It has been widely observed that one of the most significant lessons that emerged from the experience of the First World War was that public attitudes could no longer be ignored by those in power.
The substantial growth in the production of the photographic image and the burgeoning popularity and accessibility of the cinema meant that the dissemination of information had attained a reach that could have only been imagined even a decade earlier.
The cinema, for example, had come into being before 1914 but it was only around then that it became widely established and gained mass appeal; by the time of the Armistice in 1918, Britain’s propaganda engine — the Ministry for Information, headed by Lord Beaverbrook — had skilfully exploited cinema’s potential in Britain and beyond. It was responsible for one of the war’s most notorious — and effective — propaganda films, Once a Hun, Always a Hun (1918) which tapped into common prejudices on the “beastly Germans”.
Equally the illustrated press had come into its own: Photographic reproductions as well as specially commissioned cartoons were extremely popular and provided countless opportunities for the manipulation of public opinion on a daily basis.
The sinking of the passenger liner RMS Lusitania was one of the most controversial incidents of the First World War, the deaths of 128 Americans on the liner fraying relations between Germany and the US. It spawned what might be called a war of propagandistic imagery. While sometimes attempting to visualise what actually happened, more often than not the tragedy was used to further the war aims of either side.
One of the best known of Allied images was a poster aimed at recruiting Irishmen into the British war effort in 1915 (Figure 1). The sinking of the Lusitania was of minor military significance but became a key event in the Allied propaganda campaign, first to bring the US into the war and later to step up recruitment campaigns in that country.
Perhaps the most evocative and effective of these was Fred Spear’s Enlist which portrayed an American mother and baby sinking to the bottom of the ocean (Figure 2). The artistry in emphasising the sinking is pointed up by the fact that The Times devoted several pages to the event for an entire week, while reporting in glowingly positive terms on the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
The Times’ words to describe the sinking of the liner — barbaric, diabolic, a crime, and wholesale massacre — could as easily have been applied to the conduct of British officers in needlessly sending thousands of under-equipped young men to their deaths in the Dardanelles.
A very specific mode of appeal was provoked by a German medallist in 1916. On April 12 that year, a newspaper, the Daily Review of the Foreign Press, published jointly by the British War Office and Foreign Office, included an abstract from the Dutch newspaper, the Nieuwe Amsterdammer, which on April 8 had published an article describing a bronze medal designed by German medallist Karl Goetz (Figure 3).
Goetz was the most prolific of the German medallists in the First World War. With the 82 medals he produced between 1913 and 1923, he became infamous for his use of satire. The medal described in the Nieuwe Amsterdammer depicted the sinking on its obverse, and, correctly as it turned out, asserted that the liner was stacked with munitions. Inscribed above the sinking ship are the words ‘Keine Bannware’ — ‘no contraband’ — and below ‘Der Granddampfer Lusitania durch ein deutscher tauchboot versenkt, 5 May 1915’ [the great liner Lusitania sunk by a German U-boat, 5 May 1915]. The date is incorrect.
On the reverse, passengers of the Lusitania are shown buying their tickets from the figure of death in the Cunard office. Goetz recalled the fact that the warning issued by the German government not to sail was ignored by passengers — or preferably ignored by Cunard who put money before lives — with the words ‘Geschäft über alles’ [Business before everything]. The medal provoked outrage.
The British Foreign Office obtained a picture of the medal from a Dutch catalogue while the British minister in Holland, Ernst Maxse, procured an actual copy of it. Photographs were then sent to the US and published in the New York Tribune on May 7, 1916, the first anniversary of the sinking.
Wellington House — the more common name for the British War Propaganda Bureau, decided to use the medal to even further exploit anti-German feeling by producing a replica — which differed from the original in the spelling of the word ‘Mai’ but keeping the incorrect date of May 5 — to promote the notion that the sinking of the ship was premeditated. The medal was issued in a special presentation box (Figure 4) and on the inside of the lid was written: “An exact replica of the medal which was designed in Germany and distributed to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania.
“This indicates the true feeling the War Lords endeavour to stimulate, and is proof positive that such crimes are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur.”
The accompanying leaflet recalls the text from the Kölnische Volkszeitung [Cologne People’s Paper] of May 10, 1915, which reads “with joyful pride we contemplate this latest deed of our Navy”.
What is interesting is the fact that the creation of the medal was a private project of the artist, and not official German war art. Only a few hundred copies were struck by Goetz. The British replica, however, would become one of the most reproduced propaganda objects of the War, numbering over 300,000 by the war’s end.
The sinking of the Lusitania would continue as an effective symbol of German barbarism in Allied propaganda imagery up to (and beyond) the war years. Most memorably, perhaps, in the famous series of cartoons by Dutch artist Louis Raemaekers (Figure 5) and the ground-breaking 12-minute animated film The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918) by pioneering US cartoonist Winsor McKay (Figure 6).
Such imagery was a crucial component in justifying the war, encouraging enlistment and launching a moral war against a nation which through the sinking of the Lusitania, seemed to bring home the unimaginable consequences of defeat.