Official home propaganda developed piecemeal throughout the war in Britain and Ireland. By March 1918, fourteen ministries and government-related agencies conducted domestic "publicity", yet a body specifically dedicated to domestic morale had not emerged until mid-1917. British propaganda’s organisation was sufficiently confusing and misunderstood that 1930s officials seeking to resurrect the Ministry of Information appeared only dimly aware that the National War Aims Committee (NWAC) "seems to have done at home the kind of work done by [the Ministry] abroad."[1] Despite this incoherence, civilians were regularly addressed by official and unofficial propaganda, ranging from recruitment to military or civilian occupations, official or charitable calls for donations and demands for modified behaviour, to critical propaganda from dissenting voices such as the Union of Democratic Control (UDC) or Irish advanced nationalists.

Organising propaganda

The British government did not have a ready-made propaganda apparatus available at the outbreak of war. While some measures, such as press controls, were established quickly, official domestic propaganda organisations emerged more slowly.[2] However, campaigns such as the Liberals’ pre-war promotion of national insurance, headed by Charles Masterman (1873-1927), and land reform gave party organisers experience of national publicity promotions. The 1914 land campaign involved around 230 speakers and 3 million publications, and its Secretary later took important roles in the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) and NWAC.[3] Party and interest group activists and speakers provided experienced staff at all levels to fill wartime roles.

Initial Groups

The first domestic propaganda priority was military recruitment. The PRC was formed at the end of August 1914 to call for volunteers, led by the heads of the major British parties, excluding the Irish Nationalists. Though the Nationalist leader, John Redmond (1856-1918), rapidly committed his party and the Irish Volunteers to a military contribution, he discouraged PRC operations in Ireland. Instead, Irish MPs (with varying enthusiasm) and nobles called for enlistment.[4] To September 1915, the PRC issued 22,227,000 publications, including 8,750,000 leaflets, 5,727,000 posters and 5.5 million pamphlets.[5] By then, over 2 million volunteers had enlisted. In Ireland, individual recruiting was augmented in 1915 by a Central Council for the Organisation of Recruiting in Ireland, and later the Department for Recruiting in Ireland (DRI). David Fitzpatrick estimates around 206,000 Irishmen served in Britain’s wartime armed forces – while this represented a lower proportion of available men than British volunteers, John Ellis suggests this remained "impressive", given the more complex situation in Ireland.[6]

While recruitment took priority (and remained the focus of official Irish propaganda), the British authorities established other organisations which served propaganda purposes. The War Propaganda Bureau (better known as Wellington House), directed by Masterman, was established within the Foreign Office in September 1914. While focused on neutrals and the Dominions, it also affected domestic propaganda. Masterman’s determination to conduct propaganda "based on accurate information and measured argument" influenced the wider conduct of official propaganda. Little of this was "black" (i.e. outright disinformation or lies), much was "white" (messages from a clearly stated source, whether fact-based or an appeal) and most of the rest was "grey" (as Masterman’s materials were, since they did not state the Bureau’s involvement),[7] making it easier to allow Wellington House material’s dissemination within Britain.

Many unofficial propagandists added to the clamour. Existing groups such as the Victoria League (VL) continued promoting imperial unity, aided partly by a substantial female membership which meant fewer League organisers were lost to war work. The VL addressed issues raised by the war, but also other topics, making them an antidote to wartime attitudes increasingly intolerant of "frivolous", non-war-related discussion.[8] New groups also formed, such as the Central Committee for National Patriotic Organizations (CCNPO) which organised public events and acted as a conduit for Wellington House publications.

Two other groups – advertisers and journalists – also felt that they had much to contribute. Hedley Le Bas (1868-1926), an influential figure in advertising, played a substantial part in enlivening recruiting propaganda, overcoming the "dignified" conservatism of the War Office and PRC, before shifting his attention to Irish recruiting, apparently with considerable success, in 1915.[9] Despite controls exerted by the Press Bureau and, from 1916, by the War Office’s MI7 (which both censored and produced press content), many newspapers maintained a steady stream of their own propaganda, sometimes complementing and sometimes interfering with official efforts. Newspaper proprietors such as Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922) and Max Aitken, Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) increasingly demanded greater involvement in official propaganda, as did the corrupt, demagogic proprietor of John Bull, Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933), who, consistently denied an official role, contented himself with belittling official efforts while conducting his own patriotic events at a profit.[10]

