Pen and Sword Pt. II: Advertising King Albert’s Book

[N.B. This is the second in an intended series of posts about the history of British propaganda efforts during the First World War — the inaugural post can be read here.  The main focus of the series will be on the literary side of things, but possibly with sidelights on other related topics as necessary.]

I intend to get into a bit more detail on King Albert’s Book (1914) itself in an upcoming post, but for the moment let’s let the following suffice:

In late 1914, the widely popular Manx novelist Hall Caine began compiling submissions for an illustrated gift book.  This particular sort of book had been popular since the latter half of the 19th century, usually combining illustrated plates with literary miscellanies from popular authors in an attractive and durable binding.  Caine had edited several of these volumes already — most recently in 1905 and 1908 — but the advent of the war lent a new urgency to his work in this direction.

Gift books focused on the war were nothing new, and were already immensely popular.  Princess Mary’s Gift Book, intended to raise money for the Queen’s “Work for Women Fund,” had also come out in 1914 and would sell some 600,000 copies over the next twenty-four months.  It contained a variety of illustrations, poems and short stories from authors like Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard.  King Albert’s Book was built along a similar plan, but with a dramatically expanded scope.

The book was intended to raise funds for the relief of the Belgian people in the wake of the German invasion, and towards this end it collected a vast number of unique tributes to the Belgian King Albert I and his tiny nation.  The sheer variety of contributors (and types of contribution) would be very hard to beat — which fact plays heavily into the promotional material attached to the book, as we shall see — and provides a remarkable window onto the contours of the period’s cultural, artistic, political, academic, ecclesiastic and military life.  Everyone from Thomas Hardy to Henri Bergson to the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Aga Khan finds their way into the volume — sometimes with prose, sometimes with poetry, sometimes with artwork, and even sometimes with song (sheet music included).  It’s a remarkable collection… but more on that in a future post.

Anyway, to roll out a volume of this sort required a great deal of promotional legwork, and the two documents we’ll be examining today give us a sense of how this was approached.

The first is a print advertisement that appeared in the 1 December 1914 issue of the Glasgow Herald, one of the newspapers that helped bring King Albert’s Book to print (alongside the Daily Sketch and the Daily Telegraph, which ran the charitable fund for which the book was organized and which was the volume’s primary sponsor).  The advertisement is printed in full here:

Glasgow Herald, 1 Dec. 1914; pp10

You can see the ad in situ here thanks to Google’s wonderful newspaper archives.

There are a few things about this advertisement that are worth noting.  The first, and likely the most arresting, is the astonishing way in which it condenses itself into a smaller and smaller typeset as the thing unfolds.  This presumably calculated move helps underscore the idea that the book contains far more than any comparable volume would ever have a right to — so much that it basically runs out of space and lies beyond the abilities of even the newsman to describe it all.

This description, too, is notable.  The ad is not so much a tantalizing description of the book as it is an exercise in propagandistic persuasion.  The emphatic declaration at the ad’s outset that the book will “help put on record for all time the true and only reason for which the Allies have drawn the sword” reads like a press release from the agency with which this blog shares its name — and may very well actually have been, given that Hall Caine had been enthusiastically involved with the Bureau from its very inception.

A great deal of rhetorical effort is expended in emphasizing the volume’s unique and international character.  It could be “the most remarkable production that has ever issued from the press” — “a book to treasure now, and to hand down to one’s children,” because “perhaps nothing of its kind will ever appear again.”  This has turned out to be somewhat true; we have many imperfect analogues to the “gift book” craze in the modern day (like celebrity telethons, perhaps, or the Live Aid concert), but not to the same extent and with the same dizzying popularity as these volumes achieved at the turn of the 20th century.  The volume was certainly quite unique in its comprehensive breadth, as we’ve already seen, but it was its international flair — and the spirit of co-operation between “civilized” nations that it promoted — that was a primary focus.

One manifestation of this focus was in a similarly broad international promotional push.  As we’ve already seen, many of the authors working for the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House were instructed to prepare materials suitable for an American audience.  Whether King Albert’s Book was indeed conceived with such a market in mind, it certainly found that market in the end — as this promotional column in the 15 December 1914 issue of the New York Times shows.

The column — heralded as “special cable to the New York Times” (from whom, I wonder…?) — describes the imminent availability of King Albert’s Book in American markets and gives an overview of some of the notable American contributors to the project.  There are many of them, too, with names like Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells and Ella Wheeler Wilcox leaping off the page.  The column gives some idea of the book’s anticipated sales, with some 250,000 copies having been provided to American booksellers in advance of its release.   Of particular interest as well is the tenor of the only passage from the book that the column quotes in its promotion; with the United States still maintaining an official neutrality where the war was concerned, the column nevertheless suggests that American hearts know their duty whatever the political situation may be.

The role of advertising in the war’s popular promotion is a complicated and interesting one, and the work that went into promoting products like King Albert’s Book provides a fascinating insight into the aesthetic, political and moral concerns of both the reading public and the publishing establishment.  For our next installment, we’ll be taking a closer look at King Albert’s Book itself, and consider its place amidst the other gift books the war occasioned.

Cite : Pen and Sword Pt. II: Advertising King Albert's Book ( by Nick Milne ( licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (

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About Nick Milne

Nick Milne is an adjunct professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on the intersection of literary scholarship and historiography in the study of the First World War, with a particular emphasis on how this has impacted the study of the war's British propaganda writing. He has had work about the war appear recently at Slate and on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Further updates on these and related subjects may be found at his blog, Wellington House, or through his twitter feed.
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