"War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail": Propaganda photos and the image of war - Kathryn's history blog

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

"War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail": Propaganda photos and the image of war

In researching my dissertation, I have been reading the wartime works of Anglican Chaplain Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, more popularly known as 'Woodbine Willie'. His writing is colourful and entertaining, but nonetheless carries a serious message of the grave reality of war. In one striking passage, written in 1918, he says:


"War is only glorious when you buy it in the Daily Mail and enjoy it at the breakfast table. It goes splendidly with bacon and eggs. 
"Real war is in the final limit of damnable brutality, and that’s all there is in it. It’s about the silliest, filthiest, most inhumanly fatuous thing that ever happened. It makes the whole universe seem like a mad muddle."

He writes on the naivety of the population who will never see conflict and of how much he himself had underestimated the ordeal before 1915. The same is no doubt also true for us, reflecting on the war a century later. We cannot comprehend the daily suffering of the trenches, the feeling of terror before going over the top, or the stench of decay constantly in the air. 

Kennedy is also true in his observation of the media war. The conflict was widely reported and there was large commercial popularity reportage, particularly in the popular illustrated press. Limited in what could be circulated by strict censorship, the papers presented their own image of the war: one that was more sanitised and noble than that experienced by Kennedy and the men on the ground.

This popular press targeted the ordinary but literate man, and was dominated by Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail, which at the peak of the war had a circulation of 1.5 million. The images were taken by official photographers at the front and, although still subject to censorship, they appeared - at least to the man at home - to show what the war was like.  However, as Kennedy suggests, the media war was interesting and captivating, cultivated to sell copy and didn't reflect what he had experienced with his men at the front.
'Church service before battle', Daily Mail postcard
Another source in my dissertation research has been this postcard, sold as part of the Daily Mail's collection of official war photo postcards. It shows a Christian service on the eve of battle and has been recoloured from the original black and white photograph to make it a more commercially appealing card. There are a great number of men in attendance, but the card is unable to tell us whether this is a voluntary service or if it is a parade service, compulsory to all soldiers. What is clear though, is that this isn't the eve of a battle such as the Somme. The wide open field is peaceful and undamaged by the war and the grass, at least in the recolouring, is lusciously green. There certainly isn't any of the 'filth' that Kennedy mentions.

'Wounded waiting for the Field Ambulances', Daily Mail postcard
The sanitation of the war's image is continued in this postcard of the wounded. It could be suggested that this was a more truthful image of the war as it shows those who have been injured, but in reality their wounds do not seem that realistic or all that bad. There is not one trace of blood on any of the men. The image is also very static. 11 men lying on stretchers, surrounded by 7 orderlies. No one looks in pain nor is anyone in a hurry to attend to the injured. They are, as the title suggests, 'waiting'. In relation to the accounts of casualty clearing stations, this doesn't seem to be a very accurate depiction. Where is the chaos; the men wounded by shellfire? The calm, clean scene makes it palatable viewing, and won't put the viewer off of their bacon and eggs.

'The Worcesters going into action', Daily Mail postcard
This photograph summaries much of the mood of the media war, which boosted morale and sold the war almost as if it were a boy's adventure tale. Here, the Worcesters are doffing their helmets to the camera and appear full of excitement for what is ahead of them. This is far removed from the 'damnable brutality' that Kennedy describes. Of course, as has been widely recorded, there were jovial moments in the war and it was not all death and desperation. However, the mood does seem unrealistically high, particularly if the are men bound for 'action' and not just manning the trenches. Kennedy paints a far more sombre image of men coming to him on the eve of battle, of the religious men who sought sanctity in their chaplain.

The mental torment of a 'young corporal' like whom Kennedy comforted before the Battle of Messines doesn't make for such pleasing reading and nor does it make for such an easy, memorable image. To those back home, this image of the happy Worcesters would be more commercially appealing and would boost their morale that those at the front were content and confident of success.

These postcards are just a tiny sample of the images published by the Daily Mail but they epitomise the Rothermere approach to war as they were among those chosen to appear in the selected ranges of postcards published by the paper. They are representative of a carefully curated image of the war, which seems to the modern eye more at home in the child-orientated adventures of Baden-Powell's 'Scouting for Boys' than it does in reporting the most devastating war in history.

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy is right in his assertion that war is only glorious in the easy reading of the papers with breakfast. The anecdotal war reported by those who served bears little resemblance to the mood of the Daily Mail's postcards. But Kennedy also makes a generalised assertion on the mood of war. He writes with a distance from the front line, and particularly in his post-war accounts he takes a religiously moral line of war as a 'pure, undiluted, filthy sin'. This is, of course, at the macro-level true, and especially so with Kennedy's theological background. However, in this reflection he ignores the nuance of experience, of the ability for happiness among the darkness. It is most likely, due to his position as a chaplain, removed from the camaraderie of the ordinary ranks, that he is able to make these claims. He doesn't, at least in his writings, acknowledge the humour and light experienced in war, and characterised by publications such as 'The Wipers Times'.

While the Daily Mail and popular illustrated press carefully selected their view of the war to be one which ignored the suffering and devastation which so distinguished the First World War, Kennedy takes the opposite view. It is impossible, even in Kennedy's writing, to underestimate the gravity of the war. Yet for a true depiction of the experience of the conflict, one must look at a broader range of accounts than either the photos of the Daily Mail or the observations of Chaplain Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy.

Kathryn

sources: http://aboutcards.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/ww1-daily-mail-battle-picture-postcards.html, http://www.delcampe.net/page/item/id,0276114096,language,E.html, 'After War, Is Faith Possible?' writings of GA Studdert Kennedy compiled by Kerry Walters.

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