I spent some time at the National Archives recently, looking for administrative documents relating to the conception, design and distribution of the home front campaigns that I will be investigating in my fieldwork. I came across a document detailing a meeting of a sub-committee of the Planning Committee which took place on 18th August 1941. It refers to a campaign being considered that really challenges our perception of the strength of British morale on the Home Front during this period.
The campaign was titled ‘What have I got to lose even if Germany wins’ and was designed to combat feelings of apathy that the sub-committee clearly believed to be present among the British public. The document includes detailed recommendations on how to explain to people what life under the rule of the Nazis would mean. It was decidedf that human news stories should be circulated, refugees from occupied countries should be asked to speak at meetings, and articles by ‘marketable writers’ should be commissioned.
A Sub-Committee of the Planning Committee met on Monday, August 18th 1941, to discuss a campaign to combat the apathetic outlook of “What have I got to lose.”
It was agreed that as much material as possible should be prepared now in order to meet any crisis which might result in a demand for a negotiated peace. Preparatory work on a broad scale should be started at once to combat the present apathy of the public.
It seems amazing that such levels of apathy were considered possible in the British public in 1941 that such a campaign would be necessary. The common perception of British patriotism and ‘Blitz Spirit’ morale that dominates modern cultural memory of the Home Front makes it almost unthinkable that some people may have been asking themselves ‘what have I got to lose?’ Modern day knowledge of the crimes of the Nazis make it easy for us to answer this question, however it must be remembered that this was not necessarily common knowledge in Britain at the time.
While I have so far not found evidence of the implementation of this campaign or its effectiveness, it is important to be reminded that thoughts and feelings experienced by people during wartime could stray very far from what we have come to expect.
In the summer of 2016, Anne Olivier Bell celebrated her 100th birthday. She has enjoyed a varied career including working at the Ministry of Information, the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) program and the Arts Council. In 2013, she was awarded an MBE for services to Literature and the Arts.
Complementary to the research currently underway for the MoI Digital project, the University of London’s Senate House Histories project aims to compile and present stories connected to Senate House, including its role in accommodating the Ministry of Information during the Second World War.
Little precise detail is known of what it was like to work at the Ministry of Information during this time and both projects seek to uncover more personal accounts of the period. In her early twenties at the outbreak of the war, Anne Olivier Bell is one of the only people alive today with direct experience of working at the Ministry of Information. So this summer, together with Sandra Elliott of the University of London, I visited her at her cottage near Charleston in East Sussex to hear about her time at the Ministry during the war.
Trained at the Courtauld Institute in London, Anne Olivier Bell was recruited into the Ministry of Information at the beginning of the war to work in the Photograph Library. She was born in Bloomsbury into an artistic family; her father was A. E. Popham, famous art historian and Keeper of the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum.
Mrs Bell started work as a cataloguer in the Ministry of Information’s Photograph Library, later moving into photograph research. Based at Senate House, the Ministry of Information’s Photograph Library collected and organised photographs for use in official propaganda and in the press. She reminisces on her time there:
Hundreds of photographs came into the building, were sorted out and they were given to the Ministry cataloguers and we had to put them in the right places.
I became a specialist in photographs of the RAF and agriculture. The public or press people were allowed in the end of the room and they expected someone to look after them. They wanted either agency or official photographs. A lot of agency photographs were taken for the newspapers.
The Photograph Division was managed by Barbara Fell, who oversaw the filing and use of all photographs as they arrived.
When photographs came in to the building, she was given the whole collection of photographs every morning and she decided which you should keep to put in the file.
There were four double tables up the side there and I sat opposite someone else who did agriculture and then there were labour and army and all the rest and the public were allowed in to the end of the photograph library and one of us would have to deal with the public and try and find the sort of thing they want and if necessary order it.
To ensure images didn’t compromise military strategy or give away intelligence, photographs were censored by the Ministry of Information before they were sent to the Photographs Division. The censors were located on the ground floor of the south building of Senate House.
