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Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain

The story of propaganda and patriotism in First World War Britain too often focuses on the cliches of Kitchener, 'over by Christmas' and the deaths of patriotic young volunteers at the Somme and elsewhere. A common assumption is that familiar forms of patriotism did not survive the war. However, the activities of the National War Aims Committee in 1917-18 suggest that propaganda and patriotism remained vigorous in Britain in the last years of the war. The NWAC, a semi-official Parliamentary organisation responsible for propaganda to counteract civilian war-weariness, produced masses of propaganda material aimed at re-stimulating civilian patriotism and yet remains largely unknown and rarely discussed. This book provides the first detailed study of the NWAC's activities, propaganda and reception. It demonstrates the significant role played by the NWAC in British society after July 1917, illuminating the local network of agents and committees which conducted its operations and the party political motivations behind these. At the core of the book is a comprehensive analysis of the Committee's propaganda. NWAC propaganda contained an underlying patriotic narrative which re-presented many familiar pre-war patriotic themes in ways that sought to encompass the experiences of civilians worn down by years of total war. By interpreting propaganda through the purposes it served, rather than the quantity of discussion of particular aspects, the book rejects common and reductive interpretations which depict propaganda as being mainly about the vilification of enemies. Through this analysis, the book makes a wider plea for deeper attention to the purposes behind patriotic language.
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Table of Contents

List of figures and tables List of abbreviations Acknowledgements Introduction Part 1: The National War Aims Committee 1: The development of wartime propaganda and the emergence of the NWAC 2: The NWAC at work 3: Local agency, local work: the role of constituency War Aims Committees Part 2: Patriotism for a purpose: NWAC propaganda 4: Presentational patriotisms 5: Adversaries at home and abroad: the context of negative difference 6: Civilisational principles: Britain and its allies as the guardians of civilisation 7: Patriotisms of duty: sacrifice, obligation and community - the narrative core of NWAC propaganda 8: Promises for the future: the encouragement of aspirations for a better life, nation and world Part 3: The impact of the NWAC 9: `A premium on corruption'? Parliamentary, pressure group and national press responses 10: Individual and local reactions to the NWAC Conclusion Appendices Bibliography Index

About the Author

Dr David Monger is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.


Impressively detailed, this book is a major, original and illuminating contribution to the scholarship of propaganda. Gradually, much of the scaffolding of the influential, but historically inaccurate, depiction of British opinion during the First World War, reflected in countless novels as well as older historical studies, is being dismantled. The disillusionment of the war poets is no longer seen as typical of soldiers' attitudes and the fortitude of British society is increasingly recognised. The view of public opinion in 1914 as overwhelmed by war hysteria and unthinking jingoism has been replaced by one of a reluctant but resolute nation convinced of the justice of the war. But the question remains as to how morale was maintained as the conflict dragged on and the casualties and deaths mounted. David Monger addresses this question in a detailed examination of the role of the hitherto unexplored history of the National War Aims Committee (NWAC), a semi-official parliamentary organisation set up with cross-party support in the summer of 1917. Monger argues that earlier in the war, censorship had been limited, the press was relatively free and despite the Defence of the Realm Act 1914, powers to suppress unwelcome publications were sparingly used. Meanwhile, encouragement of support for the war had been left to a hotchpotch of voluntary organisations and branches of the Foreign Office and the Directorate of Military Intelligence. Even the NWAC's "semi-official" status points to government ambivalence about propaganda and, Monger suggests, a desire to keep it at arm's length. It was only in the most testing year of the war that the new prime minister, David Lloyd George (who had worried as early as 1915 about how long morale could be maintained in the face of mounting casualties and no sign of victory), encouraged the creation of an organisation responsible for propaganda to combat war-weariness and pacifism. Until 1917, governments had been relatively sanguine about support for the war effort. Voluntary enlistment had produced the "Kitchener" armies, while the political parties had called an electoral truce. Government, trade unions and employers all combined to direct industry and labour to the war effort. Even during the unprecedentedly deadly Somme offensive in 1916, public opinion, although shocked, remained resolute. There was opposition to the war, of course, but as Monger points out, even critics in the Independent Labour Party and the Union of Democratic Control tended to accept that the war had to be fought and largely limited their attacks to its conduct. In 1917, however, faith in victory began to weaken. U-boat warfare led to food shortages and industrial disputes indicated a slackening of organised labour's support for the war, while the Russian Revolution, mutinies in