Pictures of World War I

Each Worth 1000 Words…

Creating Reality With World War One Propaganda

Before World War 1 the word propaganda was used in the English language to mean “organized propagation of a doctrine by use of publicity, exaggeration etc.” Along came the political events leading to the war and suddenly, historically speaking, today’s definition was born: “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.

That is to say no more neutrality.

In Russia, Lenin was distributing pamphlets that used historical and scientific arguments to indoctrinate people – in the name of communism. Stories of atrocity, true and false, were publicized by all sides for propaganda purposes. Britain distributed printed material within neutral countries and mailed it into Germany using the Dutch and Swiss postal systems, thus paving the way to the formation of the British War Propaganda Bureau in 1914.

The purpose of the WPB was:

  • To recruit more soldiers
  • To stop information from being published which might help the enemy.
  • To psychologically dishearten the enemy troops.
  • To give civilians a government-approved version of the War.
  • To keep morale up at the Home Front.
  • To encourage people to give their time and money to the war effort.
  • To portray the enemy as an evil that needed to be fought.

Propaganda Material – Pamphlets

Moving from pamphlets to leaflet was an easy step. After all, what easier way was there to spread the word than to distribute leaflets? They could be handed out on the street, mailed and even dropped behind the lines from planes and balloons! There were no electronic mass media as we know it today. However, there were printed media, newspapers and mail systems in the form of handbills, posters, billboards, magazines, books, and even graffiti was used to get the message across.

Advertising is a form of propaganda. What better way to propagandize the role that YOU need to be playing in the war; “tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor or spy; homemaker, farmer, nurse, veterinarian or cavalry guy” they are all portrayed in the thousands of posters produced just to be sure that YOU were thinking about YOUR role in WW1.

Propaganda Material – Posters

The propaganda poster has been used for centuries. All the nations involved in World War 1 used them to influence the actions of their own and their enemy’s citizens. They illustrated every phase of the war – from recruiting to munitions manufacture and from war loans to the work of women, children and the Red Cross. This became possible when in the late 19th century the “three stone lithographic process” was developed. This allowed poster artists using red, yellow and blue printed in careful order to reproduce all colors. The ability to portray word and image in one versatile format made the lithographic propaganda poster a powerful weapon. These posters have a remarkable survival potential more so than other forms of propaganda material produced before and during WW1.

Herbert A. Williams of the Poster Advertising Association of Canada wrote that “posters appearing in Canada were outstanding examples of a publicity force that will never be forgotten. They worked in the most unexpected places. In fact, Canada was turned into Posterland.” Canadian poster themes followed the British; recruiting, food conservation and war loans amongst the many subjects. America alone produced about twenty five hundred poster designs and approximately twenty million posters.

Propaganda also took the form of newspaper articles, paintings, photographs, films, postcards, medallions and books. The printed materials that could be and were used to best advantage were produced in great numbers. They were distributed worldwide in order to influence as many people as possible.

Iconic Propaganda

Many newspaper articles, pamphlets, images, and books publicized the story of Nurse Edith Cavell who became the most prominent British female casualty of World War I. She was a popular icon because of her sex, her nursing profession, and her heroic approach to death. She became an iconic propaganda figure for military recruitment in Britain and to help increase favorable sentiment towards the Allies in the United States. Her execution was represented as an act of German barbarism and moral depravity.


Even though Germany’s forces were conscripted they also used propaganda material to encourage volunteers to join the armed services. In one of the last German propaganda attempts this was said: “The enemy has defeated us not as man against man in the field of battle or bayonet against bayonet. No, bad content in poor printing on poor paper has made our Army lame.”