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Dig for Victory!

— May 2011

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Cover of War Posters by James Aulich

War Posters: Weapons of Mass Communication

James Aulich

These posters from the Imperial War Museum in London record not only the exhortations to the home front but a history of poster design in the 20th century and our scrap of the 21st. Civilians are urged to Dig for Victory, join the army, save bread, work in a factory, become a nurse, stop the Hun/Bolsheviks/Capitalists/Fascists, immunize babies against diphtheria, eat their greens, post early and, especially, to buy war bonds to finance the war, whether it was the First or Second World War or the Spanish Civil War.

The posters span most of the major fighting of the 20th century and are from most of the belligerents. There are the famous ones such as the French poster with the poilu saying ‘On les aura!’ and the First World War scene of an imaginary post-war living room with a child asking, disturbingly, ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ Less familiar are the German and Russian posters, so typically Jugendstil or Socialist Realist. The very lettering evokes the world of Austria-Hungary or the early Soviet period.

The posters are a varied lot, but the same motifs are sometimes repeated from country to country, so the French figure on the ‘on les aura’ poster is repeated on others, such as the American one with the caption changed to ‘We have just begun to fight’. This paraphrases the words of John Paul Jones during the American Revolution (he actually said ‘I have not yet begun to fight’ when challenged to surrender in a naval battle, but that wouldn’t have worked on this poster). The pointing finger of ‘Lord Kitchener Wants YOU’ becomes Uncle Sam recruiting for the Western Front and even a German poster of 1919. Countless later parodies include a grim version of it with a skeleton that beckons recruits to death in the Viet nam War. Some of the posters are very striking indeed, while others seem to me surprisingly full of weak cluttered images and too much writing, and that often in a barely legible scribble.

Among all the professionally designed posters, there is an excellent one by a French schoolgirl of 16 in praise of egg-laying hens: ‘I am a fine war hen, I eat little and produce much’, and the black ‘brave poule de guerre’ perches atop an impressive pile of eggs. (Whatever happened to this talented young artist, G. Douanne? The Internet suggests that this was her one moment of glory.)

The collection is bang up to date with a section on Cold War anti-war posters and even the Stop the War Coalition of the last decade. The anti-war propaganda was presumably included in the interests of completeness, and it does in a way round out the story, but these anti-war posters also seem rather jarring, for the ‘voice’ of the posters, hitherto that of the belligerent governments, is now from a series of committees or ad hoc groups that oppose the later wars on various grounds. It is interesting to compare these very distinct posters – the government-issue ones assuming a citizenry all pulling together in a common cause and the dissenting ones urging the opposite. The inclusion of these posters from the Vietnam era and later points up their absence of during the earlier total wars. Were there subversive dissenting posters then? Perhaps at the time of the Bolshevik revolution and Russian withdrawal from the First World War or at the height of the slaughter on the Western Front? It is easy to see how they would not have been countenanced while the two world wars were being fought, either by the governments involved or by most civilians.

The various approaches suitable to the different countries involved provide an interesting insight into national characters.  In the 1940s the Russian and German citizens are always smiling and brimming with good health, whether they are collecting money for youth hostels, working iron forges, or bayoneting the enemy. British and American images are a bit more down to earth, as they had no cult of the Deutsche Mädchen or the newly minted Soviet Man. They are in a less heroic and more practical mode, with touches of humour, especially the Fougasse series.

The author has a noticeable leftward drift when discussing American ‘commercialism’ or ‘nationalism’ or the ‘necessary illusion’ of manipulative propaganda, as retailed by Noam Chomsky. A few descriptions of posters seem odd, as when Aulich identifies the speaker in one of Fougasse’s ‘Careless Talk’ posters as a ‘fishwife’ (merely a passenger in a bus sitting in front of none other than Herr Hitler and a bemedalled figure whom I take to be Reichsmarschall Göring). There are no Polish posters except two Nazi examples in Ukrainian urging the Ukrainians of Galicia to join the SS. Real Polish posters would have been welcome.

This book is published by Thames and Hudson, 2011. 256 pp. 303 colour/26 mono illus, £18.95. ISBN 978 0 500 28896 2


Sarah Lawson
Freelance writer and translator

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