When all these photographs came in to the Ministry, they came into the south part where they were censored and some were not allowed to be seen. But all the rest came in and in the end, they were filed. I didn’t have to deal with the censors I don’t think.
A core part of Mrs Bell’s work involved liaising with staff from the Publications Division to provide photographs to illustrate official booklets and other materials. She would later go on to work in the Publications Division, which was based on the opposite side of Russell Square to Senate House.
You used to have one or two of the agents come in with a rough booklet they were going to publish and say they want to illustrate this. I dealt with the agriculture ones and the air force ones.
They sent the copy to read and then you got out as many pictures as you thought might be suitable and showed them to the editors who came from Russell Square. One of the publication editors was Cecil Day Lewis and another one was Laurie Lee – there were about five or six publications people with the director.
You’d try and find appropriate photographs, the editor would choose them and then I had to order and get them from goodness knows where and when they came in you’d give them back to the editors and they’d decide which they would finish with.
Mrs Bell does not remember life at the Ministry of Information as particularly sociable. It seems that each division was relatively isolated in its own work and mingling between employees was not that common.
I may have been bought a drink now and then. There was a bar beside the upstairs canteen, where you could buy drinks. I, of course, have never bought a drink at a bar in my life!
In contrast to a today’s sophisticated corporate employee communications networks, news of occurrences in different parts of Senate House did not seem to spread that widely. When asked about visits from significant public figures to the Ministry, Mrs Bell suggests that “it may have been known in other parts of the Ministry but I didn’t know”.
About one year before the end of the war, she was invited to join the Publications Division on the other side of Russell Square. She explains the reasons for the move:
Because they wanted me. Actually, at the end of my career in the photographs, they reorganised the building. The photographs were moved into another corner of the place and I didn’t like it very much, so I was pleased when I was invited to go to Russell Square.
I went there as a dogsbody for Laurie Lee. My first job was to check the proofs of the transcripts of Churchill’s speeches, which were printed by the Ministry of Information and distributed around the world.
Booklets were produced by the Publications Division on a variety of subjects in order to spread information and satisfy the interest of members of the public at home and abroad. Booklets were produced on topics such as Bomber Command, the Battle of Britain and Make do and Mend.
I did a book on the Island of Malta with Cecil Day Lewis and I did a book on British agriculture with Laurie Lee and some on the Airforce but I can’t remember what.
They were paperback, they cost about a shilling, they were written by Cecil Day Lewis or Laurie Lee and published in great number and I don’t know who distributed them. Very popular, very good, very interesting.
Discussing the public perception of the Ministry of Information during the war, Mrs Bell explains that the Ministry was too large and conspicuous for secrecy and instead became the butt of jokes.
No, it wasn’t secret. The Ministry of Information was a very large place. People would make jokes about it a great deal, just silly people who didn’t know, saying it was all just a lot of artists and poets and homosexuals.
One of the most colourful aspects of Mrs Bell’s experience working for the Ministry of Information was her service as a motorbike dispatch rider, taking to the road to deliver photographs around London despite the threat of aerial bombing.
Everyone had to be an air raid warden or something like that and the Ministry started a motor bicycle dispatch rider service. I think there were about ten of us we were coached to ride the bicycle at Colindale.
The police trained us, we got our motorbikes, we did trial runs out into the country and then when we had passed the exams we were put on duty once a week overnight. I think we stayed in the south building near the canteen.
You could ring up anytime and be asked to take a photograph to north London or take a special photograph that the Ministry had chosen to air mail to America or anywhere.
Sometimes they would want to reproduce the photograph for an article. Or we had to airmail a special one of interest to our office in New York.
And in the later part of the war, the buzz bombs were coming and it often seemed rather absurd to be driving a motorbike down Kingsway when it was all going pop! pop!
Just after the war, Anne Olivier Bell was recruited to join the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) branch of the German Control Commission. She was the only female officer in the group of art historians and scholars recently celebrated in the 2014 film The Monuments Men starring George Clooney.
