This is a story of the British propaganda in the first year of World War I. Main British propaganda institutions such as Wellington House, Crewe House or Ministry of Information are presented with their specific actions in the context of war. The  propaganda institutions of the other European Powersare mentioned as well. In contrast with them, Romanian propaganda in the first two years of war appears as an emotional and patriotic debate among the supporters of the Entente and the Central Powers.

In the years coming after the end of the First World War a lot of influent and subjective books were edited, exaggerating the contribution of propaganda during the conflict. Among them, worth to be mentioned are:Secrets of Crewe House(1920) by Stuart Campbell, Public Opinion(1922) by Walter Lipmann, Falsehood in War Time(1928) by Arthur Ponsonby, Propaganda(1928) by Edward Bernay, Mein Kampf(1925) by Adolf Hitler, Der Totale Krieg(1937) by Erich von Ludendorff, the last two of them promoting the theory of Durchstosslegende– the stab in the back myth. All those authors analyzed and commented in a biased way the British propaganda performed during the war, constructing for the next generations the stereotype of the overwhelming importance of propaganda in achieving the final victory by undermining the morale of the German soldier and citizen. Again the British were depicted as the main responsible for the engagement of the United States in the European War.

Historical researches from the last decades, less influenced by political and national prejudices and passions proved that it wasn’t totally like that. History of propaganda during the First World War is less black or white and more nuanced. However, the British as the winners and the Germans as the defeated remained the “big stars” of the „first world propaganda war”, positions detained again, twenty years later in another life and death fight.

I.  First British propaganda institutions

            In July 1914, at the outbreak of war, the British, contrary to the Germans, had no propaganda institutions, but they quickly improvise robust state organizations dedicated to propaganda, which were largely and continuously extended till the end of the war. On August 8 1914 the British Parliament urgently adopted the so called Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), a law which granted to the Government during the wartime’s special executive powers, among them the right to impose the censorship and to establish other necessary institutions. In that way were created some social control mechanisms, the censorship (including the mail, not only the press) was legalized, with the purpose to sustain the morale of the population and to protect the military information related to the British Expeditionary Corp in Europe. Actually, as Stephen Badsey, the British professor wrote, the journals censorship was done according to a gentlemen agreementnegotiated between the authorities and the journalists, so that never a British publication was suspended or issued with white columns (as was the case in France). The War Officeand the Admiraltycreated their own joint official Press Bureau (which became over time the security service MI5);their main mission was not the release of information about the evolution of the military operations, but the censorship of the news and the control of the war correspondents. In August 1914 the ”Central Committee for National Patriotic Organizations” was founded in order to disseminate the British propaganda across the whole Empire, and in the next month, September, the Home Office created the “Neutral Press Committee” having in mission the support of the British point of view in neutral countries.

Professor David Welch identified three types of British press censorship that occurred in time of war:a voluntary pre-censorship – the most frequent, a self-censorship – frequent and a compulsory censorship – sometimes threatened, but never imposed. However the first Great Britain act of war was one of brutal censorship:during the last hours of peace. On August 4, 1914, HMS “Telconia” cut the transatlantic telegraph cable which provides German communications with United States and other neutral countries. Under the new circumstances the only way Berlin could communicate remained the difficult coded wireless telegraph. Since that moment London assumed the informational superiority which was essential in convincing the former American colonies to fight along the Antanta powers.

            One of the most powerfull and large operations of British propaganda abroad was developped in totally secrecy by the so called Wellington House– named after the building where this institution was housed – organization officially called the Office of War Propaganda, operating under the authority of Foreign Office and under the command of Charles Masterman (1873-1927). Charles Masterman formulated the three principles of the British propaganda which were applied in all his future endeavors:the need for secrecy in order to disguise the source of propaganda (which means black or grey propaganda);propaganda should be based on accurate information and measured argument (the future propaganda based on facts of WW II);propaganda should be directed toward the model of opinion rather than in the direction of the masses. Subsequently the huge and secret British grey propaganda developed in still neutral USA and deliberately targeted some American sympathizers of the British cause, which were used as propaganda vehicles to influence the indecisive or opponents of the war. For this purpose, in New York was created a British Information Bureau, which served Wellington House to disseminate in USA a large amount of printed propaganda stuff (pamphlets, cartoons, leaflets, booklets etc) and to offer the American press only the information that was useful for the British foreign policy and interests. Taking into consideration that in those days 90% of American citizens had available only journals and magazines as primary source of information, clearly explains why the press became the target of the British propaganda.

