Category Archives: Propaganda

14 JULY , 1916: Virtual Realities

Anyone interested has probably noticed that I haven’t had much to say about the Western Front lately.  At the risk of repeating myself, that’s because everyone else is doing it for me, but today is Bastille Day, I’m sat here in France, and 14 July 1916 marked a watershed for both the gigantic battles taking place in France – so I’ve found something to say that’s at least vaguely concerned with Verdun and the Somme.

Just northeast of Verdun, the latest big German attack had ground to a halt on 12 July, within sight of the town itself but with little prospect of getting any further article source.  It would prove to be the limit of German progress.  On the Somme, the British made one more effort to match limited French successes to their south on 14 July, before calling a temporary halt to attacks and bringing the battle’s opening phase to an end.  By the end of the day a pause for breath was in progress along the front, albeit more apparent to posterity than to contemporary eyes.

Posterity can also identify the full horror of the military situation in France by mid-July 1916, and has no trouble pointing the finger of outrage at massed armies locked into a mechanised, virtually motionless, apparently unending and unendingly expensive death struggle – but spotting this basic truth was a little more difficult at the time.

Despite noisy pockets of dissent and anger – from socialists, pacifists and fringe religious groups, among others – Western Europe’s civilian populations generally accepted the disastrous state of the War in 1916 without significant protest.  This was largely thanks to the power of propaganda, a dark art thoroughly mastered by modern states during the increasingly literate century after the Napoleonic Wars.  Citizens were told a pack of lies and part-truths, coupled with diagnoses and speculation that went way beyond the bounds of optimism into fantasy, and on the whole they believed them.  Even when time – sometimes, as in the case of the Somme Offensive, a mere few days – exposed something close to the real truth (maps showing no territorial gain after days of ‘success’ tended to do the trick), propaganda providers in Western European democracies could get away with the kind of retrospective rationalisation that makes their audience look stupid now.

A captured wood or hill possessed enormous, if hitherto unmentioned, strategic value… the enemy had been softened up for the ‘big push’, as planned all along… the enemy had been forced to throw vast resources into desperate defence or counterattack, cancelling out reported successes but crucially weakening his strength on other sectors or fronts… and, more stridently in 1916 than ever before, the enemy was being worn down by attrition and couldn’t take much more of it.

Attrition was a buzzword in 1916, and not quite the byword for failure it is today.  It was used by German Army chief of staff Falkenhayn to justify the attack on Verdun (at least in concept, though his exact wording is open to questions of translation), and the idea that an enemy could be bled to surrender by simply killing enough of its troops soon caught on among British and French generals, if not as a preferred plan of action then as a way of making deadlock look like some kind of positive progress.

And there’s the rub.  Falkenhayn, shrewd desk general that he was, is widely suspected by historians of having hedged his bets around Verdun. Bleeding the French Army white wasn’t what he or any other senior commander wanted.  Like their Allied counterparts, German commanders wanted to smash through enemy lines, march on enemy capitals and end the War in glory – but though the Allied failures of 1915 hadn’t by any means dispelled the illusion of breakthrough, they had taught politicians and military leaders on all sides that they might need an excuse if glorious victory failed to materialise.

Dangling a prospect of final triumph through attrition, describing failure as part of a planned long game, meant that simply winning the body count (or claiming to win it, or claiming that your casualties mattered less, in percentage terms, than the enemy’s) offered a chance to declare a victory.  So by the summer of 1916 attrition – good for military careers and, crucially, seen as good for public morale on the home front ­– was being presented to the the folks back home as a form of success.

Go on! It's great over there...

Go on! It’s great over there…

It’s not hard to see why civilians in 1916 were willing to be convinced by attrition, endless unproductive successes, demonisation of the enemy and all the other illusions peddled by the press, and by the armies of writers, film-makers and intellectuals hired by their governments.  The instinct to grasp at hope in time of trouble was (and clearly still is) fundamental to mass psychology (and therefore politics), while human capacity for faith in the improbable has always started high and been inflated by the wheezings winds of ignorance – and by our standards most British, German and French citizens were stranded in ignorance during the First World War.

