During the Great War, access to information was of central concern to the French population. Half of all adults read a daily newspaper and some also read general or specialized weekly news publications. During this period of complete upheaval, those at the front and behind the lines wanted to know what was happening quickly. And yet the French press was subject to some of the strictest censorship in Europe according to some historians.[1]

Should we uphold the traditional pairing of censorship/propaganda when talking about the French press in 1914-1918 or can we move beyond this common assumption and instead point up the lateral (front/behind the lines) and vertical (editorial bodies/authorities) interactions at play? The existence of an extremely violent discourse (in the satirical and photographic press), and even of a counter-discourse produced by soldiers (trench newspapers) and civilians (Le Canard Enchaîné), underscore the degree to which France actually adapted its democratic tradition to the dramatic context of 1914-1918.

Censorship and Propaganda: A Limited Power[2]

How Censorship was Implemented and Organized

Censorship and propaganda in France were very pragmatic. Decisions were taken on a daily basis and were only gradually honed into a centralized organization to control the content of the information disseminated.

The law of 9 August 1849 on the state of political siege strongly curbed – but did not totally stifle – civil liberties by granting the government greater authority in order to defend the country from peril. To avoid worrying the population, newspapers could no longer be sold by criers on the streets of Paris and banner headlines were banned. Adopted without debate in the Chamber, the law of 5 August 1914 provided for the suppression of all information that could potentially inform the enemy in order to avoid the humiliation of July 1870 when the Kaiser had encircled the French Army whose position had been reported in Le Temps. It led to the banning of military information (the makeup and position of armies, troop movement, losses) and diplomatic details (war aims, negotiations with neutral countries, criticism of allied countries). The law also banned all information that could "have a regrettable influence on the mindset of the army and population" (translated by JS). Articles that challenged the manner in which the war was conducted were quickly labelled "defeatist."[3] Censorship was preventive - i.e., prior to publication - with the threat of seizure or suspension, thus effectively curtailing freedom of the press. The idea was to avoid leaks, but also to limit sanctions after publication, and therefore preserve the republican consensus on press freedom by avoiding legal proceedings. Given the ambient enthusiasm for the Union sacrée, this principle was accepted by journalists; the management and editorial offices of all papers were members of the Commission de la presse française (French press committee), which had the support of the Syndicat de la presse parisienne (Union of the Parisian press) and of the Association de la presse républicaine départementale (Association of the republican departmental press). Despite conflicting views during the war, consensus endured, as much out of patriotism within the profession as for economic and financial reasons.

The country’s invasion and the government’s relocation to Bordeaux (September-December 1914) slowed the application of measures and the implementation of a national censorship scheme. For a few months, censorship by the Military Government in Paris, which was partly responsible for censorship in the capital, coexisted alongside censorship by the Press Bureau, under the Ministry of War, and censorship by the press section of the Ministry’s cabinet for censorship in France’s twenty-one military regions.(See Diagram) In January 1915, the Press Bureau was brought definitively under the auspices of the Ministry of War. Although generally supportive of the Union sacrée, journalists were nonetheless concerned about being censored by a bureau that lacked credibility. A committee responsible for the relationship between the press and the government was created on 13 August 1915, at Georges Clemenceau’s (1841-1929) initiative. It supported the Meunier Law’s proposal to place censorship under the scope of civil authorities. As a result, Council President Aristide Briand (1862-1932) created the Maison de la presse in January 1916, which coordinated censorship and propaganda from within a single information system. The Press Bureau as such became the Direction des relations avec la Presse (Department of relations with the press) and supplied newspapers with spokespeople and an abundance of military, diplomatic and political news, thus limiting the fabrication of false news stories and balderdash. It is only from this point forward that we can truly talk about the construction of propaganda aimed at the general public based on greater conniving between the press and the government[4], even if the Commissariat général de la propagande (Propaganda planning office) was created only on 30 May 1918.[5]

