Tag Archives: World War I

A Brief History of Propaganda

The term “propaganda” has come to have a negative connotation in much of the English-speaking world. But in some places, the word is neutral or even positive. Why this difference? The reasons can be traced through the word’s etymology and the way that this strategy of communication has evolved over the centuries.

Roots in the Catholic Church

The use of propaganda began much earlier than most people would imagine. The Behistun Inscription, from around 515 BCE, details Darius I’s ascent to the Persian throne and is considered an early example of propaganda. And ancient Greek commander Themistocles used propaganda to delay the action of–and defeat–his enemy, Xerxes, in 480 BCE. Meanwhile, Alexander put his image on coins, monuments, and statues as a form of propaganda. Roman emperor Julius Caesar was considered quite adept at propaganda, as were many prominent Roman writers like Livy.

But it was the Catholic Church that both formalized the use of propaganda and gave us the word itself. Pope Urban II used propaganda to generate support for the Crusades. Later, propaganda would become a powerful tool for both Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation. Thanks to the printing press, propaganda could be disseminated to a much wider audience.


The 300th anniversary of the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide was commemorated on Italian currency.

In 1622, Pope Gregory XV established the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Congregation for Propagating the Faith) for the purpose of promoting the faith in non-Catholic countries. The group’s name was often informally shortened to “propaganda,” and the name stuck. As literacy rates grew in subsequent centuries, propaganda became a more and more useful tool around the world. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were both considered adept propagandists during the American Revolution.

Literacy Propagates…Propaganda


“All About California” is a propaganda piece designed to encourage settlement in the state.

By the nineteenth century, propaganda had finally emerged in the form we think of it today. Because most people were literate and had more than passing interest in government affairs, politicians found it necessary to sway public opinion. They turned to (sometimes unscrupulous) propaganda to get the job done.

A notorious propaganda campaign of the 1800’s was that of the Indian Rebellion in 1851. Indian sepoys rebelled against the British East India Company’s rule. The British grossly exaggerated–and sometimes completely fabricated–tales of Indian men raping English women and girls. The stories were intended to illustrate the savagery of the Indian people and reinforce the notion of “the white man’s burden” to rule, induce order, and instill culture in less civilized peoples who could not be trusted to rule themselves.

Abolitionists in both the US and Britain also aggressively used propaganda to support their cause. Certainly the conditions of slavery were heinous, but they often exaggerated or eroticized transgressions, making them more lurid. These efforts were complemented by freed slaves who traveled to speak at public events. The speakers generally made arguments against slavery based on moral, economic, and political grounds. The combination of emotional and rational arguments proved an excellent combination for winning supporters to the abolitionist cause.

Meanwhile another powerful form of communication was emerging in the nineteenth century: the political cartoon. Though illustrated propaganda had been used in the past, the form of the political cartoon was significantly refined during the second half of the century. Thomas Nast is considered one of the forerunners of this format.

Global Conflict Gives Propaganda New Power


This 1919 propaganda publication assails the Shantung settlement incorporated in the Treaty of Versailles.

World War I saw the first large-scale, formalized propaganda production. Emperor Wilhelm of Germany immediately established an unofficial propaganda machine with the creation of the Central Office for Foreign Services. One of the office’s primary duties was to distribute propaganda to neutral countries.

After the war broke out, however, Britain immediately severed the undersea cables that connected Germany to the rest of the world; Germany was limited to using a powerful wireless transmitter to broadcast pro-German news to other nations. The country also set up mobile cinemas, which would be sent to the troops at the front lines. The films emphasized the power, history, and inevitable victory of the German Volk.

Meanwhile, the British propaganda machine was regarded as an “impressive exercise in improvisation.” It was rapidly brought under government control as the War Propaganda Bureau. Journalist Charles Masterson led the organization. On September 2, 1914, Masterson invited Britain’s leading writers to a meeting to discuss potential messaging. Attendees included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, GK Chesterton, Ford Madox Ford, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and HG Wells. Winnie-the-Pooh author AA Milne would later be recruited to covertly write propaganda.