Expansion, Diversification and Reorganisation

Le Bas’s propaganda career highlights the growing scale of official propaganda. In August 1915, Le Bas joined a new Cinema Committee attached to Wellington House, which produced the film Britain Prepared and succeeded in "converting many who had hitherto been sceptical" to film propaganda’s potential.[11] This led to extensive subsequent use of film propaganda including, most famously, The Battle of the Somme, filmed and released during the 1916 campaign. Le Bas, however, moved on to the newly created National Organising Committee for War Savings (later the National War Savings Committee – NWSC), which began work with a campaign condemning waste and extravagance.[12]

By the time David Lloyd George (1863-1945) replaced Herbert Henry Asquith (1852-1928) as Prime Minister, in December 1916, official propaganda was conducted by several organisations tied to multiple Ministries and Departments, including:

  • Foreign Office
    • Wellington House
    • News Department
  • Home Office
    • Press Bureau
  • War Office
    • MI7
    • War Office Cinematograph Committee
  • Treasury
    • NWSC
  • Directorate of National Service
  • Ministry of Munitions

These organic developments produced competing, inefficient work, despite attempted rationalisation in 1916. One of Lloyd George’s first acts as Prime Minister was to instigate a propaganda enquiry, organised by Robert Donald (1860-1933), editor of the Daily Chronicle. This led to a Department of Information (DI) in early 1917, intended to act as an umbrella organisation. Led by the novelist John Buchan (1875-1940), it theoretically answered solely to Lloyd George, but really "functioned as an annex of the Foreign Office",[13] neglecting domestic propaganda. Thus, in July 1917 the NWAC was established as a Parliamentary, all-party (except Irish Nationalists) domestic propaganda organisation.[14] Rather than promoting specific behaviour – war savings, national service and food control propaganda, for example – the NWAC focused on perceived war-weariness and "remobilising" the public. Treasury subsidy (from November 1917), alongside its organisation of counter-meetings to those of "pacifist" organisations sometimes featuring dissenting MPs, caused Parliamentary controversy, amid allegations that public money was used to boost government prestige.[15]

A final reorganisation in early 1918 saw the DI superseded by a Ministry of Information (MI) directed by Beaverbrook. Once again, this reorganisation aimed to unify propaganda, but the NWAC and several Departments and Ministries resisted amalgamation, so that domestic propaganda in 1918 still emanated from several venues, including:

  • MI
  • NWAC
  • NWSC
  • Boards of:
    • Agriculture
    • Trade
  • Home Office
  • War Office
  • Admiralty
  • Ministries of:
    • Food
    • National Service
    • Labour
    • Munitions
    • Reconstruction
    • Pensions.[16]

Sometimes this activity traversed the British Isles, as with war savings; in other cases, separate groups were established. An Irish War Aims Committee (IWAC), led by the former Chair of the Irish Convention, Sir Horace Plunkett (1854-1932), was established in 1918, though letters from its members suggest its role was more to monitor public opinion and advise government caution than to conduct active propaganda. While the NWAC also organised some limited work in Ireland, the Irish Parliamentary Party MP, Richard Hazleton (1880-1943), opposing the post-war continuation of the MI, suggested the IWAC emerged too late to do any good.[17] There was also, apparently, some cross-over between organisations, with some Irish recruiting posters, including "Ireland: What Is Your Grade?", issued by the Irish Recruiting Council in 1918, originally drafted by the Ministry of National Service.[18]


First World War propaganda, particularly Britain’s, is often credited with transforming propaganda into modern forms. Despite new media and techniques, however, much of Britain’s domestic propaganda output used well-established methods and depended on cooperation by political party staffs, publishers, the press and local notables. Successful propaganda required an effective marriage of the familiar and novel, the national and local, the simple and the more complex. Harold Lasswell (1902-1978) suggested British propaganda’s success lay partly in its "amazing suppleness" – propagandists approached their tasks from multiple angles and media.[19]

Published Propaganda

The most recognisable propaganda materials in Britain and Ireland were posters. Throughout the war, public places were festooned with posters from official bodies as well as charities and unofficial groups. Posters’ ostensible value lay in their eye-catching format and simple messages. Political parties used posters with increasing frequency before 1914 to address a broader electorate, blending "tradition and innovation" by combining advertising techniques with the longer heritage of political cartoons.[20] Nonetheless, posters’ visual impact cannot be presumed. Much depended on individual billstickers’ skills – a jumbled and overcrowded display could limit posters’ effect.[21] Moreover, not all posters used striking images – some remained letterpress posters with more or less complex text. Such posters were not necessarily inferior to more familiar, visually striking ones; they simply served different functions and audiences.