Mrs Bell’s memories of working for the MFAA are far more down-to-earth than the film depicted. Having attended the film premier in London, she describes George Clooney as ‘charming’, but the film itself as ‘all American’.
I was in the headquarters of the interior division and we lived in a small town called Bünde and the MFAA had a small house outside a large park. We distributed news and questions through the regions. Asking for information for them, asking for materials – an amount of concrete or bricks or wood – every zone needed to restore the buildings, then they came to the centre and redistributed. Roads needed mending and the telephone didn’t work properly.
I think I was only there about fifteen months, I came home and worked for Secker and Warburg and then I was lured away by the Arts Council where I worked for five years.
In 1952, she married Quentin Bell, nephew of Virginia Woolf and spent many years editing the five-volume edition of The Diary of Virginia Woolf, which was published in 1979.
Anne Olivier Bell’s rich account of life and work during and after the Second World War highlight her pragmatic attitude and the fleeting but varied nature of wartime work in the context of a whole life. Despite the wide-ranging impact of the war and of the Ministry of Information on British society, at the time Mrs Bell felt she was just doing a job in a large organisation, one of many jobs she would perform over the course of her life. Her reminiscences shed light on the function and atmosphere inside the Ministry of Information during the war years.
Yesterday I attended the opening plenary session of the annual conference of the International Association of Media and Communication Research at the University of Leicester. I heard excellent speeches first from Professor Graham Murdock, Professor of Culture and Economy at Loughborough University and then Dr Shakuntala Banaji, Lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
In this otherwise enlightening session, I did detect a certain negativity about elements of digital culture that stood out to me. I think it stems from the inclusion of examples from digital culture in presentations without the critical interpretation that I expected at this level.
The first speaker made some fascinating points about the potential limiting effects of digital media and its role in contested spaces and the public sphere. However to illustrate his point he included in his presentation a screenshot of Pokémon Go and argued that those who play the game are cut off from the things around them and instead of engaging with the world they spend time chasing on-screen monsters that ‘aren’t even real’ and try to ‘kill’ them.
He then argued that Pokémon Go is the ‘antithesis’ of the We‘re HereBecause We‘re Here project which commemorated the Battle of the Somme by placing actors playing soldiers in public spaces. While both of these phenomena exhibit different ways of using public space, and of course arguments can be made about the negative elements of Pokémon Go, this juxtaposition seems a little contrived and opportunistic. Pokémon Go is a video game designed to entertain and so it is an easy target to be criticised when directly compared to an inherently worthwhile and emotive project to commemorate the lives of thousands of soldiers who died in the First World War.
Equally problematic was the clear lack of knowledge of how Pokémon Go functions and is used. I have used Pokémon Go and it differs from many other digital entertainment activities in that it requires the user to walk outside the home and it can facilitate socialising and exploration. My experience of using the game have been positive. But I am sure that some others have had negative experiences. Like every element of society, its effects are mixed and complex and cannot be summed up in one sentence. I am sure that a great deal of interesting research will be done into the cultural and social effects of Pokémon Go and similar apps and I welcome this research.
The game is a cultural object and like all other cultural objects, such as books and films, it deserves to be thoroughly researched and fully understood before it is used in an example to illustrate the damaging nature of the modern digital world.
I think that the use of an image of Pokémon Go in this presentation demonstrates the dangers of preparing short presentations and looking for images to support arguments. I am sure that the arguments behind the presentation were incredibly nuanced and considered, but I had the sense that the examples used were picked hastily in order to ensure the presentation was topical and humorous.
Another example I wanted to highlight was a photograph included in the same presentation to illustrate the negative influence of smartphone technology. The photograph is of a group of teenagers sitting staring at their smartphones in front of Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The photograph went viral in 2014 as many people interpreted it as a clear example of how young people today are more interested in their phones than a great work of art: ‘a perfect metaphor for our age’. And the speaker echoed this sentiment.
