C. R. W. Nevinson, who became an official war artist in 1917, was interviewed in The Bystander in 1939 and considered that, ‘we (Britain) had the finest propaganda machine the world has ever seen – because it contained the best literary and artistic brains in the country.’ In the first year of the war, 2.5 million copies of some 110 different poster designs, mainly variations on a recruitment theme, were printed.
The organisation behind the majority of these was the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, which, though backed by the government, was not an official government body – an important factor in maintaining a spirit of voluntarism. The same messages carried by the posters would be echoed in the press, which, once the war was in progress was wholly supportive of the government, if frustrated through the lack of cooperation from the military in letting reporters get a full picture of activity at the front.
The intensity of propaganda varied significantly from paper to paper ranging from the coarse jingoism of Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull magazine and paranoid Imperialism of The Morning Post under the editorship of Howell Arthur Gwynne to Lord Northcliffe’s hugely influential Daily Mail which published patriotic poems by Jessie Pope. In comparison, the ILN magazines demonstrated a sophisticated restraint but all used editorial and illustrations to permeate the public psyche; to encourage enlistment, to emphasise Britain’s ‘honourable’ part in the war (and conversely, Germany’s incurable perfidy); to remind people of the obligation of saving food and carrying on ‘business as usual’ and to keep up morale when it was flagging.
Time and again the Germans fuelled the British propaganda machine with what were considered dishonourable actions. The East Coast bombardments, alleged atrocities in Belgium, the execution of Edith Cavell and the sinking of the Lusitania were all seized as examples of this, and capitalised upon in posters, such as ‘Remember Scarborough!’ and magazine cartoons and illustrations. As the war progressed and the population’s continuing commitment and support was needed, the National War Aims Committee, headed by Sir Edward Carson (also in charge of the Ministry for Information) was formed, absorbing the earlier Central Committee for National Patriotic Organisations. By 1917, the British population was so deeply entrenched in war, the importance of justifying it in principle began to wane and propaganda instead put emphasis on saving food or financing the war, through the National War Bonds Campaign.