Was World War One propaganda the birth of spin?

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1. Total war demands total commitment

World War One was Britain's first total war - meaning that the whole of the British population was needed for the war effort. Millions of young men were asked to head to the battlefield. Hundreds of thousands of workers were recruited to power an industrial war machine. The public had to accept years of hardship and civilian casualties as a price worth paying for victory.

The government’s first challenge was to make sure they had enough men to fight. The first two years of war saw a massive recruitment drive, with over a million men volunteering. By 1917, this was no longer a problem; conscription had been introduced. Instead, the government faced a much more difficult problem; to persuade the people of Britain to continue supporting a war that was costing more – in money, resources and lives – than anyone could have foreseen.

This saw the birth of something new in British politics. Prime Minister Lloyd George needed to talk directly to the people and influence their attitudes and their behaviour. World War One was perhaps the moment that modern spin was born.

2. A crisis of morale in 1917

As the war dragged into its third year, the government was worried that the public were tiring of the conflict. Low morale on the home front would make it harder to keep the country fighting.

Neil Oliver explains why the government was worried about revolution in 1917.

3. The government responds

In 1917, the government set up the National War Aims committee, spurred by fears public unrest was near. In fact, revolution was probably unlikely. But the government were keen to prevent – or delay – the moment when they might have to control the population by force.

The idea of telling the public what to think sat uneasily with many Liberals of the time. Lloyd-George’s response was to set up a semi-official group, sufficiently removed from the government so that politicians could deny responsibility, with an annual budget of £240,000 (over £10 million in today’s money).The National War Aims Committee was born.

A shrewd operator

From the very beginning, the NWAC crafted its messages carefully. Rather than bombarding the public with information, it worked closely with union leaders, labour organisations and church groups to tailor and focus what needed to be said. People from outside the government were employed to help. Everyone was vetted carefully and briefed thoroughly to ensure they stayed ‘on message’ – just as a PR agency would do today.

4. How to run a media campaign in 1917

Rather than adopting a national communications strategy, the government tailored their message to reach different communities.

Print leaflets and pamphlets

The NWAC worked with high street businesses such as WH Smith to produce and distribute millions of pamphlets and postcards. While some focussed on portraying the enemy in a negative light, others emphasised the importance of British traditions and values.

Organise Tank Banks

Neighbouring towns were pitched into fundraising battles against each other to help pay for new tanks, by building on local rivalries and appealing to civic pride. This technique proved so successful that tanks were diverted away from the Western Front to help raise funds at home.

Plant news stories

Realising that pro-war messages would sound better if they didn’t all come from the government, the NWAC paid freelance contributors up and down the country to write impassioned articles for local newspapers.

Book the right speaker

One of the NWAC’s most successful strategies was to organise a series of public rallies around the country. Winston Churchill was a popular speaker in affluent areas, but didn’t always go down well with working class audiences.

Use cutting edge technology

In 1916, the film ‘Battle of the Somme’ gave audiences their best glimpse yet of life on the front line. It was the first time that many had seen anything other than short, staged newsreels. The NWAC made sure the film reached rural audiences: ten mobile cinemas took ‘The Battle of the Somme’ into the countryside, reaching 150,000 people a week. It also invested in feature films that would promote the war as a just cause. The films were a runaway success: 22 million tickets were sold in just six weeks.

Intimidate the opposition

The NWAC didn’t just produce and distribute its own marketing material – it tried to silence dissenting voices in the community. Local networks often knew in advance where Pacifist meetings would take place, and would organise rival patriotic gatherings at the same time. If this led to threats of violence against dissenters, then senior politicians could turn a blind eye. The semi-official nature of the NWAC, and the informal nature of its network of local contacts, made it harder to prove that the government was trying to stifle free speech.

5. New techniques of persuasion

The pressure of war had driven the government to try to change the way people thought. We can see a range of sophisticated new techniques being used to speak effectively to the whole population.

Associate the enemy with evil

During World War One, Germany became associated with death, destruction and harm. The public was motivated to respond with purpose and urgency against an ‘evil’ enemy.

Tap into the group mentality

The war was portrayed as a shared endeavour in which every member of society had a stake. Everyone was urged to look around to see what others were doing and work together towards the common goal of victory.

Use children to evoke powerful feelings

Posters played on people's natural concern for their children, and their fears about what might happen if Germany won the war.

Feature famous faces to provide authority

Well-known figures – including King George V himself - lent their support to the campaign, appealing directly to the public and providing a ‘celebrity endorsement’ very familiar to today’s audiences.

These techniques seem surprisingly modern. So does the government still use them in its campaigns today?

6. A legacy of spin

Politicians today often try to persuade people to think or act in a certain way, whether canvassing for votes or trying to improve public health. Are there echoes of NWAC propaganda in modern government campaigns?

Neil Oliver finds out what recent anti-smoking campaigns have in common with World War One propaganda.

7. The power of images

By now you have seen several of these different techniques in action. Which of these images was used in a genuine piece of World War One propaganda?


Image © Mary Evans

Incorrect. Used on

A cigarette card

These were popular collectibles of the day. This image was taken from a ‘Women on War Work’ series.


Image © Mary Evans

Incorrect. Used in

A Soap Advert

This image of children was used to sell ‘Wright’s Coal Tar’ soap to a patriotic public


Image © Mary Evans

Correct. Used in

WW1 Propaganda

This poster stirred up anger by showing humiliated British fisherman who had been captured and had their heads half-shaved by the Germans