the French army and a socialist conference in Leeds in June, during which calls for the creation of workers' and soldiers' councils were made, led to fears of militant activity. Were morale, the war effort and even the stability of state and society in danger? Monger's analysis suggests that this was not the case, but that what was required was an effective appeal to patriotism and a reaffirmation of the justice of Britain's war. The answer was found in the creation of the NWAC. The NWAC's national network of agents and committees concentrated less, this study argues, upon vilification of the enemy than positive patriotism. Its success in reviving national confidence in the last years of the war was due to the nature of its patriotic language: it built upon familiar forms of loyalty current in pre-war Britain and created a tapestry of patriotism that combined devotion to community, nation and empire with praise for the values of Britain and its allies. Perhaps, when so many have seen the First World War as a great watershed, the most radical element in this book is its emphasis on the continuity of national cohesion and consciousness in early 20th-century Britain. ... the most radical element in this book is its emphasis on the continuity of national cohesion and consciousness in early 20th-century Britain. In this fine monograph, based almost entirely on his PhD thesis, David Monger assesses the propaganda activities of the National War Aims Committee (NWAC) during the First World War, a focus which has already been supplemented by a number of journal articles in the last few years, relating to propaganda, and civilian and servicemen morale during this period. Though much consideration has been given to the domestic efforts during the initial stages of the war in 'general' propaganda terms by the likes of Sanders, Taylor, and Haste, as well as the propaganda efforts of Wellington House in influencing public opinion abroad, little academic attention has been paid to the work of the NWAC during the course of its existence. This is despite it being an organisation that, in the last 15 months of the war, held 1000s of meetings across Britain, on top of distributing over 100 million publications. In the first instance, Monger states that, at the basic level, the NWAC was a cross party parliamentary organisation, similar to that of the earlier Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC), which was established to conduct propaganda within Britain, aimed at maintaining civilian morale in the last and most draining months of the war (p. 1). In addition to detailing the activities of the NWAC and its impact, Monger seeks to answer two wider questions: namely, what is the significance of the NWAC's evocation of patriotism for general understandings of patriotism and national identity in Britain and what does the NWAC's story suggest about the war's impact on British society and culture? As shall be demonstrated throughout the course of this review, he does this rather successfully, along with detailing and scrutinising other key aspects of this topic with confidence. This is done by splitting the book up into three parts. Firstly, the development and the organisation of the NWAC are discussed within the context of British public opinion after the campaigns on the Somme in July 1916. Secondly, the types of propaganda that were produced are examined, and this includes the different formats in which this propaganda was presented, along with the many, wide-ranging, themes covered by the work of NWAC propagandists. Importantly, the broader context of British national identity is outlined in order to place the work of the organisation into the wider historiographical debates surrounding national identity during the 19th and early 20th century. Finally, the impact of the NWAC both during and after the war is assessed, together with the responses of parliament, pressure groups and at a local level (largely with reference to reactions by local newspapers - 68 local newspapers have been consulted in total). Crucially, although the work itself is set out into these three distinct parts, Monger ably ties them together, giving the thesis a natural flow and a logical direction. The first task ahead of Monger was to outline the creation and mechanisms in which the NWAC operated from its inception in mid-1917 and, in doing this, he seeks to dispel the view, put forward by Brock Millman (1), that the propaganda of the NWAC had a 'secret repressive agenda'. Initially privately funded, but later given funding by Cabinet, the NWAC was able to conduct a variety of different modes of dissemination of propaganda, from hiring local public speakers, holding meetings, setting up mobile cinemas, and producing written material, both as pamphlets and for the press. The organisation of these sorts of activities, particularly the 'almost devotional faith in the power and importance of public meetings', was carried out near factories, in rural districts with perceived anti-war feeling, military camps, and towards woman, ultimately covering a large proportion of the population (pp. 42-3). What Monger sees as an important aspect to this organisation is its close association with its predecessor, the PRC, including a close parallel of personnel, and also the fact that it was an all-party organisation, with much of the work being turned over to the local Conservative, Liberal and Labour Party machines, meaning that any question of party politics coming into play was dispelled. To Monger, this mixture of resources from a central organisation and the employment of local knowledge, meant that the NWA could be more flexible and locally responsive within its campaign, and