Monday, April 29, 2013

Charles Masterman and British propaganda in World War I

Britain's propaganda campaign in World War I has been in the news recently because of the discovery of papers showing that A.A. Milne was one of the many writers involved.

The person initially in charge of that campaign was this blog's hero Charles Masterman. And an article in the Daily Telegraph by Alan Judd (which has somehow escaped the paper's firewall) mentions him at some length:
Milne’s MI7B was established in 1916 to help counter the effects of mounting war losses, industrial discontent, peace activists and German propaganda abroad. In fact, this was really the bureaucratic incorporation of an existing propaganda outfit set up by the journalist and Liberal Party politician, Charles Masterman. 
Formally called the War Propaganda Bureau, it was better known to those on the inside track as the Wellington House operation. In a brilliant exercise in improvisation, Masterman made effective use of his pre-war literary and artistic contacts to counter German propaganda in the US. He secretly sponsored books by reputable academics to send to influential Americans, and recruited writers such John Buchan, HG Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. 
Within a month of the outbreak of war, Masterman had commissioned a book by his novelist friend Ford Madox Ford (who was in fact half-German), which was published six months later as When Blood is their Argument (a quote from Henry V – “For how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument”). This was not the crude German-bashing and flag-waving that seems to have made Milne unhappy, but a balanced and informed argument to the effect that the admirable German culture had been turned on its head by the ascendance of militarist Prussia. 
Ford followed it with another propaganda book, Between St Dennis and St George, a more discursive work stressing the value of French culture in opposing Prussian militarism. Unsurprisingly, it was picked up and translated by the French government. 
Masterman’s activities extended beyond such relatively esoteric propaganda, however. He did much to publicise the German atrocities in Belgium in late 1914 and early 1915. These, attested by refugees, contributed significantly to anti-German sentiment both here and abroad, though lurid stories of babies being bounced on bayonets proved counter-productive in the longer term. 
For much of the 20th century, tales of the Belgium atrocities were written off as exaggerations – overshadowed anyway by what came later in the Second World War – but recent research has shown that they happened. The shell-shocked refugees did not make them up. 
Masterman also ensured that the German execution of nurse Edith Cavell on the spurious grounds of spying caused widespread outrage, evidence of which is her statue facing Trafalgar Square. His operation helped Kitchener mobilise the population, too, originating the famous poster of two children posing the awkward question to their father, “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” 
It wasn’t only writers that were involved with Wellington House, but painters such as Paul Nash and Francis Dodd, too. 
Masterman also incurred the lasting enmity of successive Turkish governments by publicising the Armenian genocide.

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