However since it was posted online, much has been written about this photograph, its context and interpretation. There is evidence to suggest that the teenagers were actually engaging with a museum-designed app or researching the painting. Other photos were shared in response showing teenagers engaging with the paintings in a variety of creative ways, encouraged by the museum’s education team.
However, my criticism is not in itself with the potential misinterpretation of this photograph. Mobile phones can distract people from things around them, and surely it is not news to anyone that children have in the past experienced boredom when visiting art galleries and museums. This is not an issue inherent to the new digital world. But what struck me most of all was that this photograph could be reproduced in an academic presentation opening an international conference on media and communications research, and given the most basic interpretive explanation. It was simply used to illustrate the speaker’s point about the detrimental impact of digital media and technology in modern life.
Again this just highlights to me the dangers of using images found on the internet to illustrate broad societal arguments. If anything, by reproducing this viral image again, the speaker was reinforcing the exact superficiality and oversimplification of digital culture that he was criticizing. We all must be careful, even when attempting to summarise larger complex arguments, not to find examples to fit theories and not to use images in an illustrative uncritical way.
A few months ago I spent over 80 hours in The Keep, an archive near Brighton, reading the written thoughts and memories of 235 people on the subject of the Second World War. This material was collected by the Mass Observation Project, an initiative that originating during the war but was revived in 1981 to record the thoughts and experiences of people in the UK on a variety of topics. The project recruits volunteers to make up a national writing panel. They are sent ‘directives’ which ask them questions about certain topics and then they write responses and send them back in. These anonymous texts make up a fantastic resource for researchers as they cover so many topics including current events.
My research focuses on how people remember the Second World War today, and in particular how they remember materials created by the Ministry of Information during the war. This Mass Observation material has been a really useful starting point for me, as I have been able to read people’s accounts of their own memories and thought processes and pick out references they make to the Ministry of Information. I will be presenting the results of this research at this year’s International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference at the University of Leicester.
But beyond the content analysis that I conducted, which focuses closely on the core aims of my research project, there are some more general observations I’d like to explore here. Reading this material has been an amazing experience. It is so fascinating to spend time reading the individual thoughts and feelings of ordinary people, often presented in stream-of-consciousness fashion. Many of the responses flow so naturally, as the writer’s thoughts turn from one specific memory to wider topics and emotions rise and fall and spur them on to the next topic. Some of the stories people share are so moving and others really funny – reading these genuinely did make me laugh and cry!
Here are just a few things that really struck me while working on the Mass Observation archive:
Mass Observation is a good listener
People share things in their responses that they have never shared with a friend or relative. For some people the Mass Observation project serves as a personal diary, an opportunity to share emotions, opinions and experiences that they have never had the opportunity to share before. No doubt it is the anonymous nature of the project that allows people to feel comfortable opening up in their writing. However some state that they’ve never been asked or found the right moment to share their stories, and when you read this kind of sentiment from people in their 80s it is particularly sad.
Some of the stories people share are unbelievably sad, and you get the sense in their responses that they are letting out a degree of emotion that they are not often able to. One woman relates her feelings about the death of her boyfriend in the RAF almost 70 years after it happened and her description is so arresting and poignant that I felt like I was there.
One man seemed to approach the directive as an opportunity to tell his life story. He was born into severe poverty before the war and had a very hard upbringing, but his life was changed drastically by the war when he joined the RAF and his eyes were opened to the world. His story is exciting, moving and completely riveting. I was thinking as I was reading it that it would make an excellent film. But this document may be the only account of his incredible life and he appreciated the opportunity to put it down in writing.
The grass is always greener during the war
People are never truly happy with their current situation as they can always find things to criticize, so in comparison the past is remembered fondly. This is something which is even more apparent with memories of the Second World War when terms link ‘Blitz Spirit’ are actively employed to describe wartime society. Many people write about the war as having been a time when community spirit was good, people were friendly, the streets were safer and everybody worked hard. Some even slip into proverbial language:
“during the war you could leave your door unlocked”
It is important to note that many of those with positive reports about wartime society were children during the war. Older respondents usually have a more balanced view. Some writers acknowledge that the war they experienced in childhood was probably a little rose tinted.