consequently the principle of local involvement meant that propaganda was imparted to, rather than imposed upon, the public (p. 63). This is an important point to make, particularly in respect of previous failures to adapt to this local understanding of propaganda dissemination, most notably in areas such as Ireland (which had a unique position within this context anyway). It also shows a recognition of differing circumstances and motivations within urban and rural areas. In all, using the NWAC's card index (from records held at TNA), Monger outlines that a total of 344 War Aims Committees were established, out of a total of 528 constituencies or regional areas (p. 69). With this in mind, he categorises these into a number of 'types': urban, mainly middle-class; urban, mixed class; urban mainly working-class; urban/rural; and mining, demonstrating that local mechanisms were present in all of these 'types' of areas during the course of its existence (pp. 70-3). It is from these classifications, as well as a further regional breakdown of North, Midlands/Wales, and London/South, that the selection of his case studies for further scrutiny and supporting evidence, were chosen. A total of 30 constituencies were selected to provide the basis as case studies, decided upon by the calculation of proportions of those categories mentioned above, meaning that ten case studies were used for each region. It is with these case studies that a minor criticism might be cited, specifically that case studies of 30 constituencies out of a total of 344, a little under 10 per cent, does not quite seem an adequate enough sample to be fully confident that fair coverage has been given across the board. Having said that, the risk that any major conclusions or analysis might have been missed due to this relatively small sample is low. Furthermore, the specific constituencies are listed in an appendix (pp. 275-8), along with their respective party affiliations, and it is clear from this that a fair representation of areas has been considered. In a sense, all of the 'bases' have been covered within the sample, especially with regard to the different classifications used, so as to be able to demonstrate responses to this propaganda from a cross-section of British society. The second part of Monger's work is perhaps the most important, as it analyses the imagery and oratory used to convince the British public to continue to support the war. Monger seeks to identify the ideological structure of NWAC propaganda, and determines that the core narrative of the NWAC's message revolved around patriotic duty. This included a 'three-pronged' mixture, combining 'civic patriotism', suffused with rhetoric of 'sacrificial patriotism', with an evocation of what he terms 'concrescent community', growing together through shared sacrifice and acceptance of duty (p. 86). Monger asserts that there was nothing greatly original about the types of patriotic ideas and imagery as used by the NWAC, that the theme of Empire was featured frequently within this propaganda, and that the propagandists working for the NWAC identified several adversaries, both foreign and domestic, rather than 'a single, over-arching 'other' against which to test British identity (pp. 89-91). Crucially, what Monger affirms is that the NWAC utilised traditional propaganda methods and themes to present their goals, and points to the primacy of religious (i.e. Christian) imagery within their presentation, whilst also linking the continuities of this within representations of propaganda in France, Germany, and Russia during the 19th century (pp. 101-2). This is then taken further with an interesting, and contextual, analysis of the theories of 'communities' and 'identity', put forward by the likes of Peter Mandler and Matthew Vickers in existing historiography on this subject (pp. 103-5), which assist in demonstrating the NWAC's representations of 'Britishness' within their propaganda. It is then asserted that NWAC propaganda was represented in four crucial forms which sought to articulate the core message of patriotic duty, whilst conjointly conveying the idea of British identity. Firstly, the assessment of the presentation of adversaries at home and abroad is carried out. Importantly, it is established that this 'adversarial patriotism' did not, and was not intended to, define British identity, but rather to highlight possible threats to it (pp. 138-9), including, most obviously, the threat of Germany, and to a much lesser extent Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, but also highlighting the threat of pacifists and strikers within British society. Secondly, the demonstration of civilizational principles, or as Monger labels it 'supranational patriotisms', which celebrated Britain's similarities with, and differences from, its allies are discussed, particularly in relation to the USA, France, and the white Dominions (p. 140). This includes details of the celebration of 'France Day' on 12 July 1918, in which the tricolore was flown and the Marseillaise was played in public places. He determines that ultimately 'in claiming that the war was fought on behalf of civilisation, NWAC propaganda sought to elevate it above matters of national interests and power politics, recognising that ... they were inappropriate for maintaining civilians' emotional investment in a physically and mentally draining total war' (p. 154). Thirdly, what Monger sees as the narrative core of NWAC propaganda is discussed, namely the presentation of 'patriotisms of duty'. This revolved around the message that the British people not only had a particular national identity, but were duty-bound to maintain it (p. 169). It