One of the jolliest images in the IWM’s current poster exhibition is BertThomas’s Arf a Mo, Kaiser, from 1914. Among all the posters persuading people to enlist, eat less, or trust the government with their savings, the curators of the show remind us that the popularity of the war was also used to sell commercial products. The catalogue tells us:
This poster boosted both sales of tobacco and the patriotic credentials of the Weekly Dispatch, and its success stimulated discussion in the media, in pulpits, and in the public house.
The catalogue describes the poster as:
giving a recognizable image of the people to the people. Here the good-humoured self-reliant British Tommy showed what life wasn’t like at the front, and satisfied the wish of the troops to conceal the truth for fear of upsetting those at home.
I’m sure there is something in this, but I think that soldiers would have liked this image a lot, and not just because it reassured the civilians. What it presents is a soldier with control over his destiny, a cheeky bloke who’d be likely to tell his officer to wait arf a mo’, as well as the Kaiser. He’s announcing that he is an independent person, even if his area of control does not extend much further than his pipe.
The soldier in this drawing is not ideologically committed. I think it’s implied that his patriotism is so ingrained that he doesn’t have to make a fuss about it. He’s a soldier under discipline, but that discipline is not onerous, because he is left with his own small space in which to excercise his independence, and his sense of humour.
J.C.Fuller has described the amazement of some officers when men back from a tiring stretch in the trenches would go, not for a rest, but for a game of football. These were often men who had done the same thing after a shift in the mine or factory. The football field was an arena where they could be themselves, not under orders. Fuller lists sport and humour as two of the factors that helped keep British morale high for most of the War (so that British troops were the only ones not to engage in any major mutiny).
By offering the Tommy a resilient and independent figure with which he could identify, I reckon Bert Thomas did his bit to keep morale high.