[N.B. This is the first in an intended series of posts about the history of British propaganda efforts during the First World War. The main focus of the series will be on the literary side of things, but possibly with sidelights on other related topics as necessary.]
The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain largely unprepared for the demands — whether military, industrial or cultural — that it would entail, and for which other combatant powers had been spending considerably more time preparing in advance. A vivid example of this can be found in the formation of Britain’s first official propaganda office: the War Propaganda Bureau at Wellington House. The WPB was the brainchild of Charles F.G. Masterman, a former Liberal MP and Cabinet Minister who had long been an associate of both David Lloyd George and Herbert Asquith. Masterman was given the task of creating this new organization from the ground up, and his offices at Wellington House in Buckingham Gate — the headquarters of the National Insurance Commission and consequently a building that would not seem odd as the sudden destination of hundreds of clerks and officials — offered an ideal cover for it.
Though “propaganda” has now become more or less synonymous with “out-and-out lying”, and the examples of it that leap most vividly to mind are things like posters, cartoons and films, the daily work of the WPB was multi-faceted, methodologically complex, and fraught with far more moral ambiguity than a mere dismissal as “lying” would suggest. A fascinating (though unsigned) report currently stored in the rare books collection at the Imperial War Museums offers some details as to the motives, methods and achievements of the Bureau. A perusal of “British Propaganda During the War 1914-1918” (initially found in the papers of Sir Campbell Stuart, who was himself a deputy director under Lord Northcliffe at Crewe House) reveals, for example:
- That the Bureau struck deals with a number of publishing houses to distribute the written propaganda works of famous authors commercially rather than have them so distributed for free by the state; this allowed for more plausible deniability in terms of the thing being a state-run operation to begin with (which remained officially a secret), but at the cost of trusting to market forces to ensure that the material reached its audience properly. Keep these books and authors in mind — I’ll be returning to them shortly.
- That, far from only producing pamphlets, booklets, lectures and the like, the Bureau also oversaw the distribution of posters, photographs, gramophone recordings, lantern slides, postcards, stamps, maps, diagrams, cigarette cards, ashtrays, calenders, bookmarks and blotting slips.
- That, in spite of all the above, by far the Bureau’s preferred method of propaganda distribution was what the report’s author describes as “personal propaganda” — that is, “by getting hold of the right man, telling him the facts, and then taking him to the places where he can see for himself that what you say is true.” At its height, the Bureau oversaw an unsuspecting network of tens of thousands of major figures in dozens of countries worldwide — politicians, clergy, academics, authors, and many others. The system, if we may call it that, typically saw the Bureau distribute the information it desired to have propagated to one of its clerks or agents, who would then send it “as a friend/concerned citizen/etc.” to someone slightly further up the chain of public influence, with a note included saying that this particular person might wish to bring it to the attention of persons more notable still. Through this chain of contacts, sometimes twice or thrice removed from the source, thousands of functionally “original” speeches, sermons, newspaper columns, lectures and pamphlets were brought into being. As for “taking him to the places where he can see for himself that what you say is true,” this was accomplished through many hundreds of complimentary visits by various influential figures to the front, to the headquarters of the war office, to the training grounds on Salisbury Plain or at Étaples, etc.
- That, as the war went on and the Bureau evolved — first into the Department of Information (1917) and finally into the Ministry of Information (1918) — so too did the breadth of its influence and the scope of its operations. The Department of Information, for example, records the distribution of some 40,000,000 items over the course of 1917 alone.
- That, in 1917 and 1918 during the transition from Department to Ministry, these capabilities expanded still further in some just astounding ways. The report notes that monthly letters were sent to “nearly every Catholic priest in the United States and Canada,” as well as similar letters in the appropriate languages for those priests in countries like France, Italy, Spain, etc. These letters often included suggested sermon topics, and Catholic clerics were not the only recipients. It was thus entirely conceivable that a agnostic lapsed-Anglican clerk in an office in Buckingham Gate had been in large part the author of a sermon preached by a fire-and-brimstone Baptist pastor in the southern United States. Hundreds of other letters were sent to international newspapers, universities, trade organizations and the like. At the height of the Ministry’s efficacy, a million broadsheets per day were distributed through agents in Russia. 20 million cinema tickets a week were sold to patriotic films in Britain alone.
