World War II Propaganda Posters and the Image of Britain

Research Day: National Identities
King Alfred’s, Winchester, September 21st, 1999

This was a very successful, well attended event. Short papers were given by a student and tutor from each research centre on the common theme of national identities.

The day included a paper given by myself, entitled ‘World War II Propaganda and the Image of Britain’. Once a brief definition of propaganda and the job of the poster had been established, three posters from the First World War were considered, demonstrating the belief that most appealed to either a mythical past, a sense of good sportsmanship, or obedience to a sense of authority. The Second World War was even more of a ‘total war’ than the First had been, and those involved needed to know that they were not only fighting AGAINST something, but also FOR it. The main focus of the paper was then upon two posters ‘Your Britain, Fight for it Now’, produced in 1942, around the time of the Beveridge Report. On the one hand we saw the nostalgic image, depicted by Frank Newbould, of a pastoral and rural Britain, which encourages effort in order to maintain perceived past traditions, whilst Abram Games depicted an urban image as an image of change for a better Britain, a real fight for the future.

This paper was presented as part of a research day at King Alfred’s College concerning national identities. I was the only postgraduate from the department to present a paper, and was made aware of the 20 minute deadline by the cooking timer ticking away!

Defining Propaganda:
This is a definition in progress: “the attempt to influence opinions and attitudes, or to reinforce existing ideas and beliefs, through suggestion and persuasion, rather than by physical or financial inducement.” (p.8, Undergraduate thesis)

Posters needed to be recognised as an important form of propaganda, although by World War II their importance was rather overshadowed by radio, cinema, etc. However, there is more of an element of choice in these, as it is easier to turn the radio off/not buy a cinema ticket, than to avoid a (large) poster.

Defining the Purpose of a Poster

  • Intended to be assimilated quickly from a distance
  • Demonstrate attitudes of those who produced them
  • Give some clues about those who perceived them.

It is generally agreed that there should not be too much information in any one post, as most posters need to be read at speed, although some, at bus stops, etc. can have more information on them, as people are more at leisure to take in more complex ideas, although must still be emphasised that should not be TOO complex.

Poster design is important, although even if it is controversial it may be a successful poster, as it may have caused the message to be absorbed more than a conventional design would. The images and slogans used give us clues about the attitudes of those who produced the posters, in this case the government, towards those they were targeting, in this case the general public at war, which can give us clues about those who perceived the posters.

First World War Posters:
Although the project is focused upon Second World War posters, it can prove useful to consider posters produced by the govt. in the First World War, and see if there are any discernible changes in attitude towards those that they governed, and see what they considered people needed to hear. First World War posters were largely concerned with recruitment and give the general impression that the general idea appears to be that the war was a great, heroic, ‘sports match’ in which soldiers were ‘players’ were on opposing ‘teams’. Several posters were based upon the mythical past of England, such as a poster which depicted George & the Dragon, which equated soldiers with the knights & heroes of the past.

Kitchener Poster
I think you could say that this was the most famous poster of all time, at least in Britain. It illustrates the opinion held by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, who published the poster, that the masses, if ordered, would follow a hero of past wars into battle.

Second World War Posters:
These posters appear to have been both more pragmatic & more ideological, and tended to depict the ‘ordinary person’, such as ‘Is Your Journey Really Necessary?’ which depicts the ‘ordinary soldier’ appealing to his fellow men/women – this did not constitute an order.

Second World War recruits were not professional soldiers, they were ordinary citizens who needed to know that they were not only fighting AGAINST something, but also FOR something. Those on the home front, most of whom were the families of such soldiers, were no different, and the Beveridge Report, which formed the basis of the Welfare State when produced in December, 1942, was greeted with great enthusiasm.

The Beveridge Report, 1942
The Beveridge Report, 1942 had ambitious proposals:

  • Free National Health Service
  • Policies of full employment
  • Family allowances for all children
  • Comprehensive social insurance, leading to the abolition of poverty

The reforms proposed in the Beveridge Report, including those listed here, were much wider than originally intended when enquiries were begun in 1941, when small changes were intended to keep the unions happy. The publication of the report was in fact postponed [from October] as it was felt to be too revolutionary, but once published, it was widely publicised by the Ministry of Information, the lead government department for propaganda on the home front, responsible for MOST home front posters, although not all.

