all activities at the WPB secret. The government asked authors to write pamphlets and books which were, basically, propaganda. They used commercial companies such as Hodder & Stoughton, T.Fisher Unwin, Oxford University Press, Macmillan, and Nelson to publish the material. This was a clever move, because the general public might not have believe articles written by the government, but by having them produced by a commercial publisher it looked like an unbiased view of the situation. Charles Masterman admitted as much, as the following quote from a report for the government from the WPB shows:

'We have endeavoured throughout…our literature…read it without any knowledge of any "Government Bureau" behind it…All our literature, therefore, except definite Government publications, has been issued under personal names or distributed by well-known publishers.'

However some writers and publishers were very much against the idea, as J.M Dent recollects in his book, The Memoirs of JM Dent, 'I cannot say my heart leapt up as I thought of my country's stand for righteousness'. Stanley Unwin records in one of his books The Truth about a Publisher 'So great was the war-time prejudice on the subject that many booksellers refused to stock or handle it'. So even though the published pieces would be helping Britain's cause publishers and writers still showed a degree of character and sense of morals.

During the course of the war 1160 pamphlets were published, many bringing propaganda to a new level. An early pamphlet, Report on Alleged German Outrages, written during 1915, said that the Germans had systematically tortured Belgium civilians. To make the pamphlet more believable, the famous Dutch artist Louis Raemaker was asked to make some drawings that would create high emotion among the British public. The artist never actually went to Belgium.

Charles Masterman decided that to keep people up to date with events he would start a publication. He published a magazine, of which 24 were produced during the War years. His choice to be in charge of the magazine was John Buchan, who conveniently had his own publishing company, Thomas Nelson. The magazine was called Nelson's History of the War and the first issue was printed and distributed in February 1915. Buchan got his information through the army, where he was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps. This also provided him with material for his book. The government saw the appointment of Buchan as ideal because he had close relationships with Britain's military leaders, and would therefore be very unlikely to write anything critical against the British fight.

The government allowed many authors and artists to write on and draw about the war. In sharp contrast, two army officers were allowed to take pictures of the Western Front. The Western Front was where the Germans had been pushed back to the Aisne River after nearly taking Paris, and were then involved in a trench warfare. The government warned that if anyone else were found to be taking photographs they would face the firing squad. The idea of photos was to help Britain portray the effort of brave and successful soldiers, which would encourage other men to join the public and to keep the publics' morale high. Having many people taking photographs would have increased the chance of unwanted photographs being published in Britain. Although there was the risk of taking photographs, others did, of which I have examples later. Many show the atrocities and waste of life.

In May 1916, Masterman decided that he could inject more emotion by recruiting the artist Muirhead Bone, who produced 150. When Bone returned to Britain, the drawings were a great success in portraying a successful British army. In 1917 more artists were sent abroad to paint, notably Eric Kennington, William Orpen and William Rothenstein. There was not such a censorship of who could paint. However there was still a limit to what could be drawn. Paul Nash once complained over what he could draw, saying:

"I am not allowed to put dead men into my pictures because apparently they don't exist."

During the course of the war over 90 artists were allowed to produce drawings for the government. Of course some produced the drawings without too much trouble, but others, like Nash, did not like the propaganda that went on. One of the biggest critics of propaganda was Charles Nevinson, who wrote:

"I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message,"

Nevinson sometimes refused to bow to the government's propaganda regime and in some cases his paintings, such as Paths of Glory, were deemed unacceptable and were not put on show until after Armistice. The governments propaganda system prevented his paintings being shown, but I believe this was for the good of the country and the fight for victory.

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Forbidden Pictures

As I have said only two people were allowed to take pictures. However people still took risks to take their own pictures. Thanks to Rob Ruggenberg at https://greatwar.nl/, I have been able to obtain war pictures showing the tragedy of death and what really happened during those times. These pictures give us a more complete view the War, as before I have said that soldiers were not allowed pictures. On Ruggenberg's website itself, it has this extract from the government:

"As the intention of General Routine Order No.1137 appears in some cases to be misunderstood, it is notified that no Officer or soldier (or other person subject to Military law) is permitted to be in possession of a camera".

As Ruggenberg notes, at the Imperial War Museum there are 5 million photographs of the War of which none tend to say that many people died in the same place. I have been given permission to show the following pictures, which were not allowed to be published during the War as this would have had an effect on the publics' morale and would have started to ask questions.


  Argonne. This shows many dead French soldiers in the Argonne wood, something that was not supposed to happen in large numbers.

  Austrian's. The Austrian trench on the Serb front reveals that whatever images were portrayed, many lives were wasted.