- By 1918, the now very-well-established Ministry of Information under Lord Beaverbrook considered its task to be no more modest than “to direct the thought of most of the world.” Whether or not the Ministry succeeded in this task is a matter of debate.
The Bureau was far from alone at the outset, though it and many agencies would end up being enfolded into the resultant Ministry by 1918. In the early days, however, it had for company such official groups as the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, the Topical Committee for War Films, and the National War Aims Committee — to say nothing of unofficial groups like Francis Younghusband’s “Fight for Right” campaign. Of all these groups, however, the Bureau was the most focused on the employment of famous British authors. This had, as you may well imagine, a number of interesting consequences.
The authors employed by the Bureau and its subsequent incarnations throughout the war varied, though the solid core of them was established early on at a meeting at Wellington House on September 2nd, 1914. Two dozen of the biggest names in British letters met that day to discuss what role they were willing to play in the war effort, and I have to confess to a certain giddy thrill in imagining a small board room being occupied simultaneously by the likes of Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton, Sir Owen Seaman, Sir Henry Newbolt, Robert Bridges, John Masefield and Israel Zangwill, among many others. With varying degrees of enthusiasm (Hardy refused to officially participate, for example, and Wells was intensely ambivalent about the whole thing as well), the authors present agreed to lend their minds — and their pens — to the war effort. This took a number of forms, about which I’ll have much more to say in future posts, but for the moment I’d like to focus on a particularly memorable instance of collective effort.
One of the Bureau’s top priorities was to foster good feeling and sympathy towards the British war effort in the United States. There were plenty of different ways in which they went about this, but one early manifestation of this desire was the creation of a so-called Authors’ Declaration (see page 82 if this link doesn’t take you directly there) — a manifesto drafted by Masterman and signed by dozens of leading figures from Britain’s literary and academic worlds. The manifesto declares in unambiguous terms the righteousness of Britain’s cause, the sanctity of Belgian neutrality, and the barbarism of the German invader who had so wantonly transgressed it. Some of the signatories declare themselves to have previously been pro-German — no longer. Bearing over fifty signatures, this document was sent by special cable to the New York Times for inclusion in the next available issue. In the end, it would be printed twice.
A transcription of the Authors’ Declaration appeared in the Times in the September 18th issue, but it was included with no greater fanfare than a regular column would warrant and only listed a selection of the more notable signatories. The version subsequently reprinted in the October 18th issue was another matter: this full-page poster version of the Declaration included a new title and subtitle, facsimile versions of each contributors’ signature, and a helpful set of notes (for the benefit of an American readership) aimed at contextualizing each signatory’s place in the world of English letters.
The list of signatories is revealing of the period’s literary landscape, and suggests a hierarchy of figures rather different from the one that a student might now regularly encounter in an undergraduate survey course devoted to the period.
First, there are many names that are not included. Though some were already active in a variety of capacities, the authors we now call the Modernists were largely not well-known or well-established enough to be approached for such a venture, and would not likely have been willing to contribute to it even if they had been — one blushes to imagine Ezra Pound being considered for such a declaration, for example, given his eventual denunciation of the British Empire as an “old bitch gone in the teeth… a botched civilization”. Also totally absent is any participation by authors associated with the largely anti-war Bloomsbury Group — we look in vain for a Woolf, a Forster, or a Strachey. Another specific and quite intentional exclusion is George Bernard Shaw, who, in spite of being one of the most popular and well-known authors in the English language at the time, was felt to be so untrustworthy on these matters that he was specifically forbidden from being invited to the initial meeting at Wellington House. Indeed, his essay preaching “Common Sense About the War” in the pages of the New Statesman (and subsequently the New York Times) a month later led to some suggesting he should be charged with treason — probably not surprising given the essay’s recommendation that the soldiers of every combatant nation would do better to shoot their officers than each other.
Those absent, anyway, are notable enough — but so too are those present.