II. Bryce  Report and “atrocity propaganda”

Bryce Report played a special role in British propaganda during WWI. This official document was presented as the main argument to sustain the German atrocities allegations which produced a severe damage to the Berlin cause in the international arena, especially among the American public opinion. Appointed by the British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith on 15th December 1914, chaired by viscount Bryce, a sympathizer of the Germans, the paper was issued by a Committee on Alleged German Outrages committed in occupied Belgium in 1914. In May 1915, Bryce Report was published, translated in 30 languages and distributed by Wellington Housenot only in Great Britain, but in the whole world at a symbolic price-1 penny. Only the Table of Contents of this document, based on the testimonies of the Belgian refugees in front of the German occupation, represents a list of demonic accusations toward the German enemy:bad treatment of the civilian population, women and children;killing of non-combatants;the use of civilians as screens;the looting, burning and destroying of property;offences against combatants;killings of the wounded prisoners;bombing of hospitals;disregard for Red Cross and White Flag. The execution as spy by the German army of Nurse Edith Cavell and the sinking on 7 May 1915 of “Lusitania” ship by a German submarine (both actions very normal according of the respective law of war) stigmatized for a long time the “German Barbarians”, les Boches, across the world. The path was open to hate and destroy without mercy the Germans together with their Kaiser, even if the presented stories were not totally true. A lot of British private propaganda initiatives issued from this Report fully contributrd to the general demonization of the Germans, to the break of the morale of the soldiers, politicians or civilians. 

Both Wellington Houseconducted by Charles Masterman in September 1914 and Crewe House(dedicated to the propaganda against the enemy) conducted by lord Northcliffe, in the beginning of 1918, called in secret séance the highest cultural British personalities such as Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galsworthy, Tomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and others to convince them to contribute with their talent to the big war that the British Empire wage against Germany. And all those people did exactly like that, with a lot of grace and patriotism. 

As I mentioned, for the Americans, the journals, magazines, pamphlets and booklets represented the main mass propaganda vehicle during the First World War. A large number of journalists and war correspondents from all the nations sincerely believed that it was their duty to sustain the morale of their people who were fighting fiercely. Only a few citizens possessed radios in their homes, but a lot of them use to go to the cinema, the mute-cinema, where the Newsreels contained inserted explanatory texts, while the long artistic films were most enjoyed by the audience. Other propaganda vehicles were the postcards, the posters for the civilians, the leaflets dropped from airplanes on the enemy lines and also the short-speeches delivered by specially trained agents in public places.

What was said, sustained, suggested, run a saw or demonized in all those propagandistic materials? The subjects and themes were more or less the same:enemy was both diabolic and aggressive and that’s why must be destroyed without mercy, even with big sacrifices in the name of the king/emperor:each part was right and fair and was fighting for the highest ideals of humanity and civilization. To the enemy soldier were aimed strong messages demonstrating that it was nonsense to die for a perfidious leader in a war that will be certainly lost. Beside these arguments, some belligerents, like the French or the Romanian had some territories in view to fight for (Alsace, Lorena, and Transylvania) and other had some colonies to defend or territories to conquer.

With all those considerations, the responsibility for the bad political and moral reputation attributed to the British propaganda in the First World War belongs, according to Professor Stephen Badsey, either to the individual private excesses, or to the so-called Crewe House– the Department to Enemy Propaganda. This structure was created by Prime Minister Lloyd George (1863-1945) in February 1918 with Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922), owner of the journals The Timesand The Daily Mail appointed as director. Northcliffe called immediately to his right The Timesdirector, sir Campbell Stuart, who in 1920 wrote and published „The Secrets of Crewe House”. The strong propaganda offensive of  Crewe Housedirected against Germany and more vulnerable Austro-Hungary, occurred in the last year of the war, with disastrous consequences to the Central Powers.

III. Epigones of the British propaganda

France took a similar path as Great Britain in building his propagandistic institutions and concepts, with the significant difference that they hated much more les Bochesthan the English, due to the disastrous French defeat before the Prussians in 1870-1871 war. This bellicose attitude didn’t stop the political and military French authorities to impose a severe press censorship referring to the hard realities supported by les poilusin the front lines causing serious revolts and defections in the second part of the war. In August 1914, the French Ministry of War established a Press Commission (censorship of the media) and the General Staff created in October of the same year an Information Section, entitled to provide periodical communiqués concerning the situation on the battlefield, both of them being very optimistic and far away from the truth. Only in January 1916 was created, under the authority of the Foreign Ministry, the so-called Maison de la presse, an organization designed to coordinate the French propaganda abroad. Same as in England where the national war efforts were united under the title “Home Front”, in France existed under the name of Union Sacré, meanwhile in Germany was stated as Burgfrieden.