is within this that Monger refers back to his idea of a 'three-pronged mixture' of civic patriotism, sacrificial patriotism, and concrescent community, creating the core message of duty. He believes, as it was a flexible concept, it was capable of use as an instrument of moral and emotional blackmail, by stressing the sacrifices of servicemen, while also creating a communal tie between the civilian and soldier by emphasising a common willing sacrifice (p. 196). The forth form of presentation used by NWAC propagandists was that of promises for the future, or 'aspirational patriotism', and this section of Mongers' work deserves a more detailed review. It is established that the content of the propaganda 'prophesied a more harmonious and equitable society in post-war Britain, extending rhetoric about the social ameliorations already stimulated by the war'. Furthermore, issues such as reconstruction, social and electoral reform, class and gender harmonisation 'were all presented as rewards for the patient wartime services and sacrifices of servicemen and civilians, with the implicit corollary that any calls for such improvements before peace were selfish and short-sighted' (p. 199). In this assessment Monger is correct, what is perhaps lacking within this section, however, is a contextual analysis of this form of propaganda, as displayed in previous chapters. In particular, it is not discussed whether a similar presentation was used in the propaganda of other counties, especially that of France, the USA, or even within the Empire. This might establish, and further support, the notion that NWAC propaganda was largely unoriginal, following standard patterns of representation. An additional comparison might also have been carried out in relation to visions of the future displayed in the propaganda of agencies during the Second World War. In particular, the activities of the Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) might have been discussed, given the widely held view that the many promises of the future (especially the establishment of a welfare state) put forward in its propaganda, contributed, at least in a small part, to the Labour Party election victory in 1945. Perhaps, in this particular section of the book, it was not the place to discuss this kind of outcome, but certainly would have had some place in the final section of the book, which looks at the impact of the NWAC. The impact of the NWAC is discussed by Monger in two different strands. The response of Parliament, pressure groups, and the national press is at first outlined. It is summarised that 'notwithstanding the generally agreed importance of maintaining civilian morale, the existence of a publicly funded body intended to persuade civilians to act and think in certain ways offered troubling possibilities of future exploitation', or a premium on corruption (p. 217). Critics of the NWAC maintained that its establishment was a shambolic failure, while the press often portrayed general indifference, with occasional criticism of particularly poor work. As Monger points out, however, these critics, paradoxically, demonstrated concern about its influence, above all during the general election campaign (p. 240). Within this, the Committee was also deemed to be an official organ, supporting the interests of the Coalition Government but, as Monger demonstrates throughout much of his work; it was actually able to keep away from party politics for the majority of its existence. Secondly, the impact of the NWAC at a local and individual level is assessed, and it is here that Monger demonstrates that the Committee had its most important outcome. Primarily, what the NWAC did, according to Monger, was to maintain a presence in small communities, linking them with the nation by reminding them of issues outside of their immediate horizon (p. 267). Ultimately, it is established that the perception of First World War propaganda is one centred on the cynical manipulation of the public by the state, and that this has encouraged equally cynical interpretations of propaganda (p. 273). What Monger does successfully in his study is to look at the NWAC and its propaganda within the context of the period, whilst also contextualising it into a wider understanding of patriotism and identity within the early 20th century, demonstrating that the sentiments expressed within this propaganda were considered valid and meaningful by large sections of the population at this time (p. 274). Monger has been able to shed important light on a crucial propaganda organisation, existing during the last months of the war when the maintenance of morale had become so important, and successfully presents this in a fashion that would interest anyone concerned with the employment of propaganda in the early part of the 20th century. Notes 1. Brock Millman, Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain (London, 2000).Back to (1) Monger has been able to shed important light on a crucial propaganda organisation, existing during the last months of the war when the maintenance of morale had become so important, and successfully presents this in a fashion that would interest anyone concerned with the employment of propaganda in the early part of the 20th century. ...the NWAC mattered, and was seen to matter. The same can, and should, be said of this monograph. Monger has written an interesting and original book on an important subject; this work deserves to become required reading not only for students of wartime propaganda, but for anyone interested in the nature of the wartime British state, or in the very idea of "patriotism" in modern Britain.

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