“I think adults were always careful to play down the danger element which is why my childhood seemed so happy to me”
Modern life is of course terrible. People cite the ‘crooked ways of politicians and councillors’, ‘childhood obesity’, ‘malnutrition in the poorest climes of Britain’, ‘greediness and materialism’, ‘the greedy, the work-shy, the hangers-on’ as building up to a picture of Britain that is thoroughly rotten in comparison to the good old days of the Second World War. Since these responses were written in 2009 it is notable that MPs’ expenses are commonly mentioned and employed to illustrate the problems in modern society.
Young people are also a target for criticism, in that they are compared with the brave men and women who fought and worked during the Second World War.
“The youth of today takes that gift of freedom for granted”
“Sometimes, we old ones who survived the war feel a sort of contempt for the people we’re breeding now”
And this does not only come from older respondents. The youngest volunteer who responded to this directive, who is 16 years old, wrote that he doesn’t ‘think young people respect or even know the eminence and horrors during war’:
“it is usually young people that are my age, they do not respect the fallen, the people that gave their lives so willingly to let the children of tomorrow have a chance to grow up in a world where we are not judged or persecuted”
Don’t leave it too late to talk to relatives
One thing that I found particularly upsetting when reading these responses was the number of times people would express regret that they never asked their older relatives about their experiences in the war.
Those who had parents who were alive during the war often report that it never crossed their mind to ask their parents about the war, or that they thought it was a subject nobody wanted to talk about. For younger respondents who had grandparents who experienced the war, they often explain that by the time they were old enough to take an interest in the war and talk to their grandparents about it, their grandparents were too old or ill or had passed away.
“My maternal grandfather flew both bombing and supply missions. Shamefully, I didn’t ask nearly enough about this when I was growing up and by the time I realised that I should do this my grandfather was dead”.
For some, their interest in the Second World War only really developed later in life when it was too late to ask questions to relatives. I relate to this regret and sadness as I also missed the opportunity to ask my grandparents about their experiences during wartime. The Mass Observation responses have made me acutely aware of how common a regret this is, so now I take every opportunity to urge people to talk to their grandparents now if they are able to. The evidence from the older respondents shows that they are often willing to share their stories but they think that their children and grandchildren are not interested. This is a catch 22 that we must overcome!
However in a few cases, the problem is reversed. One older writer laments his lack of memory of the war since his grandchildren are so interested:
“In some ways I feel that I am sorry my recollections are few and hazy – my grandchildren want to know more and I can’t help them except by books etc.”
Recently we’ve seen a bit of a craze for infographics: they are appearing in dedicated coffee table books on every subject, you now find them frequently in newspapers, magazines and online articles and all over social media. It is likely that social media has had some influence on this, since infographics make it easier for complex and often dull information to be shared within an eye-catching 140 characters with just a couple of clicks. Additionally it is now much easier to produce infographics with the availability of easy-to-use free software.
However, people have always wanted to share information with the public and visual images have always been a successful method of attracting attention. While that word ‘infographic’ only began to appear in the second half of the 20th century, they have existed in media under other names as soon as printing technology allowed them to.
One period when these kinds of images came into their own was during the Second World War, when graphic design techniques were flourishing and information needed to be controlled and disseminated quickly and successfully.
The Ministry of Information had the task of presenting data about the progress of the war to the British people in a way that would be interesting and inspiring. Statistics on their own wouldn’t achieve much so a variety of creative imagery was used. They use sillhouetted symbols to represent more complex occurances and concepts such as industrial plant attacks, and they vary the size of symbols to represent differences. These methods were employed increasingly after the end of the war, particularly to emphasise the success of Britain’s industrial recovery. All of the examples below come from the National Archives.
The spread of rumour and gossip has always been a topic of concern for governments in need of public cohesion and obedience. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the British government displayed exactly this concern and took action to try to suppress rumours that they thought would be damaging to morale.
