It was, as the curator points out, a prime example of ‘moral blackmail’. Looking at it a century on, in full knowledge of the enormous human cost of the First World War, you can’t help but be appalled by the emotional manipulation of the famous poster depicting a daughter querying of her father: “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” That it was the work of a children’s book illustrator makes it all the more sinister.
Produced for the Parliamentary Recruiting Office in 1915, that poster, an oversized version of which greets you as you walk into the British Library’s new Enduring War exhibition, was one of many. As the display shows, some played on notions of masculinity, depicting women encouraging their men to serve king and country. One that makes the point particularly starkly portrayed an array of hats – straw boater, a top hat, and a soldier’s headgear –posing the question, which hat “ought you to wear?”
Imagery – of patriotism, of loyal women at home and brave soldiers at the front – played a huge part in rousing Britain in the early years of the war, made all the more necessary once it became clear it would not be all over by Christmas. The display includes posters urging women to join the workforce and produce munitions – the woman in the picture an early Rosie the Riveter type, arm outstretched in patriotic fervour – and smaller cards pushing men to the trenches, such as one seeking recruits for the Faithful Durhams Brigade, depicting a smiling (and smoking) soldier.
The exhibition, which focuses on the ‘Grief, Grit and Humour’ that got this country and others through the war to end all wars, brings together not just posters but pamphlets, leaflets and other memorabilia. So there are items from the home front – posters that were issued to inform families of how to send parcels and letters to the troops (“chocolate, sweets, and anything likely to become sticky should be packed in and well fastened down) or to encourage families to pray for “an honourable peace”.
There are photographs too, bringing home the bleakness of the war and the tragedy of those who served in it, including a group of Gurkhas at a kit inspection in 1915, and Sikh recruits chanting before they reach the front. There are cartoons, including the optimistic work of Russian artist Kazmir Malevich, who drew Kaiser Wilhelm running in circles in the face of defeat, an early show of optimism from 1914, when victory seemed the obvious outcome. And there are satirical postcards that were produced for the troops, one tongue-in-cheek card depicting a solder despairing “she loves me, she loves me not”. Comical, until you recall that these would have been sent by men to sweethearts they never returned to.
This is a display full of curiosities that history buffs will relish, not least a photograph of the “rather aristocratic-looking bulldog” Squidge alongside a British flag. Squidge, apparently, was the regimental pet of the Canadian expeditionary force, and the image was designed to embed loyalty. Elsewhere, there are letters from the front – heavily censored – along with Christmas cards, an essay by a London schoolchild recalling a raid over the city in 1915, and a programme from a “carnival & fete” held on 21 July 1917, location “in the field… France”. Little titbits that remind you that life had to continue behind the front line.
Finally, there are plenty of reminders of the cost of war: original copies of war poems and drawings from late on, memorial records and other artefacts from those who did not make it home. A handwritten version of Wilfred Owens “Anthem for doomed youth” is on show, put to paper in 1917, a year before the poet was killed at the front. Equally touching is the Roll of Honour form, accompanied by a photograph, of one Ernest Edward Spears, a Holborn library assistant who died at just 19 in the trenches. Looking at the grainy image of this teenage boy, in his ill-fitting uniform, on his way to die, is quite simply heart-breaking.
My one criticism was of the looped recordings of war announcements, songs and battlefield sounds, played loudly and almost nonstop while I visited. With so much to browse, the sound effects made for an unwelcome distraction.
Put on to mark the centenary of the war’s beginning, it’s a display focused on the personal nature of war rather than facts and figures of battles and casualties. It’s not a history lesson, but it’ll perhaps stick in your mind more than one would. Overall, an informative, touching reminder of what the events of that summer a century ago led to.
Enduring War: Grief, Grit and Humour, The British Library Folio Society Gallery, until 12 October. Admission free.