Australia has promised Britain 50,000 more men. Will YOU help us keep that promise, 1916, lithograph, (Australian), H30357
Posters were used for various government propaganda campaigns over the course of World War I, most significantly to encourage enlistment, but also to raise money for war charities, to encourage saving and frugality and to rally the home front.
R.G Praill, Enlisted for the duration of the War. Help the National Egg Collection for the wounded, 1915, lithograph, (British), H33861/1; Maurice Neumount, Journee du Poilu, 1915, lithograph (French), H93.476/7
State Library Victoria has a significant collection of British, French and Australian WWI posters. The provenance of the posters varies. Many were acquired directly from the government agencies that commissioned them and were displayed in the Library during the war, others were donated much later by private individuals.
Usually produced by commercial advertising agencies for the government, the official recruiting posters from Britain and the early Australian posters, were stylistically indistinguishable from contemporary advertisements. At the time of World War I the modern advertising poster was used on a grand and unprecedented scale to sustain the war. The first total war, involving every major power in Europe, it was fought by soldiers at the front, and involved whole civilian populations on the home front. These factors meant it turned out to be a long war, necessitating direct communication and persuasion from governments.
Over the war years, changes in the posters emerge. Symbolic combat changed to graphic combat. Depictions of happy heroes, off to join their mates at the front, changed to images of guilt for not helping. Recruitment campaigns changed to fund-raising campaigns. Women depicted as virginal nurses or mythical goddesses changed to women harshly judging men for not enlisting. Clean faces changed to sooty faces.
Posters showed or alluded to atrocities committed by the Germans. Many references were made to the invasion of Belgium and the torpedoing of the ship Lusitania. Some showed women raped and mutilated (though in a clean sort of way – off in the distance or symbolically half-clothed). The inference was that if Germany could invade defenseless countries, then surely it could commit such atrocities on defenseless people, like women. Often the Germans were shown wearing the spiked helmet of the Hun, even though it had long been discarded by them.
Other posters showed or alluded to combat. Usually combat was depicted in a symbolic way, so that the images were not too disturbing for the public. Often heroic female figures were shown, leading victory. Where fighting was depicted, it was humanitarian: noble soldiers helping women and children. They defend and protect, not kill and maim.
As the War progressed though, posters did show more realities of combat – dying and wounded soldiers, bombed towns, and explosions – both to gain more recruits, and to show the population at home that the hardships they faced were nothing compared to what the soldiers endured.
H.M. Burton, “Get into Khaki” We are doing our bit, 1915, lithograph, (Australian), H33425; E.B. Studios, “Well boy – you’ve done your bit”. What will Australia do for you? Buy Peace Bonds, 1919, lithograph, (Australian), H40452
In Australia there were designs that used local iconography, like the kangaroo and the bushfire, or mannerisms like the call ‘coo-ee’. The war was presented as a sporting contest, and posters appealed to particular sporting groups and to young men’s desire for adventure. Sport was an important part of local culture and the war was presented as ‘the greater game’.
Posters moved from celebrating men who enlisted to being judgmental about those who had not yet joined. Where enlisting had been equated to love of country and Empire, later posters equated enlistment with manhood. Such appeals, as we see in the poster Daddy, what did you do in the Great War? attempted to make men feel guilty.
Savile Lumley, Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?, 1915, lithograph, (British), H33861/18; Troedel & Cooper, Enlist in the Sportsmen’s 100. Play up and play the game, 1915, lithograph, (Australian), H2001.34/3
These posters don’t tell us what war was like. We learn little about the conditions, the pain and loss, and the political maneuvering. But they are painfully moving nonetheless because we, unlike the contemporary audiences, know how the story of World War I ends. We know the horrors of trench warfare and of efficient killing and wounding technologies. We know the gruesome statistics: four years of fighting; more than 9.5 million dead; 20 million severely wounded; 8 million veterans returned home permanently disabled because of injury or disease.
The propaganda of the past has enormous power to move us, as well as inform us. But what we learn from these posters is about the power of well-aimed messages, not about the violence of war.
The posters have had high exposure over the years, exhibited by various institutions and published in many books. In the last few years, in preparation for the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, all of the Library’s war posters were digitised. A selection of the Library’s war posters are exhibited in the Dome Galleries, and are replaced by other posters every few months.
David Allen & Sons, Go! It’s your duty lad. Join to-day, 1915, lithograph, (British), H33861/3
Librarian, Heritage Collections
Note: This post is an extract from an essay by Olga Tsara, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the La Trobe Journal, 2016. Adapted with permission of the editor.