The Press Bureau issued instructions that enabled decisions by the Presidency of the Council and the Ministries of War, the Interior and Foreign Affairs to be enforced. From 20 August 1914 to October 1919, 1,100 general and military instructions were issued. Some were permanent, others temporary, depending on the type of information; regardless, all defeatist and pacifist claims were systematically censored. The censors were particularly hard on those publications most virulently against the government or army. It is as such that Clemenceau’s L’Homme Libre became L’Homme Enchaîné after it was suspended in August 1914 for having criticized the unpreparedness of General Joseph Joffre (1852-1931). Socialist publications were not particularly targeted: L’Humanité was one of the least seized papers during the war whereas Le populaire du centre was a favoured target of the Press Bureau.[6] A few nationalist titles were also closely monitored, like La Libre Parole and, especially, Charles Maurras’s (1868-1952) L’Action française. Censorship was at its zenith from June 1914 to October 1915, when the institution was being set up and still finding its footing. Opposition was strongest to political censorship - which protected public figures and institutions to the point of occasionally covering up political scandals -, since it suppressed democratic debate. Georges Clemenceau, editor in chief of L’Homme Enchaîné, therefore scrupulously curtailed its use in November 1917 when he became President of the Council, while nonetheless pursuing the inevitable military and diplomatic censorship.

There were over 400 censors employed in the three divisions of the Press Bureau (daily newspapers, periodicals and books, telegrams) from 1914 to 1919. Outside of Paris, 300 local committees and 5,000 censors covered the regional press; although answerable to authorities in Paris, their occasional overzealous activity caused problems as early as the spring of 1915 when they censored some information that had been accepted in Paris. This overlapping of authority spurred reactions from parliamentarians who owned departmental newspapers and protested before Parliament or even directly to the Minister of War. They were often successful given their political clout: Jean Dupuy (1844-1919), owner of the Petit Parisien, a deputy, former minister and baron of the Parisian press had Jules Gautier, the director of the Maison de la Presse, fired after an inopportune seizure of his paper...that had been published despite a banning order![7] The system’s malfunctioning also encouraged disobedience: in 1916-1917, one third of orders in the 17th region (Toulouse) were not respected, particularly given that, as was notably the case in the illustrated press, threats of seizures and publication bans were rarely acted upon.[8] It is as such necessary to nuance the image of implacable censorship countered by opposition from journalists and widespread repudiation.

The surveillance of papers was more efficient at the front where the press was monitored at points of sale and where certain publications were banned, particularly following the mutinies of May-June 1917, and given the opportunity for contact officers–captains- to refuse some publications within their companies.[9] In addition to the overall difficulty of actually getting papers to the front, these measures made reading the press even more difficult. And yet banned publications nonetheless reached the war front, which is why the general staff tried above all to influence soldiers’ thinking through the Bulletin des Armées de la République. Massively produced starting in August 1914, it contained first-hand military news. It was, however, too far removed from the everyday concerns of soldiers, who did not read it, and it ceased to be published in November 1917.

The Satirical Press: Tolerant Censorship

The ambivalence of French censorship was particularly patent in the satirical press where outrageous images were surprisingly well tolerated. Given the material shortages faced in the first six months of the war, less than ten satirical titles continued to run, the most famous of which were Le Rire and Le Pêle-Mêle. Others, like La Baïonnette, founded on 23 January 1915 by humourist Henri Maigrot (1857-1933), known as Henriot, gained widespread notoriety. The Union sacrée was predominant and illustrators drew under a banner of "red, white and blue."[10] Illustrators rarely opposed the violent culture of war; a few, like Théophile Steinlen (1859-1923), took on a humanitarian tone, and Jules Grandjouan (1875-1968) went silent after publishing a few anti-German illustrations.[11] (See image) Despite its traditional political commitment, the satirical press opposed neither the war nor censorship. The chauvinistic iconography employed often built on common pre-war militarized and anti-German tropes.

