History Repeating Itself

March 23, 2015 / Features

By Jacqueline Holmes

How much have military recruitment campaigns changed in 100 years?

A unique and invaluable record of the life and work of the Government’s chief adviser on Army recruitment advertising and publicity during World War 1 has recently been given into the care of the History of Advertising Trust (HAT).

The adviser was Sir Hedley Le Bas (1868-1926), director of The Caxton Publishing Company. His grandson David Ryder Richardson has generously presented Le Bas’s personal and historic archive to HAT. This gift has arrived at HAT as national centenary commemorations of World War 1 are taking place across Britain.

J. Walter Thompson has also just launched a new TV recruitment campaign for the British army regular forces and reserves so there is also an opportunity to compare today’s approach whilst reflecting on the methods used a century ago. Then it took the form of wordy advertisements in newspapers and it is thought that Le Bas was the first to place a full page ad in the Daily Mail.

The gift comprises three large bound volumes containing a complete collection of press cuttings, telegrams, typed and handwritten letters dating from 1906 to 1919

relating to Le Bas’s life and work. It is not just a record of Government’s war time messages but an important reflection of social and political history.

“Page-by-page, the press cuttings alone show a day-to-day account of the nation’s war effort at the time. It would take months of research through the British Library newspaper collections to bring it all together now” said Alistair Moir, HAT’s Archive Collections Manager.

The first Army recruitment advertisement produced by Le Bas boldly stated:
‘Your King and Country Needs You’ and ended, as so many did, with the words ‘God Save the King’.

Men, and it was men these press advertisements were mainly aimed at, were put under emotional pressure. One headed ‘The Man to be Pitied’ stated: ‘He knows what his country thinks of the men who have answered the call. He envies them the great opportunity which he has missed...’ and ended ‘Are you going to be pitied or praised?’

This theme is taken up in a happy family scene where a boy asks: ‘Daddy, why weren’t you a soldier during the war?’

Le Bas set up a committee of men from the worlds of advertising and publishing to advise on the War Office’s drive for more ‘volunteers’. Le Bas, who thrived on controversy, played on the guilt and fear of men reluctant to go to war, and on the patriotism of employers who did not release or persuade their staff to enlist.

One advertisement addressed to ‘The Young Women of London’ began:
‘Is your Best Boy wearing Khaki?’ It went on to ask, if not, ‘do you think he is worthy of you?’ and then: ‘If your young man neglects his duty to his King and Country, the time may come when he will neglect you.’

These advertisements were not universally applauded, particularly in the professional advertising community. In The Advertising World journal of November 1914, under the heading ‘More Bad Advertising’, it described them as ‘official advertising of the most undesirable description’. The article went on to take issue with a number of the statements within them.
And just to prove there is nothing new under the sun, Le Bas refers back to ‘a quaint specimen of early publicity’ – a Government poster for Army recruits to fight Napoleon.

Although these rare contemporary WW1 volumes will require some conservation work on their bindings, they can still be studied with care as an important research resource by future historians, academics and documentary makers.

The documents detail Le Bas’s political career as an MP from 1913 until he stood down at the outbreak of war, his opposition to conscription, through to his appointment as adviser on army recruitment advertising to becoming joint secretary of the Prince of Wales’ Relief Fund and his eventual knighthood.

To set the record straight there is no evidence the ‘famous’ poster showing Kitchener pointing at the onlooker was an official government advertisement at the time. It appears to have originated as a front cover produced by the London Opinion magazine in September 1914 and it caught the mood of the moment. Many new findings await discovery in the Le Bas volumes and HAT’s extensive specialist archive collections. Both will undoubtedly help future researchers to further understand the inner workings of the government’s publicity machine during the Great War.

“Although it would take many years for propaganda to become the accepted voice of government, it was between 1913 and 1917 that professional advertisers such as Le Bas finally revealed the significant part it could play in 20th century politics.”

Ref: Nicholas Hiley, Sir Hedley Le Bas and the Origins of Domestic Propaganda in Britain 1914-1917 (HAT Journal of Advertising History, Volume 10, No 2, 1987)

For more infomation about HAT see www.hatads.org.uk
Contact: enquiries@hatads.org.uk

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