  Cemetery. A French war cemetery near Verdun again showing the deaths that did not occur. Revealing the deaths would have stopped people volunteering.

  Gathering. The soldiers are gathering corpses of their dead comrades to bury them, which would have lowered morale if seen.

  Legs. The photo shows a soldier with just his legs remaining. Such as image would have made people think twice about wanting to continue the War.

  Mud. A dead body covered in mud near Passendale, left to rot with no burial - would you want your son to come to this would have occurred to many parents?

  Tree. Simply showing a corpse hanging in a tree, again ask the question above.

  Russian. A picture of a Russian soldier who died on barbed wire. Although a German picture, the German government still used propaganda to cover these types of pictures up.

  Spy. This shows German spy who has been shot by a French soldier. Potential soldiers might have seen his and thought 'I can not do that'. The government did not want to stop believing they could help their country, and this would have cause doubts in many people.

  Skeleton. A skeleton near a destroyed dugout at Beaumont Hamel showing that the War had no feelings, something the public probably knew, but could not relate to without pictures.

  Walk away. A trench near Dury in France showing a group of dead bodies. A picture like this would have asked people whether they wanted to join up just to see their new comrades killed, and that all they could do was walk away.

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Air Dropped Leaflets, Posters, and other publications

One of the major tactics of publishing in the war was to drop leaflets in enemy countries proclaiming ideas and beliefs. Many of these leaflets would be false information, just purely to insight doubt into the people. Others would be partly true. During the War the air leaflets were used on a massive scale. This kind of approach showed publishing was a different route to winning instead of fighting, although it obviously has its limits. There were three types of leaflets that were used:

i. White Leaflets - These are generally linked to a reliable source, although they might not contain true information. The link might be to a Prime Minister or president.

ii. Grey Leaflets - These do not have a known source, but the idea of them is generally known. They are a cross between white leaflets and black leaflets.

iii. Black Leaflets - These leaflets are all false information. The source of the information is false, as well as the information itself. An example of this was when the Allies dropped leaflets in Germany saying that there were anti-nazi groups in Germany, which were actually non-existent.

At they have some examples of dropped leaflets. The following is a British leaflet that was dropped into German trenches:

" FOR WHAT ARE YOU FIGHTING, MICHEL? They tell you that you are fighting for the Fatherland. Have you ever thought why you are fighting?

They promise you victory and peace. You poor fools! It was promised your comrades for more than three years. They have indeed found peace, deep in the grave,

An army of ten million is being prepared; soon it will come into battle. Have you though of that, Michel?"

The Poster had a major part in the war. They were responsible for recruiting soldiers, by showing men as a protective force. They would show comradeship, which of course there was, but no reference to death and loss was shown. Posters would show the enemy in distorted images, showing people as devils for example.

Posters were popular during the War because they were a relatively new medium, and one that appealed to the public. Posters would generally use images such as victims of war, orphans, soldiers, starvation and national symbols, such as the British Bulldog. These posters could change people's opinion of the Germans, even if it was a false impression. They were printed in large number, usually 25000 or sometimes an amazing 100000 would be printed. They were immediate in impact, and could be put up anywhere.

Other publications printed showed the enemy in the worst light possible. The stories would be based around atrocities that enemy soldiers had performed. Propaganda was used to make people want to join up to the armed forces. The publications also gave the soldiers and people to carry on fighting in their minds - they would not let such things happen again. To increase readership the stories would be put into newspapers, who would also use propaganda techniques, alleging German soldiers had committed atrocities such as:

· cutting off hands of teenage boys,

· cutting eyes out of civilians,

· sexually abusing women,

· giving children hand grenades to play with,

· and the crucifixion of captured soldiers.

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To me there is no doubt that the World War One and propaganda did affect the culture of publishing. Due to the government's influence, people were buying books, reading newspapers, and looking at paintings and pictures without a thought that they were being misled. The publishing companies would have changed too because all of a sudden they had someone else telling them what to do.

Without the government controlling propaganda, the British public would have known what was really happening, which would of lowered morale and made people not so willing to join up. Without the propaganda we might not have had the armed forces we did, so although the publishing industry went through years of change, and maybe it wasn't for the good of publishing, I believe it was needed to win the War.

The War affected publishing directly by limiting paper usage and the way in which the government controlled public writings and pictures. Publishers also became an industry that was dominated by the War.

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2464 words


ML Saunders & P Prochaska, British Propaganda during the First World War

Cate Haste, Keep the home fires burning: propaganda in the First World War

Joseph McAleer, Popular reading and Publishing in Britain

Britannica Encyclopaedia

Pears Encyclopaedia


Brookes Culture of Publishing Website

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