The War Posters exhibition at the Imperial War Museum is impressive, and says a lot about the imagery of war, but it doesn’t give many hints about the context in which these posters were seen, or the reaction they got.
From the exhibition, one gets the impression of a barrage of official publicity – but that’s true only up to a point. For a start, the recruitment publicity was only partly official. The letters column of The Times is instructive. On Jun 19, 1915 S. Arthur Peto of Sandwich writes about a soldier’s letter published earlier:
It occurs to me that no man can read the letter… and slack, strike, or fail to enlist. If the letter were printed in legible type and placarded in large towns and districts where munitions are produced, it would appeal far more directly than all the speech-making and recruiting posters. If you agree and would put the matter through, I am willing to contribute £100 towards the expense, and have little doubt that others would assist.
The Times got in touch with the National Committee for National Patriotic Organisations, who readily took up Mr Peto’s offer.
On another occasion, a commercial firm, Messrs David Allen and Sons, of Harrow, picked up a piece from the newspaper summarising the reasons for Britain being at war, and printed it as a poster (in two sizes). Times readers were told that these could be purchased (The larger size cost 5½d each, or 9/4d for 50). Presumably they then found their way onto walls, noticeboards and shop windows.
The official posters do not seem to have been used much on the usual poster hoardings. For a start, they were mostly quite small – one sheet (3ft 4in x 2ft 6in) or sometimes two sheet (5ft x 3ft 4in). On the big hoardings these could hardly compete with big commercial 16-sheet posters, unless they were tiled, which seems to have happened sometimes. The TV film of My Boy Jack showed Kipling ranting in front of a huge pointing Kitchener poster. I don’t think it was ever that big. And I think Kipling tried to avoid being a jelly-bellied flag-flapper too, but that’s another story.
So the official posters, like the unofficial ones, found other homes – the windows of recruiting offices and town halls, walls, railway stations. Patriotic shop windows were full of the things, but it was much more of an eruption of popular feeling than a concerted government propaganda initiative. In each locality individuals and enthusiastic officials used their initiative to broadcast the message.
This meant the spread of posters into places where they had never been seen before, which gave offence to some. On May 26th, 1915, Ethel Colquhoun wrote to The Times to protest at the:
…sensational appeals, posters and advertisements, all trying to work up emotion, when it is not emotion we want, but discipline. How long must we endure the outrage of those posters which disfigure every town and village, and scar with shame the heart of everyone who realizes their true significance – that our people had not been taught the elementary meaning of citizenship?
Another correspondent compared the British chaos of untidy messages unfavourably with the tidiness of German bulletins, all efficiently organised on a far less wasteful top-down basis.