Organisations including the PRC, NWAC, Wellington House and MI7b ran their own publications departments, producing stand-alone materials from leaflets to short pamphlets and much longer books. The NWAC produced two newspapers of its own, which mixed original material and items reproduced from elsewhere. The NWSC also published its own journals. Newspapers were, likewise, key propaganda vehicles for the war’s critics, particularly in Ireland. Ben Novick identifies twenty-five important newspapers targeting different kinds of potentially sympathetic readers, while Arthur Griffith’s (1872-1922) newspaper, Scissors and Paste, proved provocative enough for the authorities to suppress it.[22]

Overall, the PRC produced over 54 million publications, including over 34 million leaflets, using the facilities, networks and staff of the Liberal Publication Department (LPD) for production and the Stationery Office for printing, while distribution was aided by military commands within Britain, the Post Office and the Police. The Scottish Central Recruiting Committee and the DRI both received substantial PRC materials.[23] Wellington House secured support from publishers including Allen and Unwin, Hodder and Stoughton and Heinemann to publish books and pamphlets, which were then distributed abroad but also sold in Britain. Masterman’s report on Wellington House’s operations up to February 1916 listed:

  • 125 authored books and pamphlets
  • 35 "miscellaneous" books and pamphlets
  • 14 published speeches
  • 15 official publications

These included translated works such as Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Ernest Denis’ (1849-1921) Who Wanted War; propaganda by novelists including G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), H.G. Wells (1866-1946) and Ford Madox Hueffer (1873-1939); and historians on the Wellington House Staff, including J.W. Headlam (1863-1929), Lewis Namier (1888-1960) and Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975). Wellington House also published several of Redmond’s speeches, as well as The Irish Nuns at Ypres, an account of a community of nuns forced to abandon their Ypres abbey, for which Redmond wrote an introduction.[24] Following Donald’s second report, which criticised Wellington House’s subsidisation of publishers, the NWAC became a "clearing house" for published propaganda, exploiting W.H. Smith & Sons’ offer of free use of its network to distribute over 100 million publications by the war’s end.[25]

Propagandists worked through the press in several ways. Various organisations supplied articles to newspapers. MI7(b) reportedly produced 7,500 press articles between September 1916 and November 1918, via a staff of twenty, including A.A. Milne (1882-1956), and others. Further, they provided weekly "causeries" on the war, one of which may have been the four-page War Supplement that appeared in many provincial newspapers.[26] The NWAC also created newspaper content for distribution. These included a regular column for women, a "letter from London" for provincial papers, and an anonymous weekly series offering reflections by a "Soldier MP" on the week in Parliament, written by the All for Ireland League MP, Capt. Daniel Sheehan (1873-1948).[27] As well as directly supplied content, however, newspapers also aided propaganda by transcribing speeches and discussing events like the special days and weeks held by groups such as the NWAC and NWSC, meaning live propaganda often gained a second audience via the press.

Film Propaganda

Propagandists quickly saw film’s potential, both as propaganda and as a means to access people who might not intentionally attend propaganda events. In 1915 the PRC asked to use cinemas, theatres and music halls to deliver recruiting speeches to a captive audience, and in the summer of 1915, two vans toured the country showing "appropriate cinematograph war films."[28] During later years, "cinemotors" were also used by the NWAC and Ministry of National Service, largely showing informative, patriotic, short films such as Patriotic Porkers, a Ministry of Food film produced by a Scottish film company. Such films were often not allowed to speak for themselves, but accompanied by talks and the formalities of platform events.[29]

Other films, however, were clearly intended to entertain, and some were also substantial enough to stand alone. Britain’s Effort, produced for the MI by Lancelot Speed (1860-1931) in 1918, featured stop-motion illustration depicting the British and imperial war effort, including the improbable figures of an Australian soldier riding a kangaroo and a New Zealander hugging an emu. At the more substantial end of the market, Battle of the Somme, largely shot live during the battle, after the War Office relented and allowed cameramen to the front, was reputedly seen by 20 million people within six weeks of release. While it did not show the full carnage of battle, the film nonetheless had a great public impact, allowing civilians to feel "that they had seen the true face of modern war."[30]