Rapid long-distance communication – by telegraph or telephone – was still the province of what we’ll call the officer classes in 1914, and international travel was about as likely as a trip to the moon for ordinary Europeans not living near land frontiers.  India, Mesopotamia and Belgium were all almost equally exotic in the British public mind, and so it went for most French and German civilians. That left them completely reliant for information on government-sponsored output, rumour and, above all, mass-circulation newspapers.  And mainstream newspapers, while perfectly willing and able to cut loose with the political criticism, stuck firmly to the morale-boosting, upbeat, illusory official line in all matters pertaining to the actual course of the War.

Major newspapers, their editors and owners nurtured propagandist fictions because – in an age of culturally separate nation states, when patriotism was a more basic, less controversial emotion – they accepted maintenance of popular morale as their duty.  The need for massive national commitment to the supply of total war had made home front morale seem an ever more important priority, and so journalistic propaganda was genuinely regarded as helpful to front-line fighters.

This orthodoxy was so well established that journalists embedded with front-line troops, faced with the reality of warfare and living with its victims, didn’t on the whole even test their editors by attempting to report the truth.  This wasn’t because they were all happy to peddle fiction – front-line reporters from all three countries would later describe the self-disgust involved – but because shattering the illusion would be letting down the troops. One of the Western Front’s small, sad ironies is that reporters’ propaganda, intended to sustain fighting men in the field, helped create a morale paradox that contributed to the psychological problems suffered by so many troops away from the front.

As the one social group that was never going to fall for propaganda’s upbeat take on their misery, front-line troops found themselves in an information vacuum whenever they returned to civilian life. Burdened, angered and often maimed by their grotesque experiences, but surrounded by people incapable of acknowledging the horror, many veterans became sceptical about and isolated from the societies they had served, a situation that stored up a mess of personal suffering and social unrest for the post-War period – and that isn’t entirely unfamiliar today.

Which brings me to the point.  This has been a very generalised chat about propaganda at a time of extreme societal stress.  I’ve done scant justice to those moments – like the British Shell scandal, or Keith Murdoch’s exposé of conditions in Gallipoli – when journalistic patriotism overtrumped propaganda.  Worse,  I’ve  glossed over or ignored a wealth of important differences between the home front experiences of British, French and German citizens – but I’ve done it to highlight something we all have in common today:  a tendency to assume that the lessons delivered so painfully by the First World War have been well and truly learned.

Modern transport and communications have made the Middle East (for instance) feel as close to home, if not closer, than the Western Front felt to most British people in 1916, yet for all our iPhones, Internet and analysis, who among us has the faintest idea of the real military situation in Iraq or Syria?  So it could be we’re no less vulnerable to the illusions and social divisiveness of propaganda than we were a century ago – and that’s seems worth mentioning while we look back at the carnage of 1916 in the comforting belief that we couldn’t possibly make the same mistakes again.

 

fran3

1916:  a brilliant year…
... but

… because we say so.

24 JANUARY, 1916: First Draft

I try to avoid too much focus on Britain’s experience during the First World War, mostly because nobody else does, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. The world’s most powerful and extensive empire was absolutely central to the story of the Great War, and the War played an enormous part in shaping twentieth-century Britain. So bear with me if you’ve been hearing about this one on the BBC: a century ago today, the Westminster parliament passed the first Military Service Act, introducing conscription for the first time in British history.

The British public was braced for the call up, because compulsory military service had been a hot debate for years.  A vociferous minority of British imperialists had been advocating conscription since the Army’s last major campaign, in South Africa at the turn of the century, had left the country with almost no home defence forces – but in peacetime they had faced overwhelming and noisy opposition. Along with the vast majority of those likely to be affected by conscription, religious organisations, pacifists, socialists, most liberals, some conservative politicians and successive governments as a whole were all firmly against the idea. Five compulsory service bills were comfortably defeated in parliament during the years immediately before 1914, and even after the outbreak of war Asquith’s cabinet greeted Churchill proposal for its introduction with unanimous rejection.

Popular or not, conscription was standard peacetime practice in all the other major European armed forces by 1914, essentially as a way of maximising the number of trained men available when the next war started, and patriotic nationalism was no less a force in Britain than elsewhere, so why were the British so precious about putting on a uniform for the sake of the nation? Ideologies aside, two obvious reasons spring to mind.