The first posters issued by the Ministry of Information, ‘Careless talk costs lives’, were designed by comic artist Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird) and were generally perceived as being successful. They were understated and humorous and simply warned the public against inadvertantly giving secrets away to the enemy.
In 1942, other posters were designed to urge commissioned officers to be weary of discussing military matters around women – ‘Keep mum, she’s not so dumb’. It seemed that the MoI believed this to be a major problem. The National Archives:
The campaign was to make a direct appeal along the lines of ‘Cherchez la femme’, as a reminder that ‘when in the company of a beautiful woman, remember that beauty may conceal brains’. Service personnel seemed particularly ready to disclose their station and line of work.
These campaigns were concerned only with inadvertant sharing of secrets, and so they were not perceived as aggressive or divisive. However, later efforts attempted to silence rumour and gossip more generally and these were far less subtle. Some posters relied on simple commands, not to those spreading rumours, but to those who might listen: ‘Lock the door, close your ears to rumours’, ‘Emphatically refuse to listen to anything but official news’.
Other examples of the MoI’s less than successful propaganda include the ‘Silent Column’ campaign. The campaign encouraged the belief that all rumours or negative opinions of the war were dangerous and should be suppressed and people should actively report one another to the police. It used characters such as ‘Mr. Knowall’ and Miss Leaky Mouth’ to separate out and vilify members of the public who were regarded as being damaging to morale. In his book Ministry of Morale, Ian McLaine argues that this, combined with the targeting and rounding up of aliens in Britain, created an ‘atmosphere of suspicion unconducive to national unity’.
McLaine argues that these examples demonstrate that the propagandists had the mistaken idea that the British public would inherently bow to authority due to their obsession with class differences. With these failures, it soon became obvious that there was a gap between those in authority and the British public and this misunderstanding between them was in itself harmful to morale.
With this increased awareness and the outlook of the new Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, appointed in 1941, the Ministry shifted its focus towards disseminating information and away from restricting and controlling it.
Posters provide striking and familiar visuals that illustrate, decorate and inform the public about the Second World War. The Imperial War Museum displays these posters in some of its exhibits as you might expect, but they also appear as reproductions in the gift shop, in the form of magnets, postcards and – of course – posters!
What’s particularly interesting about the use of these artefacts is which ones are on display and where, and which are nowhere to be seen.
The Imperial War Museum has a new permanent exhibition, ‘A Family in Wartime’ which focuses on the British home front. It follows the lives of members of the Allpress family, living on Priory Grove in London. On display there are reconstructions of the rooms of their house, as they would have looked during the war.
Each room is decorated with posters which relate to the theme, so for example in the kitchen you can see ‘save bread and you save lives; serve potatoes and you serve the country’, ‘grow your own food’, ‘doctor carrot’ and ‘dig for victory now’ among others. Above the coat hooks there is ‘take your gas mask everywhere’ and ‘wait, count 15, slowly, before moving in the blackout’.
These choices of posters seem to be designed to give a general impression of what the family might have seen around them during the war. They also inform visitors about the range of campaigns that were running. However there are no accompanying captions so it is difficult to know where and when these posters were displayed.
The selection of these posters may also be influenced by their visual impact: the more striking the image, the more likely it will attract the eyes of visitors. However the place where this phenomenon is most obvious is in the gift shop. The most visually interesting and memorable posters make it onto the shelves, combined together with posters from other wars, photographs and other types of image.
In the shop you can find posters that do not appear in the exhibition, perhaps because they do not fit into the thematic room contexts of the design. This demonstrates how exhibition design can affect the choice of images; what is seen in the exhibition may not reflect the images that surrounded the Allpress family during the war. Equally, what is available in the gift shop reflects the desires of visitors far more than being a representative selection of war images.
