"they want you!"
world war i and the recruiting poster
During the early years of World War I, recruiting posters in both Britain and Canada were central to ensuring that men enlisted in the volunteer army and navy. In Britain, a Military Service Bill was introduced in early 1916; this bill provided for the conscription of all unmarried men aged 18 to 41 (married men in this age group were conscripted a few months later). Canada turned to conscription in 1917.
The United States, which entered the war in 1917, undoubtedly learned from the recruiting difficulties Britain and Canada had faced during the early years of the war and a draft was quickly imposed on all American men.
Despite the imposition of the draft, recruiting posters continued to be used during the war. These recruiting posters, whether in America, Britain, or Canada, remained similar in their message and appeals.
We've pulled many of these posters for you and provided an overview of just some of the basic themes and appeals used by the American, British and Canadian governments. There are many ways of looking at and understanding how these three governments used images to stoke enthusiasm for the war---we've just highlighted a few here.
These posters are drawn from collections at the Imperial War Museum (London) and the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs.
The Good Comrade
Canadian Poster, Imperial War Museum
In 1809, the German poet Ludwig Uhland wrote a lament which began "Ich hatt' einen Kameraden" ("I once had a comrade"). The lament which was later set to music romanticized the power of friendship in battle. Although written in German, Uhland's poem was translated into multiple languages and the idea of each solder having "einen Kameraden" in the trenches has cut across cultures.
The theme and idea of the valiant comrade who falls in battle or who relies on the assistance of his comrades to survive has a long history within military culture and it very much pre-dates Uhland's poem. Uhland just popularized an existing powerful theme in military culture, providing a simple catch-phrase ("I have a comrade") which spoke to the power of friendships during war.
During World War I, American, British, and Canadian military posters repeatedly and routinely played upon this theme. Men were encouraged to see enlistment, or more simply their willing response to the draft, as a means of demonstrating their loyalty to their childhood friends. Conversely, the failure to report for duty was depicted as a form of betrayal toward ones' friends.
For those who did not yet have friends serving in the army or navy, the military was seen as a place to find and establish life-long friendships. The fact that these friendships would often end when one friend fell on the battlefield was rarely depicted.
Appeals to Recent Immigrants and Specific Ethnic Groups
America, Britain, and Canada all experienced an influx of immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While these immigrants had varied reasons for becoming American, British and Canadian citizens, all three countries emphasized the idea of the immigrant as someone seeking freedom from oppression and tyranny.
During World War I, recruiting posters frequently underscored the idea of the immigrant or the immigrants' child owing his country military service in exchange for this freedom.
As immigrant nations, but also as countries which had always had multiple and very diverse ethnic groups, Britain, Canada and the United States created recruiting posters in different foreign languages and aimed at different ethnic groups. In Britain, which was struggling to control Ireland, and in Canada, where tensions between French Canadians and Anglo Canadians had always been problematic, posters aimed at the Irish and French Canadians were especially crucial---both as a means of recruiting potential soldiers and sailors and as a means of either forestalling potential rebellions or exacerbating existing political tensions.
Ironically, in Britain, where the government made a special effort to recruit and appeal to the Celtic minorities (the Irish, Scots, and Welsh) within its borders, the government and military were actually led by Celts, not Englishmen. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, known somewhat derisively by many of his English colleagues as the "Welsh Wizard," led Britain's wartime coalition government. Field Marshall Douglas Haig who was appointed Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in 1915 was Scottish.
The Great Game
In 1915, during the Battle of Loos, members of the London Irish Rifles kicked a soccer ball into No Man's Land and then followed the ball, dribbling it, as heavy machine gun fire rained down upon them. The men had defied the orders of their specific commanding officers in kicking the ball into the field but throughout the war, many officers did use sports imagery to encourage their men into battle.
Governments also used sports imagery to encourage young men to enlist in the military, with war being depicted as a game or an activity which drew upon the same skills athletes used.
Even as casualties mounted, this idea of war as a game, with rules governing fair play, remained popular.
King and Country. Home and Hearth.
Britain, Imperial War Museum
For Britons and Canadians, it was King and Country. For Americans, it was serving Uncle Sam.
Embedded in these appeals was the strongly held belief that not only were Britain, Canada and the United States bastions of liberty and freedom but these countries had long and unique histories of leading the world in establishing and promoting freedom. Liberty guided men as they considered enlisting.
All three countries also tied patriotism and enlistment directly to the idea of protecting one's home and hearth. As part of this appeal, women were frequently depicted as urging their husbands, sons, and beaus to take up the call to protect their homes.