Germany’s Second Reich was the only belligerent which, before the outbreak of war, had already developed an entire network of cultural organizations, patriotic leagues, and other associations more or less sponsored by Berlin all of which promoted the German interests abroad. More than that, even since the beginning of war, the German Government sponsored openly the news agency Wolff  Telegraf and the Radio service Uberseedienst Transozean GmbH with the sole purpose to disseminate Berlin’s propaganda. Unlike England or France, in Germany the military not the politicians held the supremacy over the society, even concerning propaganda with general Erich Luddendorf becoming one of the promoters of this new form of combat after 1916. In August 1914, Oberste Heeresleitung(Supreme Command) established its so-called Section III (b) or Nachrishtenabteilung(news section) in charge with censorship of the media, public opinion and propaganda, managed press conferences, issued directives for the german newspapers and magazines and issued their own bi-weekly newspaper. Section III (b) took over immediately the control of Messer-Film GmbHin order to produce and disseminate appropriate newsreels. Next, in February 1915, in Berlin was established an Oberzensurstelle, which in October 1915 became the more widely known as Kriegspresseampt. Simultaneously, in Octombrie 1914, the Foreign Ministry instituted a Zentralstelle für Auslandsdienst, conducted by Matthias Erzberger with the main purpose to counter the anti-German propaganda abroad.

Under those circumstancess, a common sense question arose:Why did Germany lose the First Propagandistic World War inspite of beeing so well prepared and organized with institutions and resources? One of the main causes of the sudden break of the combat moral and will of the so disciplined German soldier and citizen was the huge discrepancy between the official propaganda statements about the imminent victory due to the heroic battles and military superiority and the hard and painful realities from the trenches and home gardens that couldn’t be hidden anymore. Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarians, who never fought propaganda battles, received a final deadly coup the very moment the leaflets with the president’s Wilson fourteen points were scattered through the multinational empire and his multinational army.

IV. The Romanian propagandistic noise

The start of the First World Bloodshed in August 1914 quickly reflected in the internal life of the little Romanian Kingdom, ruled by a German king and political class, which partially sympathized with the Germans, partially with the French. During the Romanian neutrality period (1914-1916) a lot and passionate propagandistic combat were consumed between the supporters of Antanta and those of the Central Powers:with whom and why was Romania to side in this war? With Transylvania  and Antanta allies, or with Bassarabia and the Central Powers? Both the ordinary citizens and the noble landowners from the king’s palace, felt their minds and souls were torn by this patriotic dilemma.

In his book about the Romanian intellectual elite in the years of First World War, Professor Lucian Boia achieved a very necessary and healthy restoration of the historical truth concerning the balance, profile and influence of each important member of the two opposite camps. Boia dash to the ground the myth of a Romanian quasi-unanimity opting to side with Transylvania and abandon Bessarabia (which, at the time, belonged to the Tsarist Russia). This myth, convenient to the former communist regime tried to manufacture a kind of Romanian-Russian historical brotherhood under the arms and at the same time to sow the seeds of antipathy against the western powers in the hearts and minds of the Romanians.

During the neutrality years 1914-1916, actually the Romanian public opinion conssisted only of a few hundred of thousand educated people, while 60% of Romanians were illiterate around that time. Only a handful of citizens were interested in national and politics matters, the majority of them being Antanta supporters and followers. However the intellectual elite of writers, journalists, historians and scientists was nearly equaly divided into two major groups, one who sided with Germany were the Vienna or Berlin University graduates while the others were strongly attached to France they liked to call Romania’s Eldest Sister, the french speaking and the french culture and fashion snobic admirers. The majority of the truly Romanian patriots were deceived by the euphoric propaganda developed during the Balkan wars, very few of them questioning the Romanian army capacity and readiness to accomplish the political-military strategies and solutions that they so loudly proclaimed. What resulted was a polyphonic propaganda noise with members of the orchestra playing a solo concert, all at the same time, while expected to play their instruments scores in a symphony.  Exactly as in our present times, not only the politicians, but also the intellectuals were strongly divided, often hesitant and opportunist. However, even in that period existed some very strong political personalities, fighting for their deep and clear beliefs like Take Ionescu, P.P. Carp, Ioan Slavici or Titu Maiorescu, characters that are inexistent in our present days. On the contrary, after a century the confusion persist in the minds and souls of the Romanians who still do not know whom to vote for.