The first, more pragmatic argument against conscription was that Britain didn’t expect to need a big army, intending to win any future war with the relatively small force of highly trained men it took to run the Royal Navy. The other major inspiration for opposition was less tangible, and amounted to national self-importance.

A prominent feature of British culture during the imperial era, the idea that Britain was the source and epitome of modern civilisation had elevated the political system to a sacred position as humanity’s home of liberty, defined as voluntary adherence to a shared, organically developed and uniquely British set of values. Many opponents of conscription, across the political spectrum, argued that it was a betrayal of these values, the thin end of a wedge that would create an authoritarian, militarist state along Prussian lines. Other, less eloquent opponents simply believed that whatever Britain had always done was by definition the best, an attitude that hasn’t quite gone away a hundred years later.

The argument that Britain wouldn’t need a mass army had long since bitten the dust by early 1916 – everybody knew the nation needed more troops and more munitions workers – but defence of traditional liberties was a harder nut to crack.

The Derby Scheme of autumn 1915 had been the government’s last, somewhat desperate attempt to avoid the odium of conscription by boosting voluntary recruitment (22 October, 1915: Derby Day), and its failure had prompted an intensified propaganda campaign by the growing number of politicians in favour of compulsory service.   A chorus of press opinion, much of it orchestrated by conservative members of the coalition cabinet and Liberal munitions minister Lloyd George, now presented conscription as the only real alternative to peace talks, and before the end of the year cabinet opposition, led by prime minister Asquith, had evaporated.

The Military Service Act passed through Commons on 6 January 1916 with a comfortable majority of 298, got through the Lords on 24 January and came into effect the following month.  The Act called up single men and childless widowers aged between 18 and 41, starting with those who had ‘attested’ their willingness to fight under the Derby Scheme. Clergymen, vital war workers and conscientious objectors were exempt, although the latter were subject to local tribunals where most ‘absolute’ objectors – those refusing to perform non-combatant war work in place of service – were treated as criminals and imprisoned. Conscription wasn’t applied to Ireland, where the British were already struggling to contain the seeds of nationalist uprising.

Propaganda’s success in persuading the British public into the unthinkable was soon undermined by the incompetence of bureaucrats coping with the unfamiliar. By March, married men who had attested were receiving call-up papers before many of their bachelor counterparts, and the eruption of protest that followed obliged the government to produce a revised Act that made married men liable for immediate service.  Passed through parliament in May, the second Act worked well enough to see the British Army through the next two years, but further legislation was needed in the spring of 1918, when battlefield crises on the Western Front forced a radical expansion of the conscripted intake.

A new Act passed in April 1918 extended compulsory service to 51-year-olds, and in theory to Ireland, although civilian unrest prevented its application there and no Irishman was ever actually conscripted. In May, all males born in 1898–99 were called up regardless of occupation, and by the end of June a further 100,000 men had been ‘combed out’ of war industries and put into uniform.

Now the British were experiencing the kind of total war long familiar to the people of Germany and France, but its social impact on the nation was never really tested, because the arrival of US troops on the Western Front enabled the government to relax its recruitment criteria during the second half of the year. By December, when the last of some 2.3 million British conscripts entered service, most exemptions had been reinstated at 1916 levels.

With all due respect to subsequent outraged generations, it’s fair to say that conscription didn’t turn out to be the catalyst for an authoritarian, militarist takeover in Britain. On the other hand, once broken, the tradition of voluntary service took a long time to fix. In 1938, during the rush to rearm in the face of threatening behaviour by Germany, the British government felt able to introduce limited peacetime national service, and when war broke out in 1939 compulsory service was imposed within a few weeks, netting 1.5 million conscripts by the end of the year.  National service would remain in force for another 16 years after the Second World War, providing troops for Britain’s final fling at independent colonial and world policing.

By the time the last British conscript entered service in 1962, the missile age had rendered mass manpower militarily redundant, and compulsory service is unlikely to make a comeback in Britain anytime soon.  So this isn’t one of those centenaries that links directly with twenty-first century life, just a reminder that Britain wasn’t so very different to other European countries when push came to shove, and that millions of twentieth-century Britons, many of them alive today, fought for their country because they were compelled to do so.