The propaganda of World War I was frequently based on complete exaggeration or misinformation. For example, nurse Edith Cavell was executed for treason after using her position as a nurse to help soldiers escape from behind German lines. The episode was used to exaggerate German atrocities, and it was even made into a movie. (Read more here.) Indeed, by the end of the war, people had begun to tire of propaganda.

Yet the British propaganda machine was quite effective. It is frequently credited with persuading the United States to enter the war in the first place. Adolf Hitler actually studied British propaganda after the war, declaring it both brilliant and effective. He would later enlist Joseph Goebbels to help with propaganda during World War II, and the two proved an indomitable team. They masterminded multiple campaigns to justify eugenics programs, extermination of target populations, and other atrocities. The Allies countered with propaganda that vilified the Germans.


This collection of South Vietnamese GVN propaganda were probably air drop leaflets. Though usually dropped in mass quantities, few survive.

When the true horrors of Nazi Germany came to light, the extreme power of propaganda was terribly apparent. The word “propaganda” soon developed a negative connotation, one that it still carries to this day in the English-speaking world. Airdrop leaflet campaigns during unpopular engagements like the Korean War and Vietnam War often brought the communication even lower.

Now it’s common for a government authority to regulate propaganda, and it may be used for more innocuous purposes like public health and safety campaigns. But in non-democratic countries, propaganda continues to flourish as a means for indoctrinating citizens, and this practice is unlikely to cease in the future.

Related Posts:
Edith Cavell: Nurse, Humanitarian, and Traitor? 
AA Milne: Legendary Author and Ambivalent Pacifist

Thanks for reading! Love our blog? Subscribe via email (right sidebar) or sign up for our newsletter--you’ll never miss a post.


AA Milne: Legendary Children’s Author and Ambivalent Pacifist


AA Milne with son, Christopher Robin (1925). Christopher later resented having been the inspiration for the eponymous character in Milne’s classic ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ tales.

Alan Alexander Milne came to regret that his beloved Winnie-the-Pooh series overshadowed his other works. Yet some of his most interesting pieces were never even attributed to him. An outspoken pacifist during World War I, Milne secretly served in Britain’s M17b unit, writing pro-war propaganda. But by World War II, Milne’s views on war had changed, creating a rift between him and beloved author PG Wodehouse.

Born on January 18, 1882 in Scotland, Milne spent his childhood in London. His tutor, the young HG Wells, was, according to Milne “a great writer and a great friend.” Milne went on to Westminster School and Trinity College. He edited Granta for a year, and his preliminary literary efforts appeared in Punch magazine. Just after his 24th birthday, Milne became the assistant editor of Punch. He held the post until World War I began.

An Outspoken Pacifist


AA Milne on the Western Front, 1916

At the start of World War I, Milne enlisted in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He served as a signalling officer and did a brief stint in Paris before being discharged due to trench fever. Milne never even fired at an enemy; indeed, his most notable service remained a complete secret until recently. Thanks to a set of long-lost documents secretly saved from destruction, we now know that Milne was part of the classified M17b unit.

Established in 1916, the unit included twenty of Britain’s top writers of the time. Their mission: to produce propaganda that would sustain support for the war at a time when the number of casualties was rapidly rising and anti-war movements were sprouting all over Europe. The unit not only wrote accounts of Victoria’s Cross winners and other war heroes, but they also focused on the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans.


Captain James Lloyd

Alongside Milne were Cecil Street, the author of the Dr. Priestley novels; “the Navvy Poet” Patrick MacGill; Roger Pocock, the world-traveling author; JP Morton, who earned his fame with The Bystander; and Captain James Lloyd, who was recruited to join the unit after being wounded in combat. It was Captain Lloyd who defied orders and took about 150 of the unit’s classified documents home. They were discovered last year by his great nephew Jeremy Alder, who discovered them just before they were going to be thrown away.

