Once a Hun, Always a Hun

That’s the title of a film distributed by the Ministry of Information in 1918 – a film that attracted severe criticism in Parliament.

I’m getting interested in the scale of Government propaganda operations during the War, and the reactions to them, so I’ve been looking at the Hansard report of the Commons debate on 5th August, 1918. I think this was the only time that the Ministry of Information’s operations were discussed in Parliament (If there were other debates, I’d be very glad to hear about them.)

The occasion was the Second Reading of the Consolidated Fund (No 3) Bill, Ministry of Information, and the main stress was on the financial affairs of the Ministry.

The initiative was taken by Lief Jones, a radical Liberal (and Temperance campaigner) who was M.P. for Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire (as an Asquith supporter, he would lose his seat in the “coupon election” of 1918).The ODNB describes him as “An unemotional orator, [who] spoke slowly, logically, and with an abundance of factual evidence, but also wittily, in his clear silvery voice.”

He begins by welcoming “the opportunity, long desired to put… certain questions about the Ministry of Information.” He adds:

“At present we know little about it, as it is not the creation of Parliament. It exists, and was announced to us through the Press, though up to the present we have been kept in the dark as to its constitution, its purposes, its methods and its relation to other Departments of the state.”

He justifies talking about sensitive matters during wartime by calling attention to the lack of reticence on the part of “the Lords and Commoners who compose the Ministry” who have been “advertising themselves and others, and the offices they hold in their public appointments.” A dig at Beaverbrook presumably?

He then gives a clear summary of the history of the propaganda departments, starting, “Before the War there was no government propaganda from public funds in this country.” He goes on to explain Wellington House’s function, providing propaganda material to go abroad, but regrets the fact that this was done under the cover of commercial publishing, rather than officially by the government. (This comment raises the interesting question of how widely Wellington House and its activities were known about during the War. Maybe these belonged to the considerable class of things that were general knowledge within Establishment circles and unknown outside them.)

He then lambasts “Mr Mair’s Department” – that is, the Neutral Press Committee, chaired by G.H. Mair who before the War had been assistant editor of the Daily Chronicle. This committee had taken on responsibility for film and wireless, among other things. The main focus of criticism is lack of financial accountability, and subsequent extravagance. Teetotal Mr Lief Jones is particularly concerned about:

“a visit of twelve gentlemen to Dublin, when £31 of public money was spent in two days in drink and £5 in cigars,”

which is indeed going it strong at 1918 prices.

The third organisation connected with propaganda, the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office, he considers to have done a good job (its work was to gather information from foreign newspapers, and present it to Government departments).

Lief Jones then moves on to the history of the Ministry of Information, implying that Buchan (the first head) made little impact, and that Sir Edward Carson made less (“The right. hon gentleman seems to have taken his duties very lightly, and I cannot find any mark anywhere of his progress in the Department.”)

He claims that propaganda to foreign countries has largely been a failure, instancing Russia (“A vast number of books and pamphlets were sent out there, but those who sent them appear to have been forgetful of the fact that 80 per cent of the Russian people do not read.” Then, after the Revolution, Britain kept sending the sort of material that had been designed to appeal to the Tsarist regime. ) Efforts in other countries were mostly just as unsuccessful, he claims.

“We are now (August 1918 ) reaching the time in this War when the need for propaganda is nearly over,” he says, because all the nations of the world have now made up their minds one way or another. It is notable that he assumes all Government propaganda is (or should be) directed overseas. There is no mention of the National War Aims Committee, in charge of home propaganda.

After this, Leif Jones settles into his real theme – his distrust of Beaverbrook – interestingly stressing that Beaverbrook is a minister without salary – “I prefer ministers with salaries. Ministers with salaries are responsible to the country which pays them.” He talks about Beaverbrook’s business concerns, and those of the other high officials of the Ministry, suggesting that they were directing propaganda in countries in which they had strong business interests, and that their positions could therefore be abused. A later speaker, who has obviously made a close study of the financial interests of successive Cabinets and ministers, points out that in Lord Salisbury’s administration 44 ministers had 41 directorships between them, while four members of the Ministry of Information have 56 between them.

There is particular concern about an officially sponsored film called Once a Hun, Always a Hun. On the BFI database of British Films, you can find it under the title The Leopard’s Spots. .

“It first of all depicts two German soldiers in a ruined town in France. They meet a woman with a baby in her arms, and strike her to the ground.”

After the War the two soldiers become commercial travellers in England.

“One of the travellers enters a small village general store, and proceeds to show the shopkeeper a pan. The shopkeeper at the beginning is somewhat impressed… when his wife comes in and, turning the pan upside down, sees marked on it ‘Made in Germany’. She then indulges in a great deal of scorn at the expense of the commercial traveller and calls in a policeman, who orders the German out of the shop. A final notice flashed on the screen was to the effect that there cannot possibly be any more trading with these people after the War, and under this statement were the words,’Ministry of Information’.

Leif Jones is appalled by the anti-Free Trade message of the film. It may be pushing the current policy of the Government, but it is a policy “which this House was certainly returned to oppose eight years ago.” The next speaker, Mr Pringle (member for North West Lanark) points out that such a film would promote the interests of one section of society, and “We do not want the propaganda of this country carried on so as to promote the financial interests of any section of individuals in the country.”

Deep distaste for the film is expressed by J.G Robertson, another Asquithian liberal, of whom H. J. Laski wrote: ‘I doubt whether there was a more learned man … in Great Britain’ :

“…if the description was accurate, it was an ignoble and contemptible business, whatever the propaganda was… Has the Department any standard of dignity or of ability? …[D]oes any sensible man believe that this kind of thing is going to influence the opinion of any people whose opinion is worth having on the subject?”

The debate shows deep unease about modern methods of communication. There is general approval for the measured and reasonable pamphlets issued by Masterman at Wellington House at the start of the War, combined with a feeling that these were not very effective; Sir Frederick Banbury points out that circulars usually end up in the waste paper basket. It is suggested that books are not a good way to get through to the Americans, who respond better to press reports of interviews, or to lectures (As a lecturer, Captain Beith – Ian Hay – is praised: “The audience he was drawing and the success he was having from the point of view of the real issues of the War were admirable.”)

As Robertson notes with sadness, under Beaverbrook’s regime “there is a great deal more attention paid to picture shows and the films.” Disquiet is expressed about government sponsorship of an illustrated history of the life of Lloyd George.

The M.P.s clearly feel that propaganda, except of the most literary and distinguished kind, is un-English. As Stanley Baldwin, answering for the Government, says, “If in England you say that a man is a self-advertiser, it is regarded as one of the unkindest things you can say about him.” He quotes with pride an estimate (Goodness knows how accurate it is) that “British expenditure on propaganda is not more than one seventh or one eighth per annum of the expenditure of Germany,”

What I found interesting about this debate was its relative lack of interest in aspects of the morality of propaganda that have worried later generations – the Bryce Report, for example, is praised as a responsible publication. Instead, wartime propaganda are debated in terms of pre-War politics. The question of free Trade versus protectionism worries critics of the film much more than its vindictive stereotyping of Germans. There is concern about Government expansion (The Ministry of Information, it is claimed, was the 25th new ministry created since the start of the War). T.M. Healy, an Irish member, is especially concerned at Sir Edward Carson, the noted Unionist, having been in charge of the department of Information. All the old grievances surface.

All of which reinforces my sense that the War was not an exception, a gap in the story of British politics, but an arena where the conflicts of the previous age were fought again, sometimes using different tactics and weapons.

 

 

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