“When folded another way we see a fat German officer overlooking French citizens enslaved and whipped by German soldiers.”


“At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Germans poured out propaganda in the form of posters, leaflets and pamphlets, in an attempt to explain Germany’s entry into the war and discredit the motives of the allies. The British government was greatly disturbed by the virulence of the German campaign, which was specially directed towards influencing the United States of America.

“Professor Jo Fox discusses how atrocities were utilised by propagandists.”

At the end of August 1914, the matter was raised in the cabinet: ‘Mr Lloyd George urged the importance of setting on foot an organization to inform and influence public opinion abroad and to confute German mis-statements and sophistries.’ On 5 September the cabinet decided that steps were to be taken without delay to counteract the dissemination by Germany of false news abroad. Though there had been no peace-time precedent, the cabinet accepted the need for an organization to co-ordinate propaganda directed at foreign opinion for the duration of the war.”

by Ian Cooke / 29 Jan 2014

“From the beginning of World War One, both sides of the conflict used propaganda to shape international opinion. Curator Ian Cooke considers the newspapers, books and cartoons produced in an attempt to influence both neutral and enemy countries. Governments during the First World War devoted massive resources and huge amounts of effort to producing material designed to shape opinion and action internationally. The efforts of states to justify their actions, and to build international support, resulted in some of the most powerful propaganda ever produced. They also shaped attitudes towards propaganda itself in the years following the end of the War.

“The English Beast, a propagandist pamphlet produced shortly after the war in Germany. The image shows England as a monstrous giant squid, lying on a bed of money and choking the globe with its twisting tentacles.”

Influencing the news
One of the first actions carried out by Britain at the start of the war was to cut Germany’s under-sea communication cables, ensuring that Britain had a monopoly on the fastest means of transmitting news from Europe to press agencies in the United States of America. Influencing the reporting of the war around the world, with the aim of gaining support and sympathy, was an important objective for all states. In Britain, a secret organisation, Wellington House, was set up in September 1914, and called on journalists and newspaper editors to write and disseminate articles sympathetic to Britain and to counter the statements made by enemies.

As well as placing favourable reports in the existing press of neutral countries, Wellington House printed its own newspapers for circulation around the world. Illustrated news, carrying drawings or photographs, was viewed as particularly effective. By December 1916, the War Pictorial was running at a circulation of 500,000 copies per issue, in four editions covering 11 languages. The Chinese-language Cheng Pao had a fortnightly circulation of 250,000 issues, and was described as having ‘such a powerful effect upon the masses that the Chinese government were able to declare war against Germany’.[1]

German and British covert propaganda
In addition to press reporting, states attempted to influence opinion using a wide range of pamphlets, cartoons, and longer books. German efforts in the USA centred on the production of vast numbers of publications through existing German cultural institutions. The War Plotters of Wall Street, published in 1915, is an example of this type of propaganda. It tells of a plot by unscrupulous financiers to draw the USA into a war which would be against its own interests and ruinous to its economy. The book warned Americans against financial support for Britain, arguing that loans would never be repaid.

However, German propaganda tended to lack subtlety, and the use of organisations such as The Fatherland Corporation as publishers often gave the game away. British efforts, directed through Wellington House for most of the war, took a different approach. Commercial publishers were used to give the impression that works were produced independently of state direction. Books and pamphlets were published in huge numbers and circulated to lists of people identified as opinion makers sympathetic to Britain. The intention was that popular support for Britain would be built through local advocates rather than appearing to come from Britain directly.

“Report of the committee led by Viscount Bryce on ‘alleged German outrages'”

Official propaganda
In some cases, this covert activity would be supported through more overt official messages, where this might lend further weight. The 1915 British Parliamentary publication, Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages (the ‘Bryce Report’) was an attempt by the government to set out its justification for war, and to give credibility to stories of German atrocities in Belgium and France. The report, widely circulated alongside Wellington House propaganda, was based on testimony from refugees from Belgium and France, and was later criticised for its uncritical treatment of sources.

“My Mission to London, written in 1916 by Prince Lichnowsky, sets out a criticism of German foreign policy towards England. It was reprinted in large numbers by Wellington House.”

Exploiting mistakes made by the enemy
British propaganda aimed at neutral countries also made effective use of Germany’s misfortunes or misjudgements during the war. In 1916, an independent German artist created a small number of medals to commemorate the anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania. The medals focused on German justifications for the act (which had claimed 1,198 lives), alleging that the passenger liner had been carrying weapons for Allied forces. The medal was found by British agents, and hundreds of thousands of copies were made and circulated to highlight the ‘barbarity’ of the enemy.

Most damaging of all was the ‘Zimmerman telegram’, a German diplomatic communication which was uncovered in 1917 by British intelligence. The telegram contained details of German plans in the event of the USA joining the war on the Allied side. It envisaged an offer to Mexico of territory including the states of Texas and Arizona in return for declaring war on the USA. Although the American President, Woodrow Wilson, had probably already decided to commit to war before the contents of the telegram were known, their subsequent publication ensured public support.

Propaganda against enemy armed forces
Alongside attempts to influence public opinion in neutral countries, propaganda was also used directly against enemies. From the start of the war, aeroplanes and balloons were used by all sides to drop leaflets and posters over fighting forces and civilians.

“Photograph of Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio and pilot Natale Palli, prior to take-off. On 9 August 1918 they flew their aeroplane over Vienna, dropping thousands of leaflets and three large posters.”

On the Western Front, the German publication, the Gazette des Ardennes, was intended in part to engender French and Belgian civilian hostility to British forces. It was countered by the British publication Le Courrier de l’Air. As well as publications in French and Flemish, German propaganda included material written in Urdu, aimed at Indian regiments fighting in Europe. These leaflets and posters played on resentments of British rule in India, and attempted to persuade soldiers to stop fighting or join with German troops.[2]

“British propaganda showing the British Bulldog, with five others representing Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and New Zealand.”

The impact of international propaganda
The impact of this propaganda on fighting forces is hard to assess. Leaflets and posters were certainly circulated in vast numbers by all sides, and captured troops were often found to have leaflets in their possession, despite the harsh penalties imposed for doing so. There were also reports of leaflets being exchanged for money.

“‘La voix des ruines’ (‘The voice of the ruins’), a poster from 1918 blaming the destruction of French soil on Germany.”

Certainly, contemporary commentators were impressed, and sometimes horrified, by the effectiveness of propaganda in influencing public opinion. In the years immediately following the war, the exaggerated reports of German and Austrian treatment of civilians were denounced as ‘atrocity propaganda’.

In the USA, the opinion that the country had been ‘duped’ into joining the war influenced isolationist policies. Both Lenin and Hitler were convinced of the significance of propaganda in ensuring success. Perhaps the most damaging legacy was the myth that gained currency in Germany that the war had been lost not on the battlefield, but through the influence of foreign propaganda on the German people.”

“The WWI Italian Leaflet Drop over Vienna”

[1]The National Archives INF 1/317 Home Publicity during the 1914-1918 War
[2] Propaganda leaflet dropped on Indian regiments fighting in France. Berlin?, c.1915. The British Library PP Urdu 37

[Ian Cooke is Lead Curator for International and Political Studies at the British Library. He has worked in academic and research libraries for 17 years, and is on the editorial team for the journal African Research and Documentation. In 2013, he co-curated the British Library exhibition Propaganda Power and Persuasion.]

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