In Romania of 1914-1916, didn’t exist any state or private institutions designed for propaganda to proclaim or defend the national interest on the international stage, because each party or personality understand differently what that national interest should be. Beside, the Romanian state was far away from that level of social and political development that was the norm in Western Europe, to allow the birth of such organizations requiring political maturity, national structure, resolution and vigor. That’s why the Romanian propaganda was done in a chaotic way at individual level of initiative, each person acting alone stimulated by personal pride instead of genuine patriotism and focused on their welfare instead of countrys’ interests.

For ideological reasons, communist propaganda ignored the strong opposition of some political leaders (like Petre P. Carp) against an alliance with Tsarist Russia, meanwhile the Conservators (like Alexandru Marghiloman and Titu Maiorescu) encouraged a type of neutrality kind to Germany. The strong hostility against Russia was motivated by Moscow’s threat of expansion and domination over Eastern Europe (which happened a hundred years later) and by the terrible political and social regime imposed by the Russian authorities for the Romanians from Bessarabia. Professor Boia’s book proves without a doubt that a lot of the Romanian political leaders were not willing to support an alliance with Antanta to free Transylvania, which meant forgetting Bessarabia. Even Ion Bratianu, the liberal leader and prime minister at the time, kept secret his Government decision to adhere Antanta powers, untill the war was declared.

Indeed, the propaganda favorable to military actions against the Austro-Hungarians in Transylvania and the attempt to free the Romanian brothers was much lauder and convincing. The important daily newspapers like the left leaning “Adevărul” and “Dimineaţa” and the right leaning “Universul” promoted this position. The opposite position was sustained by the pro-German newspapers like ”Ziua”, ”Seara”, ”Libertatea”, ”Gazeta Bucureştilor”, ”Convorbirile literare” from Bucharest. Meanwhile other political creeds as neutrality for example were claimed by the socialist journals such as ”Lupta” directed by Dobrogeanu Gherea or ”Jos războiul” by Christian Racovski. Some of the smaller circulation publications adopted a strong anti-Russian doctrine. For instance, ”Viaţa românească” from Iaşi, directed by Constantin Stere, was being read only in very few academic circles.

Among the cultural personalities who expressed in good faith their patriotic hope for an coalition with the Germans against the Russians, were Ioan Slavici, Tudor Arghezi, George Topârceanu, Garabet Ibrăileanu, Mateiu Caragiale, Nicolae Tonitza, Grigore Antipa. They were vehemently contested by Nicolae Iorga in his ”Neamul Românesc” newspaper and by others like A.D. Xenopol, Barbu Delavrancea, Eugen Lovinescu, Alexandru Vlahuţă. They were also some hesitant and opportunist changes of attitude among some famous Romanian intellectuals, caused by their moral flaws, that could overshadow their icon presented in the high-school manuals like Mihail Sadoveanu (one of the biggest political opportunist only for his own welfare), Dimitrie Onciul, Liviu Rebreanu, Victor Babeş, Alexandru Macedonski, Constantin Rădulescu Motru.


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[2]               Boia, Lucian, 2013, Germanofilii. Elita intelectualăromânească în anii Primului Război Mondial, Humanitas, București

[3]               Cull J. Nicholas, Culbert David, Welch David, (2003), Propaganda and Mass Persuation. A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present, ABC-CLIO Inc. California, USA

[4]               D’Almeida Fabrice, Delporte Christian, (2003), Histoire des medias en France de la Grande Guerre a nos jours, Paris, Flammarion

[5]               Hentea, Călin, 2014, Propaganda în război. O istorie universală, Editura Cetatea de Scaun, Târgoviște

[6]               Knightley, Phillip, (1976), The First Casuality. From the Crimea to Vietnam:the War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker, New York and London, A Harvest Book

[7]               Taylor, Philip M., (1990/1995), Munition of the Mind. A History of Propaganda from the Ancient World to the Present Day, Manchester and New York:Manchester University Press.

[8]               Welch, David, 2013, Propaganda. Power and Persuasion, London, The British Library

[9]               Young Peter, Jesser Peter, (1997), The Media and the Military from the Crimea to Desert Strike, South Melbourne:Macmillan Education Australia.