For king and country
Only in 1935 did the British public learn that First World War propaganda had been officially organised by the government. Twenty-five leading authors, summoned in August 1914 by the new Propaganda Bureau to mount a campaign to counter German accounts, were sworn to secrecy concerning Whitehall’s role in reports designed to influence the media and the public. An official 1915 pamphlet on ‘alleged German outrages’ against Belgian civilians, published in 30 languages, set the tone for a justified war against a brutal foe.
More than 1,160 pamphlets would be written by literary figures. A monthly magazine edited by John Buchan ran to 24 issues and he was promoted to Lt-col, in charge of a new Department of Information at £1,000 a year. A reorganisation in 1918 drew in newspaper magnates Lord Beaverbrook, Lord Northcliffe and others to intensify the campaign.
Writers and artists were disturbed by their participation. In a 1917 letter to G. K. Chesterton, the poet Hilaire Belloc lamented that ‘it is sometimes necessary to lie damnably in the interests of the nation’.
Only official photography was allowed —anyone else taking pictures was to be shot—and some 90 leading artists were commissioned to illustrate the war, including John Singer Sargent, Augustus John, John Nash, Paul Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer and William Orpen.
Paul Nash told a friend: ‘I am not allowed to put dead men into my pictures because apparently they don’t exist.’ Sargent was told by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, to show collaboration between British and American troops—instead, he painted Gassed, showing blinded soldiers filing past a tangle of bodies.
After the war, German leaders, including Ludendorff and Hitler, suggested propaganda had influenced the outcome and the Nazis adopted British techniques.