Among the documents recovered was The Green Book, which is marked “for private circulation.” There were likely no more than twenty copies ever published. The pamphlet included contributions from the unit’s authors and poked fun at the task of creating government propaganda. Milne’s own contributions illustrate how onerous he found the task. In “Captain William Shakespeare, of a Cyclist Battalion,” Milne writes:

In M17b
who loves to lie with me
About atrocities
And Hun corpse factories
Come hither, come hither, come hither,
Here shall we see
No enemy
But sit all day and blather

In “Some Early Propagandists,” also compiled in The Green Book, Milne writes about Paul von Hindenburg, the German Field Marshal. Hindenburg would go on to become Germany’s President and to appoint Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany.


Captain Lloyd’s cache of M17b documents, which included ‘The Green Book’

After the war ended, Milne went on to great success, largely due to his Winnie-the-Pooh series. He also published Peace with Honour: an Enquiry Into the War Convention, which was an overtly pacifist work. Milne said that he wrote it because “I want everybody to think (as I do) that war is poison, and not (as so many think) an overstrong, extremely unpleasant medicine.”

World War II Brings a Change of Heart

But by World War II, Milne had changed his mind. In 1940, he even went so far as to publish War with Honour, in which he states, “War is something of a man’s own fostering; and if all mankind renounces it, then it is no longer there.” Soon Milne inflicted his newfound hawkishness on PG Wodehouse, an author with whom he’d previously enjoyed mutual admiration.

Milne had long enjoyed Wodehouse’s writing–he even read it to his own son, Christopher Robin, instead of his own stories. But as Wodehouse’s career took off in the 1930’s, Milne’s was burning less brightly. When Wodehouse began doing radio broadcasts for the Nazis, Milne was first in line to accuse the imprisoned author of treason, possibly out of jealousy. Wodehouse and his wife were in France when the Nazis invaded in 1940. They were taken to an internment camp. A few Nazis had known Wodehouse thanks to his Hollywood projects, and they asked Wodehouse to do radio broadcasts detailing his experiences at the camp.


The above appeared in a British newspaper while Wodehouse was still at the internment camp.

Wodehouse likely had little say in the matter; after all, did one really argue with the Nazis? Wodehouse complied, though his broadcasts were probably far from what the Nazis had in mind; with characteristic wit, Wodehouse made sport of the Nazis. After reading the transcripts, one British Air Marshal marveled that the Nazis had permitted Wodehouse to complete five broadcasts; “Why the Germans let him say all this I cannot think,” he observed, “They have either got more sense of humor than I credit them with,or it just slipped past the censor. Wodehouse has probably been shot by now.”


The above was published in the ‘LA Times’ on December 27, 1940.

When Wodehouse’s countrymen found out about the broadcasts, they were furious. Even though they’d never head them, they were confident that Wodehouse had agreed to the task in exchange for favored treatment. People vociferously excoriated Wodehouse, and Milne was chief among his detractors. The furor soon grew into hysteria. Milne dismissed the possibility that Wodehouse had simply been naive, calling the author irresponsible. He said that Wodehouse “has encouraged in himself a natural lack of interest in ‘politics’–‘politics’ being all the things grown-ups talk about at dinner while one is hiding under the table. Things, for instance like the last war, which found and kept him in America, and post-war taxes, which chased him back and forth across the Atlantic.”

Wodehouse was released in 1941. He was cleared of any wrongdoing but was unable to overcome the stigma that had tarnished his reputation. Wodehouse would exact some revenge in “The Mating Season” and “Rodney Has a Relapse,” where he mocks the literary insignificance of Milne’s work and points out that Milne had exploited his own young son to attain literary fame. Wodehouse also once admitted, “Nobody could be more anxious than myself…that Alan Alexander Milne would trip over a loose bootlace and break his bloody neck.”

Milne and Wodehouse never spoke again, and all evidence suggests that Milne held on to the grudge till the end of his life. Wodehouse, on the other hand, was able to let go. When he learned that Milne was ailing, he expressed regret and noted that Milne was “about my favorite author.” Regardless of how they felt about each other, both AA Milne and PG Wodehouse remain beloved figures in modern British literature.

