Arf a mo, Kaiser!


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.



  1. juliadactyl
    Posted February 8, 2009 at 4:33 am | Permalink

    I really agree with your assessment of how this image of a soldier would’ve been comforting to both the home front and to soldiers on the war front. I particularly like how the poster describes him as a hero – I think heroising the sacrifices of ordinary men was one of the cleverest ideas propaganda machines came up with.

  2. Posted February 8, 2009 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment – but –
    “The propaganda machine”? This image dares from 1914, when there was no official propaganda machine, except for C.F.G. Masterman calling a few elderly men of letters to Wellington House, to ask them to help present the British case to America and other neutral nations.
    This image was designed to sell The Weekly Dispatch, a commercial enterprise that linked itself to the War because the War was popular. An equivalent today would be the firms whose advertising stresses that they are “green”, because they think that associating themselves with environmental causes will help to sell their product.

  3. Ashley
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m doing a research paper comparing World War I and World War II propaganda posters, and ran across this poster in a book put out by the IWM. Unfortunately the book didn’t give much analysis of this poster, which I was curious to know more about, and I was also lost as to what “Arf a mo'” could mean (it seems pretty obvious now). Thanks for the insight!

  4. ken Wilson
    Posted July 28, 2013 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    I guess I am a bit late, but I think the artist was Bert Thomas.

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  1. […] soldier depicted in this ad was created by cartoonist Bert Thomas for a similar campaign across the Atlantic for the Weekly Dispatch newspaper in November 1914. The image of a Cockney […]

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