Propaganda and World War One

Propaganda and World War One

Propaganda was used in World War One as in any war - and the truth suffered. Propaganda ensured that the people only got to know what their governments wanted them to know. In World War One, the lengths to which governments would go to in an effort to blacken the enemy’s name reached a new level.

To ensure that everybody thought in the way the government wanted, all forms of information were controlled. Newspapers were expected to print what the government wanted the reader to read. In fact, though this would appear to be a form of censorship, the newspapers of Britain, effectively controlled by the media barons of the time, were happy to play ball. They printed headlines that were designed to stir up emotions regardless of whether they were accurate or not. The most infamous headlines included:

             i)     “Belgium child’s hands cut off by Germans”

ii)     “Germans crucify Canadian officer”


Britain's portrayal of Germany

These were designed to develop and strengthen the current of hatred that was already engendered in Britain. The same thing was done in Germany – untrue headlines were tolerated and even encouraged by the German authorities. Some headlines were:

             i)      “French doctors infect German wells with plague germs”

            ii)     “German prisoners blinded  by Allied captors”

One of the most infamous stories that went around was adapted the further it got from the Western Front. The story went from monks in Antwerp being forced to ring bells to celebrate the Germans occupation of the city to the monks refusing to do this and being tied to the clappers of the bells and being used as human clappers – and being killed. It was all nonsense but to the minds of the British, where the story all but ended, it seemed to encapsulate the evil of the Germans and justify why the fight was going on. The one thing that suffered in the war was the truth. There were numerous stories in Britain of German soldiers parading round Belgium towns with babies on their bayonets

However, the media was used for other purposes. British newspapers published casualty figures that were acceptable to the government but less than accurate. British success in battles was emphasised as opposed to the minimal gains actually made. All countries were guilty of this. Parisians did not know about the danger Verdun was in during the initial stages of the German attack despite being just 150 miles from the city. The French authorities simply clamped down on the truth. Anybody caught spreading the truth regarding Verdun was liable for arrest as an agent provocateur.

The same was true in any country involved in the war. A good example would be the following extract from a British newspaper.

“To the north of Ypres our progress has been continued, especially on our left. We have taken six quick-firers, two bomb-throwers, and much material; and made several hundred prisoners, including several officers.

The losses of the enemy were extremely high. At a single point on the front, in the proximity of the canal we counted more than six hundred German dead.

On the heights of the Meuse, on the front Les Eparges-St Remy-Calonne trench, we have continued to gain ground, about one kilometre, and have inflicted on the enemy very severe losses.”

This was written in April 1915. No-where does it describe the British casualties at Ypres or the problems that were encountered there by the British. No British newspaper described the scenes at Victoria Station when carriages of wounded soldiers arrived back in London - but very late at night or in the early hours of the morning in an effort to blot out the sheer numbers lost in battle - be it Ypres or the Somme.

Regarding the same battle, a German newspaper reported that:

"In Flanders the British yesterday again attempted to regain the ground they had lost. In the afternoon they attacked from both sides but the attack completely broke down. An evening attack further east failed, with severe British losses."

In Britain the Defence of the Realm Act listed things that correspondents could write about but more important, could not write about. What they could not write about included

the number of British troops and where they were in a particular part of the war front

plans for any future action

movement of ships

information about munitions





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