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War Propaganda Bureau: 1914-1918

John Simkin

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On 2nd September, 1914, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, Charles Masterman, the head of the War Propaganda Bureau, organised a secret meeting of Britain's leading writers, to discuss ways of best promoting the country's interests during the war. Those who attended the meeting included Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, John Masefield, Ford Madox Ford, William Archer, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Henry Newbolt, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, Gilbert Parker, G. M. Trevelyan and H. G. Wells. (George Bernard Shaw was the only leading writer not invited - they felt he could not be trusted)

All the writers present at the conference agreed to the utmost secrecy, and it was not until 1935 that the activities of the War Propaganda Bureau became known to the general public. Several of the men who attending the meeting agreed to write pamphlets and books that would promote the government's view of the war.

In 1914 Conan Doyle wrote the recruiting pamphlet, To Arms!. The WPB arranged for Conan Doyle to go the Western Front and his pamphlet, A Visit to the Three Fronts was published in 1916. During the war Doyle also wrote his six volume history, The British Campaign in France and Flanders. Conan Doyle also wrote on the war for the Daily Chronicle.

The propaganda produced by these men resulted in hundreds of thousands of men joining the British Army. Large numbers of these men were killed, including Conan Doyle’s son, Kingsley Conan Doyle. Rudyard Kipling also lost his only son as a result of this propaganda. His response was to write two poems about the War Propaganda Bureau:

Common Form (1918)

If any question why we died.

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

A Dead Statesman (1924)

I could not dig; I dare not rob;

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine young and defrauded young.

Arthur Conan Doyle did not write any poetry about the loss of his son. Instead he became interested in spiritualism. I imagine he was trying to tell his son he was sorry.

You can find a full account of the War Propaganda Bureau (including the work done by other artists) here:


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  • 5 years later...

Albert Rhys Williams was an American journalist in Belgium in 1914. He was asked by another journalist: "Wouldn't you like to have a photograph of yourself in these war-surroundings, just to take home as a souvenir?" The idea appealed to him. After rejecting some commonplace suggestions, the journalist exclaimed: "I have it. Shot as a German Spy. There's the wall to stand up against; and we'll pick a crack firing-squad out of these Belgians."

Williams later recalled: "I acquiesced in the plan and was led over to the wall while a movie-man whipped out a handkerchief and tied it over my eyes. The director then took a firing squad in hand. He had but recently witnessed the execution of a spy where he had almost burst with a desire to photograph the scene. It had been excruciating torture to restrain himself. But the experience had made him feel conversant with the etiquette of shooting a spy, as it was being done amongst the very best firing-squads. He made it now stand him in good stead." A week later the photograph appeared in the Daily Mirror. It included the caption: "The Belgians have a short, sharp method of dealing with the Kaiser's rat-hole spies. This one was caught near Termonde and, after being blindfolded, the firing-squad soon put an end to his inglorious career."



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