The most notable example of this is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, which does not appear in the exhibition yet is available in many forms in the gift shop. As it was never actually displayed during the war, it would be inaccurate to display it in the museum itself, however the visiting public are so familiar with the image and connect it so closely to their vision of the Second World War, that they want and expect to be able to purchase reproductions of it in the IWM gift shop.
There are many more obscure posters that are not represented in the museum, but can be found in the Poster of Conflict collection which is part of the Visual Arts Data Service. These are perhaps overlooked because they are less visually striking or memorable, the subject matter does not fit neatly with common exhibition themes, or perhaps just because it is preferable to display the most famous posters. It’s quite clear how the continual repetition of the same posters in museum displays comes about.
What strikes me about some of the more obscure poster examples is how seemingly small and insignificant their topics and messages are. They are not reinforcing large patriotic campaigns such as ‘Dig for Victory’, but instead urge people to ‘wipe up oil’, ‘fence or guard all openings’ and ‘stagger working hours’. The prevention of the spread of venereal disease is also a common subject, but clearly this is a less popular subject for modern public exhibitions at the Imperial War Museum!
Does this image look familiar to you? If you’re in the UK you have probably seen it, or images like it, hundreds of times before, particularly last year. And it’s likely that this simple silhouette instantly leads your mind to wander to the mud and trenches of the First World War. But why has this silhouette become so persistent in modern British culture?
Every historical event or era generates a selection of images and some of these images tend to become more popular than others. One or two may achieve “iconic” status and are so often repeated that they end up symbolising that event or era. Due to the very visual nature of modern media, this process is heightened: every article, webpage or news report needs to be illustrated quickly and publishers and broadcasters often reach for the most obvious example.
The First World War was the first war to be extensively photographed and so the images that resulted from the conflict have been used and reused for nearly a century. Of course, over time, a few of these images have stood out and are well remembered in British culture.
However what I think is particularly interesting about First World War images is that it is not that one image has become iconic, it is that one image style that has become iconic. You will find this line of soldiers in silhouette all over the place in the media, sometimes in the form of a photograph, sometimes in the form of an illustration. While the photographs below may have begun this trend, it is not these images which are famous, it is the silhouette itself.
These photographs were taken by Ernest Brooks, who was sent to the Wesern Front in March 2016 as one of the first official war photographers in that area. He had previously worked at the Daily Mirror and had an eye for what would make a photograph striking and popular. Here favoured photographs of soldiers silhouetted against the horizon and two of these silhouette photos were published in The Sphere on 20 October 1917 with the words: ‘I doubt if winning 1,000 yards ever called for or found finer and sterner qualities’.
These photographs were very popular with the public, perhaps simply for their eye-catching qualities. Their reuse in later years also attests their popularity. The anonymous nature of these images mean that they are able to represent and memorialise every fallen soldier. This chimes with popular perception of the war (specifically with the tomb of The Unknown Warrior) and makes it easier for publishers to use these images as a solemn illustration, without highlighting or identifying any specific individual.
Examples of the repetition of this visual style are everywhere – I suggest you look out for it when you encounter anything relating to the First World War in the media. You can find these soldiers on the covers of books and magazines, website headers (I wonder if simply the landscape format lends these images to this use!), advertising and on television, notably in the titles for the HBO series Band of Brothers. This and other examples demonstrate that the visual style extends to other wars, not just the First World War.
I went to a digital history seminar last week at the Institute of Historical Research entitled ‘The Challenge of Digital Sources in the Web Age: Common Tensions Across Three Web Histories, 1994-2015′. The speaker was Ian Milligan who is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Waterloo and specialises in historians’ use of web archives.
In his talk he discussed a range of web archives and how they can be used by historians, but one stood out in particular as it archives material that many of us might remember. It is the GeoCities archive.
GeoCities was an internet hosting service, which was set up in 1994 to allow ordinary people to set up their own websites. It was designed as an online version of a physical community where users (or “homesteaders”) would set up their sites within one of a range of “cities” or “neighborhoods”, each of which had a name and associated theme.