What was new was the extreme brutality of illustrations that focused on women, children and the elderly, whose bare and bloodied bodies were occasionally exhibited in sexualized positions.[12] The enemy - the central topic of the weekly satirical press - was demonized, dehumanized and animalized in the form of a pig.[13] In addition to sexualized and scatological portraits of the Kaiser or Kronprinz, illustrators attacked German Kultur[14] above all, with stock characters that once again perpetuated pre-war clichés: e.g., spies, officers, “Gretchens”, intellectuals, Fräuleins, travelling salesmen.[15] The next most targeted were French civilians, accused of being perpetually bad-tempered: caustic humour criticized their egotism, often in opposition to the abnegation of soldiers, who were the third topic that illustrations most often portrayed. This is summed up in an illustration (see image) by Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), published in L’Opinion on 9 January 1915, widely reprinted elsewhere and adapted liberally in whole or in part.[16]

For the most part, humourists’ excessiveness was granted a good degree of freedom. Among the best-known periodicals, Le Cri de Paris and Les Hommes du jour were the most censored. Even Le Rire, the most famous, was only censored about twenty times in 1915[17] and Le Pêle-Mêle does not even appear in the censorship statistics. Like in times of peace, most suspensions and publication bans were related to a lack of respect for official figures.[18] When some of Adolphe Willette’s (1857-1926) obscene drawings were banned from the press, the artist nonetheless published them in booklet form–with the censors’ consent!

How is it, then, that this outpouring of violence and pornography was able to avoid the censorship that was so conservative in the theatre and songs?[19] These drawings were the product of a spontaneous mobilization by artists and they one-upped the official atmosphere of exaggerated patriotism by fostering a hatred of the other that was also in line with popular culture.[20]

Journalism and Information: Difficult Times

Material Shortages in the French Press

The mobilization of staff caused an upheaval in the running of newspapers. One third of the editorial staff at L’Humanité[21] went to the front, thus sparking a need to renew the team and notably welcome in a few women. Some sections disappeared (sports, for example), whereas others grew (international relations). The rationing of paper was immediately anticipated: the layout of L’Humanité as such changed four times during the war to compensate for the increased cost of paper. The supply crisis caused by submarine warfare meant that all papers had to adopt a two-page format in the autumn of 1917. Some papers disappeared for a few months and then resurfaced. Until the spring of 1915, the mobilization of male readers also affected print runs. L’Humanité as such went from 115,000 copies sold in July 1914 to 70,000 in August, followed by 50,000 in December 1914. By early 1915, it was printing 60,000 copies on average, but this fell to about 40,000 by April 1918. Some papers changed names to better underscore their position on the war. Clemenceau’s L’Homme Libre became L’Homme Enchaîné in September 1914; Gustave Hervé’s (1871-1944) revolutionary and pacifist La Guerre sociale became the aggressively patriotic La Victoire in 1916. Finally, other papers were created to address the new needs of the public. The illustrated weekly J’ai vu appeared in November 1914 to address the demand for images; the weekly satirical paper Le Canard Enchaîné was created to address the demand for more critical information.


Getting first-hand information was not an easy affair. News agencies - and Havas, which supplied most news to the press, in particular[22] - were under close surveillance, although the noose was loosened somewhat in 1917-1918 when Havas complied with the propaganda requirements of the Maison de la Presse. Special envoys were banned from the front; Albert Londres (1884-1932), who snuck into bombed out Reims, was an exception.[23] Journalists were only able to reach the front lines starting in June 1917, following the Nivelle offensive in April-May 1917 and the drop in French morale. They were hand-picked, limited in their scope and closely supervised at the front; their letters were opened and their articles monitored. They could as such provide only a partial vision of the war. That is why civilians were left without any fresh news during the war’s first months, which resulted in the spreading of the craziest rumours by a press that lacked sources. The press had to rely solely on three military communiqués each day and reports from military experts that were presented as romanticized war narratives. Journalists went so far as to invent fake letters from soldiers to talk about the French front, before multiplying by eight their reports about foreign war fronts which were much more accessible. And yet, at the war’s end, the profession was proud to have supported the country’s morale during its darkest hours.[24]

The above working conditions were obviously reflected in the information provided which was commonly referred to as "balderdash."[25] It combined uninteresting truisms – "a retreating army ceases to gain ground"[26] - with a form of optimistic exaggeration in which all activities were victorious and there were few losses; even the most respected daily papers reported that German bullets "went straight through the skin without causing a single tear."[27] In its most excessive form, such balderdash was a grossly patriotic and jingoistic lie: in a communiqué on 29 August 1914, the French learned that the front stretched from the Somme to the Vosges when, until then, they had believed their troops to be winning in Belgium and Alsace. Such statements, made by non-combatants who failed to understand the hardships of war, were intended to boost patriotism but they were so over-the-top that they ended up having the opposite effect.