22 JULY, 1915: Sounds Great…

These days, everybody knows it’s a bad idea to try and conquer Russia. Russia’s too big to invade properly in the few months when weather permits anything so frisky, and has the resources to recover from any known military disaster during the long, fallow months of winter. Napoleon and Hitler tried it, and ruined themselves in the failure. In the summer of 1915 General Ludendorff, already much maligned in these pages, wanted to try it, but was only allowed a limited version of his great invasion plan. The result was an apparently massive victory, won at relatively little cost, which stripped the Russian Empire of almost all its eastern European possessions. This was the (largely) German Triple Offensive that began in July 1915.

Without going into maps, the Triple Offensive was a series of attacks all along the Eastern Front. They were carried out with fewer men and weapons than Ludendorff (and, if he was awake, Hindenburg) wanted, but as many as German chief-of-staff Falkenhayn could spare, given his commitments on other fronts. The attacks found the Russian armies in their standard condition of overstretched, ill-organised unpreparedness, and the Russian high command (Stavka) reacted to initial German breakthroughs in the usual way, by sticking its head in the sand and simply ordering field commanders to hold firm. They couldn’t, and Stavka, facing the prospect of massive losses as armies were cut off by German forces advancing on their flanks, finally changed its mind on 22 July, when it played the trump card that has been saving Russia for the last two centuries. It ordered a ‘Great Retreat.’

History is full of ‘great’ retreats. A Russian Great Retreat had drawn Napoleon all the way to Moscow and left him broken, and a Soviet Great Retreat would one day lead Hitler along the same path, but the Russian retreat of 1915 wasn’t in the same league. It wasn’t even the greatest Great Retreat of that year, less desperate and dramatic than the Serbian version that would follow in November, and deserved the sobriquet only in that it stabilised the theatre by shifting the front line some 350km to the east. A lot of men and equipment were preserved to fight another day, some industrial plant was moved to safety, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy was implemented to deny supplies to the enemy – but the scorching was carried out on a patchy basis that allowed landowners of wealth and influence to negotiate exemptions, and on the whole the retreat was an improvised affair, barely controlled by Stavka and regarded as a shambles by contemporary Russian critics. If that makes you wonder how it joined the pantheon of Great Retreats, accepted as such by all sides of the argument, here’s an answer.

Simple propaganda explains why Russian authorities insisted that a narrow escape from catastrophic defeat constituted a brilliant exercise in defensive warfare, and why Russia’s allies were happy to support the myth – but the key to this retreat’s illusory greatness lies in German attitudes. As they pursued the retreat east, German forces missed the chance to encircle seven escaping Russian armies, a failure that left the balance of power on the Eastern Front essentially unchanged at the end of what had seemed a potentially decisive operation. Unwilling or unable to accept that rough terrain, poor communications and lengthening supply lines (in other words, the fighting conditions of the era) had been responsible for yet another disappointment, and anxious to avoid any personal blame, German commanders on the Front, from Ludendorff down, queued up to praise Russian brilliance.

The retreat ordered a hundred years ago today was undoubtedly significant. It repeated the militarily unpalatable lesson that, the way things stood in 1915, the mere fact of territorial gain turned any offensive into a laborious reinforcement of stalemate, and in so doing bought Russia time for the economic and military reorganisation that kept the stalemate going. It wasn’t great, and it became a Great Retreat simply because, like Dunkirk and a lot of other retreats (and for that matter like the War on Terror), the concept was convenient for both sets of leaders involved.

9 JUNE, 1915: How Bad Can It Be?

Hindsight, the historian’s friend, tells me I’ve been sloppy about Italy in 1915.  On one hand, when discussing Italy’s passage from essentially pro-German neutrality to war against Austria-Hungary, I don’t think I made clear quite what a socioeconomic mess the country had become since the end of its war with Turkey in 1912. In 1915 the country was suffering supply shortages of everything from food to raw materials, beset by strikes and civil unrest, and experiencing falling living standards, particularly in the south and among the urban poor.

