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Persuading the People

 British Propaganda in World War II


David Welch


London: British Library, 2016

Hardcover. 224 p.  ISBN 978-0712356541. £25


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



Incredible though this may seem, there was no comprehensively illustrated book on the enormous output of the Ministry of Information and other official departments during the Second World War until Professor Welch – well known among specialists of the subject – produced this superb volume. Of course, we had collections of photographs by the great practitioners of the time; of course we had a comprehensive study of the propaganda footage produced by the British Army Film and Photographic Unit; of course we had standard studies of the BBC and wartime cinema; of course we had excellent monographs on the Official War Artists and the work of Sir Kenneth Clark; of course we had plenty of pictorial books, notably produced in association with the Imperial War Museum, on the Home Front; of course we had scholarly analyses of Churchill’s speeches – but no real all-embracing survey with a constant feedback between text and illustrations. The reason is not far to see: “The sheer mass of publications is truly staggering”, as the Preface reminds us [8], while all other media of what we now call mass communication were fully exploited. Undaunted by this mammoth task, Welch states his primary objectives:

My aim is to provide an insight into the nature and scope of MOI [Ministry of Information] propaganda produced during the war, including different types of propaganda messages.They range from the crudeness of some of the specifically anti-Nazi and anti-Japanese publications, and the defiant and even cheeky humour of some of the material depicting events that turned the war in Britain’s  favour, to the more light-hearted campaigns that discouraged citizens from gossiping – while at the same time encouraging them to savour the culinary delights and health-inducing qualities to be found by experimenting with versatile Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot. [7-8]

Not unexpectedly, the book starts with a discussion of past experience in and after the First World War, of the strategies adopted in the 1930s by the totalitarian states and the limited preparedness of the British Government when war broke out. The celebrated blunder of the Phoney War period, “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution will bring us victory”, naturally takes pride of place in the narrative of trial-and-error which characterised the first phase of the war. Churchill’s discourse of mortal peril in May-June 1940 was a factor in the acceleration and transformation of British propaganda – but Welch seems to agree with all previous commentators that the real turning-point was July 1941, when Brendan Bracken (one of Churchill’s two closest “cronies”, the other being Beaverbrook) took over as Minister of Information.

Still, the great campaigns which have remained in all memories: the “Dig for Victory” posters and leaflets, the “Kitchen Front” BBC programmes, were launched before July 1941. The profusion of Home Front pamphlets and booklets (fully and magnificently illustrated in the book) was admittedly a later development, with the characters of Potato Pete and Doctor Carrot and a constant harping on the themes of “Make Do And Mend” or “How to Keep Well in Wartime”. The Ministry’s output strove to cover every sector of the population, from “The Schools in Wartime” to the adults engaged in the desperate battle for production: “Eve in Overalls”, “Eve in Khaki” (the last two summed up in the pamphlet, “50 Facts about the Women of Britain at War”) had its counterpart in “The Trade Unions and the War”, which “chose to stress trades union acceptance of all the industrial restrictions demanded of them and their role in mobilising manpower” [64].

One striking factor in the vast range of publications reproduced in the book is the sheer accumulation of figures, tables, graphs and comparative statistics – all this when conventional wisdom has it that the ordinary population shows a complete rejection of these indigestible “facts” and never reads them. The appeal to emotion rather than rational analysis had been a characteristic of the pre-war “popular” press – as it was to become again after 1945 – but somehow the experts at the Ministry of Information came to understand that the war situation created an exception in the notorious craving of the uneducated classes for base titillation rather than serious enlightenment.

Now – what are we to make today of these incredibly crude (the Germans or Japanese represented as monstrous animals [88] and hairy apes [100] “key to devaluing the humanity of the enemy” [118]) or incredibly naïve posters and handbills (“Life in Britain today”)? The latter, a coloured drawing supposedly made from above, shows an idealised village with a green landscape in the background. In the profusion of objects accumulated in the image, the only clue that there has been an Industrial Revolution in the British Isles is a tractor in the foreground and a tiny car in the middle ground. The syrupy sentence which opens the long, “edifying” caption totally ignores the fact that most of the British population of the time lives in grimy towns, so well described only a few years before by J.B. Priestley (another participant in the “propaganda war”) in his English Journey: “Whoever thinks of Britain instinctively visualises the green British countryside, with its winding lanes, hedgerows of shrubs and wild flowers, its birds, gnarled and twisted trees, and its villages” [102].

Welch is of course fully aware of the implied questions: were these off-putting pages of figures really read? Were these chocolate-box pictures and their captions almost completely removed from reality actually “swallowed” whole? As he asks in his first chapter, “How do we measure ‘success’ when it comes to propaganda?” [15].

