Defence, Honour, Guilt and Retribution – Cultural differences and the British and Australian to The First World War through Propaganda

By Matthew Chesworth

Some would suggest that Britons and Australians volunteered in droves to fight the First World War out of patriotism and sheer nationalistic pride; however, further examination suggests there are far deeper and complex reasons for these men going to war. While it is impossible to gauge the actual motives for young men flocking to join the slaughter taking place in France and Belgium, it is possible to establish the narratives and imperatives portrayed to them by government authorities in the form of posters, in particular noting the trending depictions and therefore their possible effectiveness. Because of this, some particular national perceptions of the war can be derived for both Britain and Australia, and my research into this area seeks to identify and explain these cultural responses, particularly where they differ from each other. Why these differences exist, and what approaches they had to the war, are quite surprising in their extent, ranging from differing changes in priority to vastly different interpretations to and uses for the same issue.

A critical aspect of the war propaganda was that it emphasised certain values; namely concepts of defence, honour, guilt and retribution; and the extent to which Britain and Australia emphasised one or the other is indicative of the cultural values, as is the imagery used to emphasise the particular values. Britain, for example, focussed particularly on values of guilt and shame, as well as retribution, and to emphasise this, propaganda was driven by the shock factor of detailed accounts of events; particularly in the wake of the attack on the British port town of Scarborough (Fig a). Furthermore, any subsequent imagery was focussed on rectifying these wrongs, and thus was quite militant, glorified and victorious to reflect the honour and retribution in enlistment for these causes (Fig b).

men of britain will you stand this  Remember Scarborough

Fig a                                                       Fig b

The Australian approach on the other hand was quite different; as the divide of distance bred a degree of indifference to events half a world away. Thus Australian propaganda posters were significantly more graphic and grotesque, and instead focussed on the redress required to halt the Hun who defiled and destroyed civilised society and its inhabitants (Fig c), as well as its far reaching potential (Fig d), as depicted in extensive Norman Lindsey works. These sort of values in particular built on the same foundational material; particularly that surrounding the so called ‘Rape of Belgium’ and the imagery surrounding the bayonet; the tool of choice for the ‘barbaric Huns’ to sexually assault and then mutilate the women and children encountered in their ‘rampages’ widely proliferated imperial war reports, according to Nicoletta F. Gullace in the ‘American History Review’ (1997); and yet the above posters illustrate the distinct difference in cultures; one focussed on imminent threat and glorious, righteous victory, the other focussed on the abhorrence of such barbaric behaviour and the need to support the effort to crush this threat to virtues of civilised society the world over.

Where Germany Prays      The Cause of the War

Fig c                                                             Fig d

Such concepts, such as the sentiments surrounding the imagery of the bayonet, were also susceptible to vastly different interpretations, marking cultural differences further – such as the use of the image to threaten serving Australian soldiers, acting as call for mateship and supporting of one’s fellow; raising the issue of ‘integrative propaganda’. Brett Silverstein, in his 1987 article, “Toward a Science of Propaganda”, uses this term to describe the processes which create the status quo, by ‘normal’, ‘accepted’ sources, usually authorities; thus the style of integrative propaganda highlights the significant differences between the British and Australian cultures. The British for example adhere very closely to accepting social and cultural norms from authoritative figures, as evidenced by the overwhelming, international response to the famous “Your Country Needs You” featuring Lord Kitchener; in a nation craving experienced military leadership and heroism in a dark time, as echoed by Carlo Ginzburg’s, “Your Country Needs You: A Case Study In Political Iconography” (Fig e). Australia on the other hand approached integrative propaganda from a completely different perspective, in keeping with the aforementioned example regarding bayonets, bucked the trend, by responding to integrative propaganda prioritising mateship (Fig f).

Your Country Needs You        get into Khaki

Fig e                                                                 Fig f

One final feature defining Australian from British culture was perceived vulnerability. It could be suggested that Australians always felt they inhabited a civilised outpost under siege; Colin Cross in ‘The British Empire’ (1972) notes that Australia was eager to stamp out nearby German colonial outposts following the war, while Donald Horne in ‘Australia Looks Around’ (1966) points out there was always an Australian sense that they’d be swept away by China’s might. Therefore, when comparing the common hallmarks of bestial depiction and distortion in (Fig c) and (Fig d) with ‘Yellow Peril’ propaganda (Fig g); it perhaps becomes clear that Australians enlisted out of pure racism and a wish to neutralise the unknown.


Fig g

Ultimately; whichever, if any, of these, formed the motives of the men who fought will, as said, remain unknown. Yet the propensity of particular forms of propaganda suggests a certain audience resonation and popularity to suggest prominent, state promoted ideas, promoted in such ways where each became representative of their audiences through their targeted appeals.

Further Reading

Cross C, The British Empire (Feltham, 1972)

Ginzburg C. “’Your Country Needs You’: A Case Study in Political Iconography,” History Workshop Journal, No. 52 (2001)

Gullace N.F. “Sexual Violence and Family Honor: British Propaganda and International Law during the First World War,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 102 (1997)

Horne D., “Australia Looks Around” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 44, No. 3 (1966)

Silverstein B., “Toward a Science of Propaganda” Political Psychology, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1987), pp. 49-59 p. 49

No rights are held over any reproduced examples of propaganda published herein.
All such works have been accessed publically; sourced from either The Imperial War Museum or The State Library of New South Wales.
All rights remain with their respective owners.

One comment on “Defence, Honour, Guilt and Retribution – Cultural differences and the British and Australian to The First World War through Propaganda

  1. madelinechatfield says:

    I think it’s fantastic how you have explored the governments manipulation of young men into engaging with this conflict! In regards to the Imperial reports and propaganda suggesting that the huns had attacked women and children – do you think they were also appealing to gender ideas of protection within the context?

    I also think it’s interesting how you have placed Australia’s attitudes towards colonial Germany and other neighbouring countries within the context of racism!

    Well done! 😀

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