The most recent historiography calls for a rereading of these "fibs".[28] Indeed, with the exception of the most nationalist papers, the falsehoods published were not part of an organized propaganda effort. Culturally, they actually corresponded to a typically French journalistic style: colourful and "unstaged", with an exotic and picturesque tone borrowed from the colonial experience;[29] similarly, the vacuous optimism mirrored pre-war clichés about the cheeky humour and resourcefulness of French Tommies. Furthermore, psychologically, the chauvinistic excess was not always deliberate. In order to reassure, journalists appeared to hear only the laughter of soldiers who were nonetheless also staggering from fatigue.[30] Politically, the lyrical emphasis of the most patriotic columnists - Maurice Barrès (1862-1923) in L’Echo de Paris, Gustave Hervé in La Victoire – was not present in all daily papers. And, chronologically, such discourse was dominant in the French press until 1915; with the war of attrition and, particularly, the great suffering following the battle of Verdun, it disappeared definitively. The shift that led to the debunking of information was driven mostly by soldiers’ accounts when they began to supply the illustrated press with narratives and photographs.

The Illustrated Press: Information’s Enfant Terrible

Starting in 1831, the illustrated magazine press appeared as a source of information for the working class before reaching out to the bourgeoisie. At the start of the war, texts and images illustrated the expectations of epic, behind-the-lines culture: photographs of generals, smiling soldiers and heroic sacrifices, a lack of danger and suffering. More than a consciously constructed propaganda effort imposed from above, this optimistic approach was rather tied to a lack of documented evidence and to the pre-war visual culture that non-combatants projected onto the war in its early days. Further, the press did not often buy images from the official suppliers of photography. Over the course of 1915, and for good starting in 1916, the photographs in these magazines moved away from the epic tales of war and instead embraced an "everyday heroism" comprised of suffering and abnegation. (See image)

Notably, starting in the spring of 1915, Le Miroir and L’Illustration shamelessly published horrific images. Three topics embodied the war’s violence: devastated landscapes (e.g. forests of mutilated tree trunks around Verdun, waste-filled trenches in the Somme); the fighting recorded by some soldiers using small, hand-held cameras and celluloid film;[31]and dead bodies (e.g. terrible, shrouded, vague forms, bodies piled up or blown into the trees, abandoned skeletons). (See image from 1915 and image from 1916)

Other illustrated papers – Le Pays de France, Le Monde Illustré, J’ai Vu, Le Flambeau, Sur le Vif – were more reserved, but nonetheless gave the public the impression they were witnessing scenes from the front lines, even when these were pieced together from amateur photographs.[32] Such illustrated violence began and became excessive in 1915, but was more discreet starting in 1916; it left its mark on representations of the war behind-the-lines which, for the first time, transported people to the front, and put them in tune with what soldiers were experiencing.

This typically French phenomenon was tied, for one, to the call-out made to amateur photographer-soldiers who were encouraged by the numerous, well-paid photo contests and who began to seek out scoops: they became “photo-combatants”. The second reason is bound up in the application of censorship:[33] on the one hand, censors rarely banned violent images and, on the other hand, they often did not sanction the weekly papers that did run images that had been banned. The display of corpses (usually of the enemy but also occasionally of the French) was not amoral: defeatist images were considered more dangerous and censors seized L’Illustration of 8 September 1917, for example, after it published despite a ban eight photos showing Russian deserters forcibly returned to the ranks. Invaded and thus assaulted, the photographic representations of France were a reflection of how the country felt. There was no real photographic propaganda in France between 1914 and 1918.[34] The French illustrated press provided its readership with the most horrible expressions of the war, most unlike other European countries.[35]

Expectations and Counter-Discourse

People behind the lines were avid for news about the front since they were cut off from it. It took a year and a half to transform the vision of the war behind the lines; soldiers were already aware of.

