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Patriotism or propaganda? Punch cartoons in the Great War

In the final week of EH Shepard: An Illustrator's War, Helen Walasek looks at the popularity and effect of Punch’s cartoons during WW1

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  • Helen Walasek
  • Feature

Following Britain’s declaration of war with Germany on 3 August 1914 Sir Owen Seaman, editor of Punch, had been deeply unsure how the celebrated humour magazine could fit into a new world of suffering and death. "Mr. Punch," related its 1919 account of the Great War, "thought seriously of putting up his shutters." Bumping into a friend on the London Underground soon after war was declared, Seaman said gloomily, "So my job is ended." "On the contrary" the friend replied, "it is only just beginning." And so it proved.

Not long after his encounter on the Underground, Seaman was swept into the secret world of official British propaganda. Punch’s editor was among the select group of authors invited to the meeting on 2 September 1914 called by C F G Masterman, head of the newly-established War Propaganda Bureau (often called Wellington House after the building it occupied), to discuss how they could help support British war aims.

Seaman found himself in the company of such celebrity writers as Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, H G Wells, Arnold Bennett, J M Barrie, John Galsworthy, G K Chesterton and John Masefield. The authors committed themselves to assisting the war effort (though not all eventually did) and it was not revealed until long after the war the extent to which the government had co-opted and frequently subsidized the patriotic works of many famous literary figures.

Did Owen Seaman go on to use Punch as a vehicle for propaganda after the Wellington House meeting? Sworn to secrecy as the group was, it's not surprising that we do not conclusively know. We do know that shortly after the meeting Seaman was actively involved in drafting and circulating what has become known as the ‘Authors’ Declaration’ – an idea of Masterman’s. The letter, whose famous signatories gave their unequivocal support to the Allied cause, was published simultaneously in both The Times of London and The New York Times on 18 September 1914.

It was certainly not long before Punch became an enthusiastic supporter of British war aims. We should remember, however, that the attitudes of ‘Mr Punch’ were not simply those of its editor, but also of its proprietors, Bradbury, Agnew & Co, and (probably) its senior management. And the subjects of its influential 'Big Cuts' - the magazine's full-page political cartoons were decided not by the editor (or the artist), but by the members of the Punch Table, an elite group of the magazine’s editorial staff, its proprietors, and most notable contributors.

It was these Big Cuts - rather than the ‘social’ cartoons, showing life on the Home Front and occasionally the trenches, drawn by artists like E H Shepard - that were the most reproduced cartoons of the war, used repeatedly in many different formats outside the magazine. These were the Punch cartoons that others most wanted to bring to a wider public – and sell their products.

Even before WWI, Punch cartoons had a long afterlife as cultural references that went far beyond the printed page. Punch cartoons were known to millions who would not have looked at the magazine. There were prints and book compilations, newspapers reprinted its latest political cartoons, and thousands saw its popular lantern slide lectures distributed by E G Wood’s Lantern Lecture agency. These did not stop with the war.

But seeming to capture the mood of the nation as they had on so many other occasions, Punch’s Big Cuts were in great demand for reproduction elsewhere. By September 1914 Jarrold and Sons was publishing sets of postcards featuring Punch’s ‘war cartoons’ ranging from old classics like Tenniel’s Dropping the Pilot of 1890 to brand new ones like F H Townsend’s Bravo Belgium from 12 August 1914. Punch cartoons were reproduced on products from china vases and biscuit tins to the cigarette cards printed in their millions by the giant tobacco company W.D. & H.O. Wills.

The most widely reproduced Punch cartoon of the Great War was unquestionably Bernard Partridge’s Unconquerable, of 21 October 1914, depicting the Kaiser telling King Albert of the Belgians he has lost everything: "Not my soul" the king retorts. Unconquerable was so popular that in 1916 Partridge was asked to paint a colour version for reproduction as an ‘art print’ offered as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

Perhaps the most unusual example of Bradbury and Agnew’s support for the British war effort was the extraordinary campaign it ran in the first months of the war to boost enlistment in the Army using Punch cartoons and patriotic poems by Owen Seaman and waged through posters, handbills and lantern slides.

Reproducing To Arms, The Greater Game and A Glorious Example and Seaman’s To the Shirker and To a False Patriot, by the time the campaign ended on 31 December 1914, 125,000 posters and 900,000 handbills had been distributed and nearly 4,000 lantern slides screened in cinemas across the country to audiences totalling millions.

While the military’s response to Punch’s campaign was less than enthusiastic, it prompted considerable enthusiasm from its middle-class readers. The Greater Game, attacking working-class men playing professional football as other working-class men looked on – and neither enlisting in the army to participate in the ‘greater game’ of war – excited the most interest and supporters were ready to turn up at football grounds and distribute leaflets of the cartoon to unwary spectators.

A leaf through Punch over the course of the war shows how clearly its full-page political cartoons supported the British war effort. It published seven ‘war’ supplements beginning with The New Rake’s Progress on 16 September 1914, chronicling Kaiser Wilhelm’s career through Punch cartoons, and ending with Mr Punch’s Navy Pages on 28 March 1917, as government restrictions on paper began to bite.

Its political cartoons continued to glamourize life in the trenches, even after the Battle of the Somme (‘Well Done, the New Army’ 12 July 1916), gave credence to the most notorious (and false) anti-German story of the war, the ‘Corpse-Utilization Factories’ (‘Cannon-Fodder – and After’ 25 April 1917), and in 1918 celebrated the fact that 50 year-olds could now be conscripted alongside their 18 year-old sons (‘The Coming Army’ 17 April 1918)!

In this apparently uncritical support for the British government through its political cartoons, Punch did not differ from other mainstream newspapers and magazines of the time.

Yet the magazine’s social cartoons offer a rather more tempered picture. Rarely overly-jingoistic to begin with, as the war went on, the cartoons became much more questioning and milder, as in their sympathetic depictions of conscientious objectors.

There was even room to criticise excessive chauvinism as in a cartoon of September 1915 where a Sergeant tells a new recruit who sports a small Union Jack on his jacket: “Take that flag out o’ yer button-hole, m’ lad. Remember this is the British Army. We don’t want none o’ yer patriotism here.”

As we are now drawn to First World War authors who were certainly not household names at the time, we usually find Punch’s social cartoons more appealing than its political ones, perhaps seeing in them anti-war sentiments that were possibly not the artist’s intention.

Claude Shepperson’s cartoon from February 1917 on the difference between a rehearsal for a battle and the real thing is now frequently seen as a veiled anti-war statement. Yet at approximately the same time Shepperson was also drawing sketches for a Wellington House propaganda production, a series of lithographs titled Britain’s Efforts and Ideals.

And perhaps the most popular social cartoon of the war was Frank Reynolds’ Study of a Prussian Household Having its Morning Hate. Reproduced as a colour print by Laurence and Jellicoe, their ad quoted Valentine Williams, the Daily Mail correspondent writing from British Army headquarters in France:

“The latest Jokes about the War are lovingly dwelt on, and the artist who drew for Punch the sketch of the German Family indulging in its morning hate against England would feel that his labours were amply repaid if he knew how much his clever satire was appreciated at General Headquarters.”

Punch presented its wartime activities as purely patriotic - and, as the brochure for Punch’s post-war lantern lecture series (which included no less than five lectures on the war) pointed out: “Mr. Punch’s prestige had been enormously enhanced by the Titanic struggle.” He encouraged men in the trenches, lightened the burden of the wounded and did “…yeoman service to the nation and the Allied cause.”

Helen Walasek
Punch Ltd

EH Shepard: An Illustrator's War continues until Sunday 24 January 2016