Public Propaganda

For all the attention to original publications and films, the cornerstone of domestic propaganda remained public events at which civilians were directly addressed by speakers. Because much organisation was undertaken by party activists, the techniques of platform politics remained prominent throughout the war, while Jon Lawrence argues that the successful occupation of public space remained an important demonstration of legitimacy.[31] The PRC held 12,705 recruiting meetings up to October 1915, including 1,260 across London between 11 and 25 April. The PRC depended on local knowledge to arrange suitable events for particular areas. Its methods were often adopted by the NWAC from 1917, partly because many central organisers were the same for both organisations. War Savings, National Service and Food Control committees also organised regular public events. Relatively strict conventions applied to these meetings which arguably acted as points of ritual and familiarity that helped to generate public consent. Rather than becoming tediously repetitive, introductions by chairmen, formal addresses and votes of thanks by local notables were expected elements of public events. The adherence to such methods was demonstrated by a Ministry of National Service film campaign which interspersed "Actual War Films" with performance of the usual platform theatrics. Not only did such conventions provide familiarity for local people, but the participation of local politicians and clerics showed civilians that civic leaders supported the campaigns while giving those figures an opportunity to demonstrate wartime service. However, such local participation required regulation, as the PRC discovered when it established formal procedures to mitigate problems caused by "lengthy speeches...and the desire of numerous and prominent local gentlemen to take a large share in the proceedings." Over time, it was recognised that effective propaganda required both central guidance and local initiative and application.[32]

Propaganda Content: Themes and Foci

Wartime propaganda content may be reduced to three basic purposes:

  • recruitment and advocacy (stimulation of actions)
  • morale and motivation (stimulation of consenting thought)
  • dissent (stimulation of critical thought)

Within these broad aims, propagandists employed many common themes, ideas and arguments. While attention in the immediate post-war period and since has often stressed negative messages about atrocities and unacceptable behaviour, these were actually parts of larger narratives about people’s wartime lives.

Recruitment and Advocacy

Throughout the war, propagandists urged civilians to act – whether to enlist in the armed forces, undertake work of national importance, invest in war savings, or "Eat Less Bread" (see image). Civilians were addressed in various ways, but fundamental to most accounts was an individual’s relationship with and obligation to a wider community, whether a family, neighbourhood, locality, nation, empire or "civilisation". While posters such as "Kitchener Wants You" and "Daddy, What Did You Do in the War" are prominent in British cultural memory, Nicholas Hiley has shown that these messages, implying individuals’ discreditable current conduct, were actually less common (and, presumably, thus considered less effective) than more positive messages about being part of a group. Catriona Pennell has, likewise, shown that, whereas words such as "honour" and "justice" were once dismissed as irrelevant "high diction", ordinary diarists and correspondents used such words un-self-consciously from war’s outset, while volunteers felt an "internalized compulsion" and a "considered, reflective sense of obligation".[33] Much propaganda apparently assumed this sense of communal connection and obligation – indeed, even advanced Irish nationalist propagandists were wary of criticising Irish soldiers in the British army. Even after the Easter Rising, advanced nationalist propagandists discussed Irish volunteers with "sympathy and even pride and respect", focusing criticism on recruiters and lamenting the war’s waste.[34]

Propagandists often couched appeals for national service or patriotic investments in a matter-of-fact tone, conveying a frank conversation between equals united in consent for the war. Coupled with this was an underlying emphasis that civilian sacrifice should match that of servicemen which, it has been argued, was at the core not only of propaganda messages but also of political decision-making. For example, Adrian Gregory convincingly argues that the 1918 extension of conscription to Ireland was necessitated by rhetoric about equal wartime sacrifice, regardless of expected damage to Irish opinion.[35] The tenor of much advocacy propaganda is evident in NWSC material. Explaining the aims of the War Savings movement to its "membership of some four million", its chairman, Robert Kindersley (1871-1954), wrote:

whoever amongst us is prosperous to-day, that prosperity is only possible because of the sacrifice of life and limb on the part of those whom we at home have sent out to fight for us...
The utmost simplicity of living should be the key-note of every home, both rich and poor, and in this respect the rich must set the example...
Let us remember that while our fighting forces are making such great sacrifices, it is our duty and our privilege to do our utmost to keep the nation financially sound by saving and lending to the State...
Our nation is … made up of individuals of whom we at home form by far the greater number, and we cannot hope for any national improvement unless we, in our capacity as individuals, are prepared to shoulder our obligations and tread the path of self-denial, self-sacrifice and personal service for the State.[36]