On the other hand, while stressing the loud enthusiasm for war of much Italian political and popular opinion, I didn’t give enough space to those opposed to it. Pacifist deputies had brought down the government in May, only to be overwhelmed by royal intervention, and once war had been declared opposition gathered around the Pope and a small but noisy group of socialist deputies in the Italian parliament.

Both points are worth making in the context of what was portrayed, a hundred years ago today, as Italy’s first important victory against Austro-Hungarian positions on its northeastern frontier – the capture of Monfalcone, a port near the mouth of the River Isonzo. The event’s apparent importance was propaganda nonsense, because the ‘victory’ had been a mere occupation, after the small Austrian garrison left to watch over the town had withdrawn in good order, and the small advance involved couldn’t be exploited further against more serious Austrian defences. Monfalcone was nevertheless a glimpse of things to come on the First World War’s latest battlefront, and an early indication that it would become yet another ghastly stalemate.

Let’s start with the basics. Italy went to war against Austria-Hungary (and not, at this stage, Germany) for the ‘lost provinces’ east of Venice that were then under Vienna’s control and are now part of Slovenia. Nothing much else interested the Italian government or people, and Anglo-French appeals for Italian help at Gallipoli and elsewhere fell on deaf ears. The Italian high command’s sole focus in June 1915 was its Treaty of London promise to launch an attack across the frontier with Austria-Hungary as soon as possible. Planning for the offensive was well underway by early June, and was conducted in a spirit of optimism that, even by the self-delusional standards of 1915, bordered on the criminal.

On the plus side for Italy, Austro-Hungarian forces were along the frontier were outnumbered, and commitments on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts meant they were likely to stay that way. Everything else was on the minus side.

First, the frontier between Italy and Austria ran through the southern Alps, linking a series of inhospitable mountain passes and offering only two areas for large-scale military activity: in the Trentino region, where the frontier bulged south into flatter territory; and along the River Isonzo, where relatively open coastal areas led on to the lost provinces. An attack in either area called for a lot of complicated and slow-burning mountain warfare, but the Trentino was the more suited to mass infantry operations. Italian Chief of Staff Cadorna, sufficiently worried by pacifist opposition to keep his plans secret from politicians and public, plumped for the tougher Isonzo option in the hope of securing the optimists’ Holy Grail, aka the port of Trieste.

In case that hurt, here’s a map, nicked off the net and removed at the drop of a complaint.

BB97Y7 The three theatres of war on the Austro Italian Frontier 1915.  1. Trentino . 2. Carnic Alps.  3.  Isonzo Front.

Secondly, even if the high command had chosen the more practicable route of attack, the Italian economy and military were in no fit state to carry it out. Cadorna could raise men, and he was good at rapid concentration of large forces, but the Army was desperately short of food, uniforms, ammunition, modern rifles and machine-guns.  While defenders were equipped with plenty of modern artillery from Austria-Hungary’s well-developed arms industry, Italian attackers could muster a total of 700 artillery pieces, most of them antiquated relics from nineteenth-century wars. Italian air power was poorly developed, so that only its innovative Caproni heavy bomber was really fit for service in 1915, and though the well-equipped Italian Navy was modern and expensive, it never took more than a passive support role, harassing enemy supply lines and monitoring its Austrian counterpart in the Adriatic.

Finally, while the Austrian high command was content to defend the line against Italy until reinforcement was possible or German forces joined the battle, Cadorna was running on optimism, and his logistic capabilities were not matched by strategic or tactical gifts. Having a promised a quick attack, and despite the tactical warning posted when Italian troops tried and failed to move forward from Monfalcone, he prepared to confront well-equipped, dug in defenders on high ground with a half-baked version of the anyway disastrous ‘breakthrough’ tactics preferred by Joffre in France. Massed, concentrated infantry would assault Austrian positions on the Isonzo, but they’d have to do it without the benefit of an artillery bombardment.

With commendable dispatch, Cadorna would be ready to launch his attack on 23 June. It would fail, as would ten more offensives at the Isonzo before the autumn of 1917, when an Austro-German counterattack forced a temporary Italian collapse. Elsewhere the frontier soon settled into the pattern of stagnant, claustrophobic trench warfare already established on the Western and Gallipoli Fronts, punctuated in 1916 by a single, limited Austrian offensive in the Trentino.