Reading Habits

Soldiers were avid readers of the newspapers that managed to reach the front–one in 3.5 million adults read a daily newspaper, or 750,000 copies[36] – but the press was not often available. Like before the war, Le Matin, Le Petit Parisien, Le Journal and L'Echo de Paris were the most popular daily sources of news; L’Homme Enchaîné, La Victoire and L’oeuvre were the leading opinion papers. Two weekly newspapers were valued although three times less widely read: the bawdy Vie parisienne that was a distraction and the sulphurous Canard Enchainé, appreciated for its critical positions.[37]

Despite the jingoistic discourse, reading the press made the war supportable for men at the front and limited the sense of animalization that came with combat and their living conditions. Soldiers read when operations allowed the papers to reach the front and when they were mentally receptive: it was a humanly restorative moment. The press united the front and back in a common culture; it reintroduced the temporality and spatiality of peace time, making the anomy and violence of war mere parentheses. Lastly, news lifted the soldiers from their atomized perception of the war and provided a broader understanding of events. That is why they read abundantly in March 1918, when peace on the Eastern front and the renewal of the German offensive upended the stakes of the war of attrition.[38] They by no means agreed with everything they read, however. They were critical of the clichés about epic combat that glossed over their suffering and stripped them of their experience of combat, all of which led to a split with those behind the lines. In reality, they were quite distrustful of what they read,[39] which ultimately led to the creation of trench newspapers.

Trench Newspapers: A Palliative Measure exported behind the Lines

Beyond the hierarchical, social and cultural differences of the writers, these papers were a reflection of the mentality of combat, of the osmosis between soldiers and of "war culture" at the front. The first newspaper written in the trenches likely appeared in September 1914, following the battle of the Marne. The war of attrition encouraged their flourishing from 1915 to mid-1916 and an emulation effect between the different papers: in 1916, the combined print runs ran between 75,000 and 132,000 copies per month. Although they were not a mass phenomenon, trench newspapers point up the need that existed among soldiers for leisure activities, and their relationship with information.

Indeed, the length of the war, the soldiers’ isolation and their need for moral support encouraged non-war activities during periods of calm (which explains why this press disappeared for good after November 1918). It had two main goals: to serve as a distraction for soldiers, as their names indicated (L’Anticafard–“The anti-blues”– and Le Rire aux éclats–“Bursting with laughter”), even if some of the topics addressed were very serious.[40] Above all, once people had understood that the war was going to be long, these papers were intended to replace the official press, that had trouble reaching the front and was closely monitored. The titles of civilian papers were diverted: La Vie Parisienne became La Vie Poilusienne, for example. And yet all were patriotic; some were even quite bellicose and anti-German, as illustrated by the title Bochofage ("The Boche Eater"). The main goal was to testify about events at the front (Le Crapouillot) before soldiers, civilians and History. To do so, it was necessary to be close to the action, enemy, danger and all of the associated emotions and living conditions.[41] Some aesthetic details (illustrations, photographs, occasionally colours) also point up the need that existed for beauty as an escape from the surrounding ugliness. Finally, like all activities at the front that involved an audience, there was a secret desire for recognition bound up in this war journalism. Of the 400 trench newspapers, 50 percent were written by non-commissioned officers - like the Trenchman Echo by Corporal Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) - and only 2 percent by field officers.[42] Steeped in the bourgeois urban culture acquired through secondary or higher education,[43] writers were put into the spotlight. Cooks, mail orderlies and telephonists, for example, were often less exposed than the line infantry,[44] although many also died under fire: in late 1916, the entire editorial team of Le Sourire de l’Escouade was buried in a shell hole near Vaux.