The Beveridge Report was published in atmosphere of optimism, soon after the battle of Alamein, which was seen by many as a turning point in the war, and the report was widely regarded as a blueprint for post-war reconstruction, although there were widespread fears that the ideas would not be implemented, particularly after the fiasco after the First World War with the non-appearance of ‘Homes for Heroes’. It was also probably partly due to views that Churchill’s expressed that he didn’t want to give people false hopes and expectations, and that the country needed to concentrate upon the present, otherwise there would be no future.

Your Britain, Fight for it Now
A series of posters entitled YOUR BRITAIN, FIGHT FOR IT NOW, was produced by Army Bureau of Current Affairs, which was charged with educating the soldiers on the front line, some reflected some of the ideas in the Beveridge Report.

Weight claims that ABCA was generally believed to have been staffed by leftist intelligentsia, who highlighted the failures of conservatism, whilst spreading ideas of a ‘new Jerusalem’, and this poster by Abram Games certainly seems to reflect that, presenting an optimisitc, radical view. In fact, Churchill felt that this depiction of the child with rickets was such a slur on pre-war Conservative policies, that he managed to get this particular poster withdrawn. The image is an optimistic vision of the urban future. Urban areas are often regarded as the bastion of civilisation, as their formation had made the collective emancipation from a feudal lifestyle possible. Immigrants often make up a large proportion of town populations, of a less fixed culture, their influence can be felt in making people more open to new ideas, with more hope for the future. There are also many public meeting places in urban areas, and these are where socialistic ideas tend to make the most imprint.

Beveridge named ‘5 giants’ in his report: “Idleness, Want, Squalor, Ignorance and Disease’, and the background image depicts squalor, and names ‘Disease’ and ‘Neglect’. The image would have been even more familiar to people, as the blitz caused such devastation of homes. This dereliction, however, allowed THE FUTURE to be placed as a clean slate over a bad past. The image ignores the reality of the dirt that would inevitably collect, and does not really measure up to the jaundiced view that we now hold of such architecture. In the same series was this image, a more conservative view, presented by Frank Newbould.

Frank Newbould’s view of the Sussex Downs depicts a rural, pastoral idyll. Bunce claims that the image demonstrates a defence of the traditions of old orders, and denied the reality that those whom this poster was aimed at, the soldiers abroad, came from. However, although most people were urban dwellers, most would have associated with the image of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’. In times of social tensions, when there is a fear of the future, we tend to return to the rural idyll: the countryside image that is associated with fresh air; moral purity; the good life and wholesomeness. It shows stability in a time of conflict, showing the ‘everlasting’ links between man and his territory, and harks back to a nostalgic, simpler age, without the pressures of modern day life. Short sums it up: “It has become the perfect past to the imperfect present and uncertain future.” Its aesthetic beauty is shown in the ‘picture postcard’ timeless village, unaffected by war, bathed in sunlight, the shepherd wandering along with his flocks, whilst nature does the hard work. The image is unconnected with the real back-breaking work of the countryside, and similar images were also used in several other posters, including ‘We could do with thousands more like you‘, and ‘Lend a hand on the land‘, with the consequence that the wrong type of applicant was attracted to the work. Particularly the idea of a ‘farming holiday camp’ attracted those who believed that they had come to the country for a picnic. E.g. There were stories of women turning up in heels, which demonstrates the often misunderstood image of rural life that urban dwellers can often have. [They appreciate the beauty, but not the work]

CONCLUSION:
These posters, both produced in 1942, present two very differing images of Britain. On the one hand we see the presentation of the nostalgic & pastoral image of rural Britain, encouraging effort to maintain past traditions. On the other hand we have the urban image presented as an image of change for a better Britain, a real fight for the future. Neither image is based entirely on reality, but propaganda tends very rarely to present the whole truth, and in this case citizens were to be encouraged to fight for their utopias.x}

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Second World War Posters
Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.

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