Paraphrasing the well-known phrase of the period on train journeys, one might well ask “Was this propaganda really necessary?” Would the British Home Front have collapsed without these constant prods? Nobody can tell – but it can be doubted that it would. Yet there is another dimension to that “propaganda war”, well covered in the book: what we would now call the “projection” of Britain abroad, especially among the undecided but, as it turned out in the case of the United States, sometimes decisive neutrals, another dimension being the need to entertain hope and morale in the occupied nations, and also to make sure that the “natives” in the empire felt that Britain’s war was their war, too. In addition to the large poster on “the Arsenal of Freedom” with the detailed map, “The resources of the United States” [202-203], some series like “In Freedom – Strength!”, in which the public learnt the figures of the production of tin in British Malaya [162] or copra, “coconut kernels yielding food oils”, in Ceylon [163], provided a remarkable lesson in economic geography, side by side with the “Thank you…” pictures of weapons in combat, of which we have two examples: “Your Manganese makes steel for fighting ships – Thank you Gold Coast!” [164] and “Your Iron Ore makes front-line tanks and guns – Thank you Sierra Leone!” [165].

Hence also the translation of many of the leaflets, pamphlets and booklets initially intended for the Home Front into foreign languages, keeping the visual message and sometimes adapting the text. The book provides excellent examples: the official record of the victory of October 1942, entitled The Battle of Egypt, becomes Die Slag om Egipte for the Dutch public, but La Battaglia di Alamein for the Italians – in all cases the same cover picture of a tank driver being kept [144].

It is often said that humour does not translate well – but the Ministry of Information did not hesitate to issue foreign versions of its pamphlets of cartoons and comic strips deriding Hitler. The satirical Nazi Military Lexicon became the Lexico Militar Aleman, and two facing entries are shown: “Retirada Estratégica” and “Stalingrado”, reminding the Spanish-speaking reader of what “el Führer” had imprudently said about the obliteration of the city from the map [106].

Some series were only apparently produced only in the language of the targeted population: we have six fascinating pages of postcards and other visual material with texts in Arabic and Farsi. Nothing can better sum up the objective than the caption given by Welch to the series of postcards in Farsi: “They are representations of different countries […] showing what terrible things happened to them under Nazi occupation” [184]. The implication, in other words, seems to be “Better the devil you know” i.e. the British may be perceived as oppressors in your part of the world, but their rule is nothing compared with what awaits you if they are defeated and your country is invaded by the Germans. A very oblique message, which as we know did not prevent some Middle East nationalists from joining Hitler.

The magnificent full-page image in colour, “British fighters sweep hourly across occupied France, cheered by French peasants” [195] was, we are told, “also produced in French” [194] and presumably disseminated in the country by the Resistance. An oldish man with a beret and a moustache (all this material heavily relies on national stereotypes) and a youngish woman in apron with a scarf are waving at the Spitfire pilots who have just destroyed a railway convoy near the coast. “They do not know what is in store for them!”, the modern commentator thinks, knowing that the friendly Spitfires were soon to be replaced by squadrons of heavy bombers razing their towns and villages to the ground. The point is that many of these brainchildren of the Ministry of Information acquire a new meaning with the historical distance. We continue to admire their graphic perfection, the poster “On to Japan!” by Sevek, which rightly benefits from a reproduction on a double page [176-177], being artistically on a par with the best oil paintings of the Official War Artists (a few of which are shown, e.g. Battle of Britain [Paul Nash, 1941], A Nursery School for War Workers’ Children [Elsie Hewland, 1942]) |77-78]. But some frankly appear childish to us, in the sense that they did not treat the population like adults. Evidently, then, “Other days, other ways” never applied better than in the exceptional circumstances of “Fortress Britain”, when all means of persuasion – lofty or vulgar, subtle or “corny” – had to be simultaneously used, and the book magnificently shows how the Ministry of Information sought, and managed, to cover the whole spectrum.

At £25, this quarto-size hardback is incredible value for money, with durable sewn sections, heavy glossy paper and a profusion of full-colour pictures (incidentally, it is surprising how much of that propaganda material was printed in colour, though the process required high-grade paper, a rare and severely rationed commodity) – the explanation perhaps being that it is “printed and bound in China” [4]. But of course the content is also of remarkable interest, and it should be acquired by the libraries of all History and English departments where British Studies are taught, featuring on all reading lists on wartime Britain, as the complete absence of pretentious jargon makes it perfectly accessible to undergraduates.



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