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.