Unlike the initial meeting at Wellington House, the Authors’ Declaration has a number of women involved. The Cambridge scholar Jane Ellen Harrison lent her name to the enterprise, as did the poet Margaret L. Woods, the novelist May Sinclair, and the literary powerhouse (at the time, at least) Mary Augusta Ward. The work of female authors as propagandists during the war finds only a very small place in popular memory, comparatively, with most attention falling on the role of Jessie Pope in moving Wilfred Owen to wrath. Nevertheless, women like those listed above — as well as other notable authors like the aged Mary Elizabeth Braddon and the American Edith Wharton — had much to offer the war effort on the cultural front, and the Bureau was not shy in making use of them.
All of the attendees of the Wellington House meeting are included on the list, but added to their number are the likes of Rudyard Kipling (who was unable to attend the initial meeting but who had sent along a note of complete support), the popular historian and essayist Hilaire Belloc, the adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard, the humourist Jerome K. Jerome, the poet Laurence Binyon, and the Oxford academic A.C. Bradley. While many of those on the list continue to hold a significant place in our understanding of the period’s literature, it cannot be denied that there are also many names that might prove mysterious to those approaching the matter from the perspective of a standard undergraduate education. Apart from specialists in the field, who now remembers E.V. Lucas, R.H. Benson, Robert Hichens or Alfred Sutro? Even I have trouble, I must confess; while Lucas was a journalistic essayist on par for popularity with Chesterton, Belloc or Robert Lynd, and Benson’s The Lord of the World and Come Rack! Come Rope! are minor classics, I still couldn’t name a work by Hichens or Sutro with a Webley Mark VI to my head. Why were they then thought to be worth placing alongside the likes of a Kipling, a Doyle or a Hardy? It is often difficult to look back and understand, occluded as the popular vision is by the triumph of the Modernists and the Bloomsbury authors over the Georgians and the Squirearchy.
The Declaration itself provides some clues to understanding the place each signatory was thought to inhabit at the time. I mentioned above that the poster-reprint includes short descriptions of each author; some of these descriptions are as revealing as they are (perhaps) surprising.
J.M. Barrie, for example, is “famous for his sympathetic studies of Scotch life and his fantastic comedies;” G.K. Chesterton for “defend[ing] orthodox thought by unorthodox methods;” Israel Zangwill as “interpreter of the modern Jewish spirit.” Hall Caine (one-time secretary to D.G. Rossetti) is tersely described as “one of the most popular of contemporary novelists,” while Thomas Hardy is “generally considered to be the greatest living English novelist” — an interesting claim given that Hardy had not published a novel in 20 years, and only a single piece of short fiction since 1900. The Declaration completely ignores his determined and quite public decision to reinvent himself as a poet.
Other authors require different levels of description. Rudyard Kipling “needs no introduction to people who read the English language,” while the Australian Gilbert Murray must be thoroughly contextualized as “Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University since 1908, editor and translator of Greek classics, perhaps the greatest Greek scholar now living.” H.G. Wells is known as the “author of Tono Bungay and Ann Veronica” – but not, somehow, as the author of The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine or The Invisible Man. John Masefield is “known chiefly for his long poems of life among the English poor,” giving an interesting glimpse of the still-growing fortunes of a man who would eventually end up being Poet Laureate for thirty-seven years. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to his likely dismay, is characterized simply as the “creator of ‘Sherlock Holmes’.”
In all of this, to conclude, there both is and isn’t evidence of a unified cultural front. The authors and academics included in this document were very much representative of the mainstream of British thought and art at the time, but the often purposeful exclusions remain telling nevertheless. Furthermore, however unified in purpose this declaration may make these authors seem, it remains the case that this cause was one of the very few things that many of them had in common — and their opinions on the war, its righteousness and its necessity would by no means remain static as weeks of conflict turned to months and years.
- I am indebted to Randal Marlin’s Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion (2nd ed.; 2013) for the author’s welcome decision to include numerous lengthy passages from the report on “British Propaganda During the War 1914-1918”. This report is often referred to in the literature, but seldom quoted at such amazingly helpful length.