Morale and Motivation

Besides stirring civilians to particular actions, propagandists also devoted language and imagery to simply keeping civilians motivated in their consent. This involved emphasising what was needed from civilians within contexts that made clear why Britain fought the war and what was at stake. However, such propaganda could not solely make demands – recognition of the efforts people had already made and cause for optimism for the future were also important components of these messages. While anti-German atrocity stories have sometimes been considered the archetype of British propaganda, they were not alone sufficient to mobilise and motivate civilians throughout the war. Rather, they were a prominent part of larger arguments. Accounts of atrocity propaganda that dismiss it as false hate-mongering are primarily responsible for the false impression of First World War propaganda as inherently dishonest. While atrocities were certainly embellished, amplified and sometimes falsified, many clearly occurred.[37] Atrocities’ propaganda relevance really comes from the wider purposes they served in narratives. In the war’s early days, they provided human examples of law breaking which contextualised Germany’s breaking of international laws.[38] Later, in NWAC propaganda, German atrocities provided a menacing context to motivate continuing civilian effort. Unquestionably, they remained a substantial component of British propaganda, though some officials felt their usefulness as propaganda material was exhausted by 1917. Nonetheless, depictions of Germany were not solely grotesque images of bloodthirsty barbarians – mockery was equally a staple of NWAC material, for instance. More importantly, neither scare stories nor ridicule could construct a meaningful appeal to civilian effort. Alongside this, propagandists employed several other, positive, contexts – the key civilisational principles by which Britons supposedly lived, the like-minded nations with which they were allied, and the better world that would emerge from present-day sacrifices. All these contexts, differently combined in individual speeches, writings or images, created a larger set of explanations for the need for civilian contributions to match or exceed those already made. By 1917/18, negative propaganda focused solely on dastardly Germans was rare – civilians instead received a mix of fear and optimism; demands and praise; past, present and future.[39] Individual wartime propaganda pieces can demonstrate most individual attitudes, but combining larger numbers shows a more complicated and extensive story was told to the people of the British Isles.

Dissenting Propaganda

The official line did not, of course, go unchallenged. Advanced nationalists in Ireland and so-called "pacifists" in Britain (a catch-all including genuine pacifists alongside those demonstrating almost any dissent) maintained their own propaganda, a critical commentary on the war and government policy, despite the strictures of potential censorship and the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Home Office files abounded with reports of "disloyal" speakers, though many of these were dismissed as the complaints of cranks by officials. Nonetheless, in 1915 it maintained a list of 115 "pacifist" societies and periodically intervened to arrest, suppress or imprison individuals, groups or publications it considered unduly troublesome.[40] Despite this, organisations such as the UDC continued to publicise principled, critical opposition to the government policies they blamed for Britain’s entry into the war. The MP Charles Trevelyan (1870-1958), a UDC founder, condemned Parliament for funding domestic propaganda while describing an extension of DORA as the government’s assumption of "absolute power to repress at their discretion every leaflet disagreeable to them, inconvenient to their policy, critical of their action, explanatory of their blunders, corrective of their misrepresentations of their servile Press." Another UDC member, Lady Margaret Sackville (1881-1963), denounced the "popular Press" and "Jingoes" who had "narrowed their love of England to a barren nationalism, which bickers and quarrels and shouts and slanders like a drunken fish-wife."[41] Advanced nationalist propaganda, meanwhile, highlighted the hypocrisy of British claims to defend small nations in light of the continued oppression of Ireland, delighted in refuting false atrocity stories, exploited growing war-weariness by criticising the war without criticising Irish soldiers, mocked Redmond and the Irish Parliamentary nationalists as toadies to the British government, condemned the repression of the Easter Rising and called for passive resistance to the imposition of conscription.[42]


Despite its subsequent reputation as a heavily organised manipulator of the public, official domestic propaganda developed piecemeal over several years. Considerable overlap and competition between different groups remained. Propaganda’s post-war reputation derives considerably from changing attitudes to the war in the 1920s, as it became clear it had been neither a "war to end war" nor the beginning of a golden age. Wartime propaganda was largely based on open attempts to persuade the public to act and think in certain ways. While posters are the most familiar elements of wartime propaganda, they were really part of a larger whole that still depended substantially on personal delivery. While atrocity stories were prominent, they were also part of larger and more complex narratives of civilian contribution which remained largely effective in Britain. In Ireland, civilian consent held until the peace, but propaganda could not maintain majority support for a future connected with Britain. Conscripting Irishmen, Gregory argues, was essential to persuading British civilians of equal sacrifice, a key component of the overall propaganda message. In this sense, wartime propaganda reflected so much else in British and Irish relations: Ireland was secondary in government considerations, and during the war this was made evident by effective counter-propaganda.

David Monger, University of Canterbury

Section Editor: Adrian Gregory