Ed Driscoll

The World War I Poster that Never Existed

The poster titled ‘Your Country Needs YOU,” featuring a grim-looking Lord Kitchener pointing at the viewer, and his eyes boring straight into him has been credited “with encouraging millions of men to sign up to fight in the trenches, many of them never to return.” But as the London Telegraph claims, “new research has found that no such poster was actually produced during the war and that the image was never used for official recruitment purposes. In fact, it only became popular and widely-used after the conflict ended:”

In his new book, Your Country Needs You, Mr Taylor traced the picture back to its origins, on 5th September 1914, barely a month after the start of the war.

On that day, the image was used on the front cover of the popular magazine London Opinion, beneath the masthead, and alongside two promotional offers: “This paper insures you for £1,000” and “50 photographs of YOU for a shilling”.

It had been designed by Alfred Leete, a graphic artist, who had adapted a portrait of Kitchener to give him the distinctive pointing finger. The slogan was adapted from the official call to arms, which said: “Your King and Country Need You”.

London_opinion_1914_Kitchener_8-4-13In a subsequent edition, a week later, the magazine, which had a circulation of almost 300,000, said readers would be able to buy postcards of the image for 1s. 4d for 100.

Despite this, Mr Taylor has not been able to track down any surviving examples in public or private collections. He is now offering a £100 reward for anyone who can find the first.

Mr Taylor, who will present his research at an event at the National Army Museum, west London, next month, found that the original artwork for the magazine was acquired by the Imperial War Museum in 1917 and was mistakenly catalogued as part of the poster collection, contributing to later misunderstanding about its use.

“There has been a mass, collective misrecollection. The image’s influence now is absolutely out of all kilter with the reality of its initial impact. It has taken on a new kind of life. It is such a good image and saying that it was later seized upon. Some many historians and books have used it and kept repeating how influential it was, that people have come to accept it.”

This “myth” surrounding the poster echoes that around the “Keep Calm and Carry On” sign, which has been widely reproduced in recent years. That poster, designed in 1939, had limited distribution and no public display.

Mr Taylor’s book shows how the Kitchener image did inspire similar posters, which were used, including one, which was produced by LO, with the word BRITONS, above the same picture of the Field Marshal pointing, with the words “wants YOU – Join Your Country’s Army!”, beneath, and the words ‘God Save The King’ printed along the bottom.

However, Mr Taylor said there was no evidence the poster was particularly popular or a dominant design of the war, as some historians have claimed.

Found via Andrew Stuttaford at Ricochet, in a post titled, “On the Unreliability of Historical Memory.” (See also: urban legends regarding the “ubiquity” of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in early 20th century America.)

Of course, much of what we “know” about America’s involvement in World War I — and particularly its home front ramifications — is incorrect or largely forgotten.  But then, as I wrote back in February, “Everything You Know About the 20th Century is Wrong.”