Trench newspapers were predominantly published in France[45] where they were written on the front lines, although combat and troop movement occasionally interrupted their publication, sometimes indefinitely. 45 percent of trench papers were published at the section-level and 40 percent within medium-sized units (regiments, battalions). Trench newspapers therefore made sense only when they were published for and by small groups of men who knew each other well, shared the same ordeals and spent all of their time together. They were apolitical and expressed the emergence of a war culture, the need for expression of a community close-knit by the war, cut off from the real world and frustrated with the existing means of communication. While they were encouraged by the High Command as proof of soldiers’ morale, the papers were sometimes censored. Prior to March 1916, their authorization depended solely on superiors, who were most often benevolent and occasionally even helped launch the papers (e.g. Le Canard poilu, February 1915). Broadly speaking, official censorship was quite liberal, banning mostly military intelligence, political allusions, the abrupt nature of some statements or, occasionally, restricting papers’ distribution behind the lines. Although there was some self-censorship, the disseminated soldiers’ press above all illustrates the French ability to accept the combatants’ discourse on modern violence.

Le Canard Enchaîné: Patriotic Counter-Discourse

Lastly, the creation of Le Canard Enchaîné underscores that an extremely frank tone was possible despite the war and censorship. Le Canard Enchaîné emerged "from the belly of the god of war"[46] to challenge the climate of censorship and falsehood. It was initially launched from 10 September to 4 November 1915 by Maurice Maréchal (1882-1942), a young journalist and pacifist activist. It reappeared for good, every Wednesday, starting on 5 July 1916. Its non-conformist editorial line and complete independence (it refused all advertising and financial support) ensured its widespread success. It went from 40,000 to 100,000 copies between July 1917 and the immediate post-war period. While its form resembled other newspapers, its content and tone were very unique: readers could never predict what an article would be about. The style played on a mixing of genres essentially via the use of antiphrasis. It was as such both an opinion paper and a "comic publication"; it created caustic irony by combining text with illustrations by Henri-Paul Gassier (1883-1951); it was both patriotic and pacifistic, without ever being defeatist; readers had to decipher innuendos that were pieced together like a semantic puzzle, made up of jokes and allusions full of double (sometimes triple) entendre, and that were full of references from both learned and lay culture, constantly toing-and-froing between truth and falsehood.

Its pugnacious critique targeted the central powers, whereas it unconditionally supported the soldiers, which meant that it was an entirely patriotic paper. Its favourite target, however, was civilian war hawks whose aggressive discourse was particularly intolerable given that they faced no direct risk. Le Canard Enchaîné actively criticized the most excessive examples found in the press. Gustave Hervé and Maurice Barrès were as such voted "best balderdashers" by the public and associated with a visual topos of journalists driving nails into a large scull. A second leitmotif was peace that refused to come. Although it claimed to be a counter-publication, the military authorities and police did not consider it to be a pacifist publication. It was treated like the other mainstream papers and, although it was censored numerous times, its run was never interrupted following its second publication date.


Why, then, is the persistent image that of a muzzled press and intrusive, dictatorial censorship? Firstly, newspapers were discredited for their initial chauvinistic period which left its mark on the public and on soldiers in particular. Next, certain dubious affairs further compounded people’s distrust, like for example the Bonnet Rouge affair, finally banned in 1917 for collusion with the enemy after its director, Emile-Joseph Duval (1864-1918), was arrested in May 1915 in possession of German funds. To distinguish themselves from such practices, journalists founded a Union in March 1918[47] and adopted a code of ethics that was the only one of its kind in Europe.[48] It recalled the principle of responsibility for the information published and need for the highest degree of probity, which meant that receiving public or private money was strictly forbidden. Thirdly, it took some time in this troubled era for democracy to find the right balance between the necessary control of information and the democratic principles of freedom. Finally, mental representations were essential: soldiers suffered from the excesses of a chauvinistic press that had no real project, and newspapers suffered from the pernickety demands of censors who were nonetheless poorly obeyed. That is why post-war society largely overlooked the suffering inherent to the texts sent by soldiers to the press, the realism of their published photographs and the pugnacity of the counter-discourse that existed. In the pacifist communion surrounding the post-war trauma, it was easier to make the press and censorship responsible for the great carnage to which the nation had consented, in large part fully aware of what was happening.

Joëlle Beurier, Université de Reims Champagne-Ardenne

Section Editor: Nicolas Beaupré

Translator: Jocelyne Serveau