In 1994 it served an excellent purpose: to ease people into the concept of the internet by associating it with the physical space of the real world. The service started with 6 neighborhoods and by 1996 it had twenty-nine. It gained popularity and by 1999 it was the third most popular website on the web. It was at this point that Yahoo! purchased GeoCities for over three billion dollars.
As the years went by and the internet became slicker, the GeoCities pages were ridiculed for their amateurish design and use of animated gifs and this perhaps what people remember about it today. Many people left the service following Yahoo!’s takeover and interest in GeoCities waned as the company diverted resources to more profitable areas. In 2009 Yahoo! announced that the US version of GeoCities would close; users were given litle notice before all the pages were deleted.
Luckily, some people realised that GeoCities could offer an invaluable insight into not only the history of the early web but also the lives of thousands of ordinary people. The Archive Team and the Internet Archive rushed to take snapshots of the GeoCities communities and so today we still have a record of this unique early web experiment.
In his talk (and also in this blog) Ian Milligan explores the varied ways historians can use the vast amounts of data in the archive to understand how web communities developed, track topics and concepts and identify community leaders. Milligan argues that:
It will be one of the largest records of the lives of non-elite people ever. The Old Bailey Online can rightfully describe their 197,000 trials as the “largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published” between 1674 and 1913. But GeoCities, drawing on the material we have between 1996 and 2009, has over thirty-eight million pages.
These are the records of everyday people who published on the Web, reaching audiences far bigger than previously imaginable.
You can find more details about how to view old GeoCities pages and about the archiving projects on the Internet Archive and on Archive Team’s wiki. You can also hear more detail about this project and several other web archives by watching this recording of the IHR digital history seminar:
Dover’s chalky terrain has not only given the town it’s unmistakeable landscape, but has also added extra layers of historical depth to its most famous monument. A visit to Dover Castle is certainly a full day out as it is the largest castle in England, its history spans over 1,000 years and unlike many other English castles it has been used for active defence purposes right into the 20th century.
While the medieval castle dominates the landscape and has its own fascinating history, one of the most interesting elements of the area is the network of tunnels dug into the chalk. People have been tunnelling into the hill from the earliest days of fortification. You can visit the defensive medieval tunnels underneath the north entrance to the castle which are not very deep, but contain features such as remotely controlled doors.
On the south side of the hill, there is a much deeper and more complex network of tunnels which were first opened up in the late eighteenth century to serve as barracks for soldiers. These were created due to the fear of a French invasion during the Napoleonic wars. The conditions for the soldiers were very poor. Vents were built into the tunnels to allow air to circulate, but these also allowed water to enter which ran through the entire network.
The tunnels continued to be used to store ammunition following the defeat of Napoleon and during the First World War. With the outbreak of the Second World War, the tunnels were transformed and expanded to provide secure centres of operations for Army, Air Force and Navy. The tunnels became a functioning operational base with mess rooms, kitchens, communications rooms, barracks and a hospital for wounded soldiers.
There are two tours you can do when you visit the castle: the Underground Hospital and Operation Dynamo. Unfortunately photography is not permitted which explains the lack of relevant images in this post! The hospital tour is a shorter tour through the hospital rooms, which have been reconstructed using photographs as they would have looked in the early 1940s. With a soundtrack and English Heritage guide, the tour takes you through the journey of a wounded soldier arriving at the hospital and you make your way through the wards and into surgery.
Operation Dynamo – Rescue from Dunkirk is a longer tour through the operational HQ of the Admiralty, however it has a much broader scope, using audio-visual displays to take you through the run up to war, the early stages of the war and the evacuation of Dunkirk. The Dunkirk section is particularly good as you move through a long room with a large video projection on one wall showing how the evacuation unfolded. The next sections of the tour are self-guided as you move through rooms with reconstructions of communications and planning equipment.
English Heritage have done a pretty good job of bringing the Second World War history of the tunnels to life in quite a lot of detail while still making clear their earlier history, for example by pointing out examples of eighteenth century graffiti. I’d say both tours are a must-see for any visit to Dover.