In the end, a battlefront that was ill-suited to decisive military success, contested by one empire being bled to death on other fronts and one young nation that was economically, socially and psychologically ill-equipped for the fight, would cost both sides hundreds of thousands of men and do both a lot more harm than good. The fight was part of the process that killed off the Austrian Empire, and though Austrian disintegration eventually enabled Italy to seize the territories it craved, the country had by then been dragged to a level of civilian hardship, social unrest, regional separatism and political instability that left the door wide open for Mussolini’s tabloid solutions.

By way of justifying the existence of this catastrophic episode, it is often claimed that the campaign in Italy helped Britain and France by distracting enemy resources from the Western Front. Even that apology for an excuse doesn’t hold much water, given that Austria barely contributed to the war in France, that Germany didn’t commit troops to Italy until 1917 and that the War in the west went on for another three and a half years after the first Italian offensive. Whichever way look at it, the Italian Front was just one bad idea after another.

25 MAY, 1915: First Casualty In Ritual Killing Shock!

Britain’s national press hasn’t changed all that much over the last hundred years. The culture of public expression it feeds has evolved into something altogether less restrained, so the newspapers of 1915 were required to maintain an appearance of sobriety and reasonableness that makes them look dull and academic to the modern eye, but they were nonetheless inaccurate, self-important, propagandist and sensationalist – just the way we like them today.

A century ago today, the British daily press was on typical form. The most deadly rail crash in British history had taken place on 22 May, when a total of three passenger and two goods trains were involved in two collisions at Quintinshill, near Gretna Green, that culminated in a major fire. Most of the estimated 226 dead and a similar number of injured were Territorial troops on their way to Gallipoli, but the loss of regimental records in the fire meant that exact numbers were never established.

While the cause of the disaster was still being investigated (and would later be established as signalling error), it provided the newspapers with relatively little opportunity to produce propaganda or peddle political influence, so it had already been pushed into the background by a raft of more lively stories.

The ongoing battles at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, neither proceeding remotely according to plan for the British, couldn’t be ignored and occupied a lot of column inches, most dedicated to looking on the bright side. Small victories and optimistic forecasts dominated coverage, along with reports of individual or collective bravery by British and colonial troops. This was simple propaganda for the sake of home front morale, and the disasters it masked encouraged newspaper editors and owners to play down military news in favour of more positive stories from the War’s peripheries. By 25 May they had two corkers to work with.

Italy had formally entered the War on 23 May, and two days later the British press was still in a ferment of triumphalism, lionising the Italian government and people as selfless defenders of civilisation and confidently predicting the imminent collapse of Austria-Hungary’s war effort.  Better yet, May 25 found British politics in the midst of a momentous upheaval that had been promoted and at least partly created by the national press, as Prime Minister Asquith completed negotiations to form a coalition government in place of his Liberal administration. Part of the political and strategic agenda pushed by the two most powerful press barons of the day – Lord Northcliffe and his brother Viscount Rothermere – the appointment of a new cabinet, along with optimistic predictions of its success and speculation about the few posts still unoccupied, pushed even the glories of Italy into second place when it came to column inches.

I mention the press that day because the way in which the First World War shaped a century of propaganda is often overlooked by a modern world steeped in its dark arts.

Propaganda wasn’t new in 1914, and was in no way a peculiarly British phenomenon. Every imperial state in the world, and for that matter any state with a literate population, had long been using every medium available to shape opinion by information design. Books, periodicals, poems, leaflets, paintings, monumental sculpture, posters, oratory and photographs, as well as the press, were all familiar tools used to influence popular opinion. Their use by governments and private interests proliferated during the immediate pre-War years, as burgeoning mass literacy was matched by mounting diplomatic tension in western and central Europe – and from the moment general war broke out in 1914, it was accompanied by a chorus of propaganda on an unprecedented scale.

All of the main belligerent states, especially the most economically developed among them, launched ambitious public information programmes as soon as war was declared, using every medium available to contemporary culture and technology. Within weeks, a pattern for wartime state propaganda was set by the British, French and German governments, which recruited eminent cultural figures from every field of the arts and (particularly in Germany’s case) the sciences to produce propaganda material. As anyone alive today should already be aware, the idea caught on, and was used with particular effect in the United States, both before and after its declarations of war in 1917.

