The Sound of Flanders (on BBC Radio 4 this weekend, and still available this week on their listen again service) was rather an odd programme.
It was billed as being based on “the discovery of piles of audio recordings persuading volunteers to join up” and promised to explain the role of propaganda on the Home front during the Great War.
The main exhibits were audio recordings of short dramatised war playlets that were sold on vinyl during the War. Tim Crook, a radio historian from the University of London, described his mission to discover old recordings of dramatic war scenes over the years, and we heard extracts from several of these. What I found slightly strange was that all the extracts we heard were not really newly-discovered material. They have in fact been available for several years on CD in a five-disc series called Oh ! It’s a Lovely War, available online from ltm publishing.
The acknowledgements in the CD booklets don’t mention Mr Crook as a contributor to the project, so maybe his researches were quite independent. And yet I think that pretty well all the pieces featured in the programme, including the musical ones, can be found in this particular CD set, which was not acknowledged by the programme-makers.
Added Jan 2008: I have been reliably informed that Mr Crook’s research was indeed independent, and that the programme did make use of some of his actual discs, as well as several recordings taken from the Oh! It’s a Lovely War series. It was the programme-makers and the BBC publicity machine, and not Mr Crook, who made the claims about these recordings being unknown until only recently unearthed. Mr Crook had no control over the script of the programme. I am happy to set the record straight.
The extravagant hype was a pity, because it raised inappropriate expectations about a programme that was otherwise interesting. I note that another blogger also received the impression from the programme that all the recordings were only recently rediscovered, and that all the tracks played were from Mr Crook’s collection.
The programme seemed torn in its aims. One senses that it really wanted to put across the usual line that there was a lot of government-sponsored propaganda around between 1914 and 1918, and that this fooled people into fighting. Sometimes, though, the facts got in the way. As Mr Crook said, propagandist enterprises like the recorded playlets were “largely a privatised process” and the government played little part in it.
A lot of what was said on the programme was misleading. Having made the valid point that during the War the government became expert in spinning the news positively, a speaker went on to suggest that the government issued popular songs as morale-boosters. Did they? Which songs? Why did they need to when private enterprise was doing an excellent job without official interference?
To prove the efficacy of propaganda, there were some archive recordings of old people dimly remembering that when they were young they saw pictures of Huns bayoneting babies, and were deeply shocked. There was no attempt to distinguish between officially sponsored messages and those that came from the more excitable sections of the press, or from rumours. Everything was lumped together as one co-ordinated propaganda campaign. As one posh lady drawled, “And people believed it – extraordinary!”
I think the actuality was more interesting. Those excellent historians Stephane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette Becker suggest that war enthusiasm went far beyond what government propaganda could provoke:
The scale and nature of enlistment in Great Britain and the Dominions suggest the nations’ emotional investment in the war. And it was not simply the result of massive propaganda… Indeed there was mass propaganda, with a profusion of posters with guilt-inducing and brutal messages (‘Daddy, What did you do in the Great War?’) and many rousing meetings. But the recruiters quickly decided that using the latest forms of mass advertising had a negative effect, devaluing the act of enlisting, and the recruitment campaigns quickly became more discreet. It has to be said, then, that early in the war, the enlisted British men were for the most part volunteers in the true sense of the word
On the subject of volunteering, the programme used a snippet of Joanna Bourke suggesting that men who enlisted in those early days mostly joined up for excitement. Then an archive voice told the sort of White Feather story which has been common ever since the war, and which, I have suggested elsewhere, may not be the whole truth about that movement.
The White Feather movement, in fact is an excellent example of how the programme did not get it quite right. This was a grassroots movement without official support, and one that in fact worried the government in the early days of the war. If, after all, public opinion grew too shrill and moralistic against the Germans, this could have raised difficulties if the government had decided to go for a negotiated peace – not an impossibility in the early days of the War. In fact, I think one could argue that the reason that negotiated peace was impossible in 1917, when the Germans were offering it, and Lord Lansdowne was raising the possibility, was precisely because public opinion wanted the Germans definitely thrashed.
The programme would have been more convincing if it had seen the recordings it featured not as examples of top-down propaganda, but as a response to popular demand for dramatic representations of the war into which they had put such a full and emotional personal commitment.