Related Posts:
Edith Cavell: Nurse, Historian, and Traitor? 
The Man Behind the Beloved ‘Freddy’ Series

Thanks for reading! Love our blog? Subscribe via email (right sidebar) or sign up for our newsletter--you’ll never miss a post.


Edith Cavell, Nurse, Humanitarian, and Traitor?


It’s not unheard of for nurses to serve in extraordinary ways, but Edith Cavell went far beyond her nursing duties during World War I. The British nurse and patriot was executed for treason during World War I. Both the British and American governments would propagandize her death to bolster support for the Allied cause.

Cavell was born on December 4, 1865. She trained at the London Hospital under Matron Eva Luckes and earned a reputation as a wonderfully capable nurse. In 1907, she was recruited by Dr. Antoine Depage to be matron of the newly established L’Ecole Belge d’Infirmieres Diplomees in Brussels. Cavell flourished there, and by 1910 she “felt that the profession of nursing [had] gained sufficient foothold in Belgium” to warrant a scholarly journal for the discipline. She launched L’infirmiere that same year.

An Accomplished Nurse with a Humanitarian Mission

By 1911, Cavell was the training nurse for three hospitals, 24 schools, and 13 kindergartens in Belgium. When World War I broke out, the Red Cross assumed control of Cavell’s hospitals. Cavell, famous for saying “Patriotism is not enough,” threw herself into her work, saving the lives of countless soldiers on both sides of the war.



Cavell’s story was adapted for the silver screen, first as propaganda in 1919, and again in 1939 when it revived anti-German sentiments. 

Cavell was one of many nurses recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) to gather intelligence on the Germans. But in November 1914, she put these duties aside to begin funneling British and French soldiers out of Belgium and into neutral Holland. Cavell tirelessly dedicated herself to these efforts, eventually raising suspicion. On August 3, 1915, Cavell was arrested by the Germans.

Although Cavell had indeed committed espionage, the Germans chose to try her for treason. Cavell was incredibly outspoken after her arrest, making no attempt to defend herself. She openly admitted her actions in three separate written statements and multiple verbal interrogations. Unfortunately for Cavell, under the auspices of the first Geneva Convention, the death penalty was a permissible punishment for treason.

Edith-Cavell-NursingThe British claimed that their hands were tied in the matter. The US government did put some pressure on Germany, reminding German officials that the country’s public reputation was already quite tarnished. Only one German intervened on Cavell’s behalf: Baron von der Lancken argued that Cavell should be treated with moderation because she had saved so many German lives. But General von Saubozweig insisted that Cavell be executed swiftly. Of the five people arrested in the case, only Cavell and one other were actually executed; the rest were later released.

Fuel for Allied Propaganda

There are numerous accounts of nursing from World War I, such as Grace MacDougal’s Nursing Adventures: A FANY in France (1917) and Violetta Thurston’s Field Hospital and Flying Column: Being the Journal of an English Nursing Sister in Belgium and Russia (1915). But Edith Cavell would leave a different kind of legacy.


 Rather than leaving an account of her own experiences, Cavell would unwittingly leave her mark on British and American propaganda during World War I. She became the most famous British female Edith_Cavell_Crime_Des_Barbarescasualty of the war. The British government used her story to bolster military recruitment, while the US adopted Cavell to garner favorable sentiment toward the Allied effort–and to demonize the Germans.

Cavell-Propaganda-StampSoon after her death, news reports of questionable veracity emerged. Even the American Journal of Nursing printed a spurious account of Cavell’s execution, in which Cavell had refused to wear a blindfold, fainted in the face of the firing squad, and been shot point blank by a German commanding officer. Eyewitnesses later indicated that this version was false.

Cavell is one of many figures in the history of nursing who have left an indelible mark on the world. She not only made strides as a figure in modern nursing, but also set herself apart as a remarkable humanitarian.