From a racing start in 1914, the scale and importance of wartime propaganda just kept on growing. By the end of the War most belligerents sported huge, centralised information ministries that controlled propaganda for home, enemy and neutral audiences. These were responsible for everything from promotion of recruitment or funding drives, through the plausible nonsense that constituted what British authorities liked to call ‘propaganda of truth’ (i.e. leaving out all the bad news), to the ‘black’ propaganda designed to deceive or more often discredit the enemy with lies.

There’s a lot more to be said about the many forms of propaganda employed during the Great War, and about the systems and orthodoxies it spawned, but not here. This is just a reminder that Britain was, and presumably still is no better or worse than its peers among developed states in the matter of propaganda – and that propaganda did not, as heritage world might have you believe, begin with Goebbels. Like so much of our social architecture, it became what it is today during the First World War.

7 MAY, 1915: Victims and Values

A hundred years ago today, the giant passenger liner SS Lusitania went down off the coast of western Ireland. En route from the USA to Britain, it had turned directly into the path of the German submarine U-20 and been holed to starboard by a single torpedo. After a second, larger explosion it had rolled onto its side, preventing the launch of more than half its lifeboats, and within twenty minutes it had sunk. Of more than 1,900 people on board, 1,198 lost their lives. If you’ve been listening to the radio, watching the television and hearing about it in the heritage corner, you won’t have learned much.

Maybe that’s not fair. You will have learned that a German U-boat sank a very big ship, and you will have learned how it feels to be the descendant of somebody killed at sea or rescued from the sea. More detailed reports may have included the phrase ‘international outrage’, but only in passing and with no attempt at context. Poppycock wonders why, when the full story is neither boring nor complicated, various editors felt compelled to serve up yet another saccharine-soaked reminder that the really important thing about the First World War is its ability to tug at modern heartstrings. The answer presumably lies somewhere between a desperate need to attract the Downton Abbey constituency and a lazy preference for the lowest common denominator, but it’s not my job to work out why you’re being fed slurry or why nobody seems to mind. My job is to snipe from the sidelines, but now I’ll put down the rifle and supply some information.

For all the loss of civilian life involved, the real significance of the Lusitania incident lay in its value to the British as a weapon in the propaganda war for hearts and minds in the United States. The German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had already soured relations between Washington and Berlin, and the death of 124 Americans aboard the Lusitania was a godsend for allied propagandists.

According to pro-British media all over the world, the loss of a civilian liner was an outrageous consequence of Germany’s barbaric submarine policy, which allowed U-boats to sink anything that might be construed as valuable to the Entente war effort. The British also claimed, repeatedly and vehemently, that a second torpedo, launched to ensure maximum casualties, had caused the second explosion.

German propaganda initially greeted the sinking as a success but soon changed its tune.  Berlin sought to limit diplomatic damage by issuing apologies to the United States, renewing restrictions on U-boat commanders, denying that a second torpedo had been launched and insisting that the second explosion was caused by the Lusitania‘s secret cargo of heavy munitions.

German protestations fell on deaf ears.  The British version of the story was generally accepted at the time and had a powerful, long-term effect on popular and political opinion in the USA. It also passed into Anglo-American folklore as the truth, and is the (often unspoken) subtext for much of today’s commemorative coverage.

Evidence from the wreck of the Lusitania reveals a rather different truth. The vessel wasn’t carrying a secret cargo of heavy munitions, but might have been carrying small arms and ammunition for the British military, a regular (and cynical) practice that complicated attempts to immunise passenger and hospital ships from attack at sea. These would not have caused the second explosion, but neither did the U-20, which fired no second torpedo, and modern analysts accept that coal dust igniting in the ship’s almost empty fuel bunkers was responsible for the fatal blast.

So the high death toll that made the Lusitania such big news was down to an accident, but even if the heritage industry was telling us that it’s no excuse for treating the loss like a second Titanic. Our mass media could, perhaps should be commemorating one of the most important propaganda victories of that or any war, a vital step on the road to an American intervention that defined the century to come, but I suppose it’s hard to commemorate propaganda without acknowledging its existence.