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Call to arms

Alfred Leete's design for this First World War recruiting poster is one of the most copied and parodied posters ever produced. Helena Stride explores why it had so much impact

Alfred Leete 1882-1933

Alfred Leete was born in Thorpe Achurch, Northampton and trained as a printer from the age of 15. In 1905 he decided to become a full-time illustrator and cartoon drawer after having an illustration accepted by Punch magazine. His greatest claim to fame is his poster design of Lord Kitchener, which has been copied and parodied ever since. He continued to work for Punch until his death in 1933.

Alfred Leete's design of Lord Kitchener has become an iconic image of the First World War. It seems to sum up the need for a call to arms and the power of propaganda to persuade men to join the army to fight for King and country. It reminds us how images and words are used to appeal to different sentiments - patriotism, honour, duty, hate, comradeship and adventure - and how persuasive they were at the time.

At the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914, there were only 450,000 men in the British army, with 268,000 part-time soldiers in the Territorial Force.

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had the foresight to realise that the war would be long and costly. He took immediate steps to expand the army into so-called "new armies", which were also known collectively as "Kitchener's Army". The Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) - an all-party body formed at the end of August 1914 - supervised the most concerted leaflet and poster recruiting drive this country had ever seen.

By the end of March 1915 it was estimated that 20 million leaflets and two million posters had been issued with more than 200 designs. The Imperial War Museum has 176 of these. The commissioning of posters was often done in a haphazard way. A suggestion would be made by a printer and approved by the committee, then the poster would be drawn up and published. "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?", which was designed by Sir James Gunn, is a good example of this.

In a letter to the Imperial War Museum, his son, artist Paul Gunn, explains how this image came about: "One night my father came home very worried about the war situation and discussed with my mother whether he should volunteer. He happened to come into where I was asleep and quite casually said to my mother, "If I don't join the forces whatever will I say to Paul after the war if he turns to me and says, 'What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?' He suddenly turned round to my mother and said that would make a marvellous slogan for a recruiting poster."

When looking at posters such as these, it's important that students think of their context as well as applying a modern response. "Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?" uses emotional blackmail on the male viewer. It is designed to make him feel guilty, irresponsible and lacking in moral fibre if he doesn't enlist.

Other posters apply different methods of persuasion. In 1914, rights and legitimacy were very effective messages to reinforce, especially as Germany had violated Belgian neutrality that same year. In 1893 Britain and Germany had signed the Treaty of London promising to uphold and protect Belgium as an independent and neutral state. This so called "scrap of paper" was reproduced on posters with the message: "Can Britons stand by while Germany crushes an innocent people?"

Hate and righteous indignation were important weapons in the propaganda arsenal. One version of the "Remember Belgium" posters (artist unknown, serial number: PR16) shows a British soldier standing lost in thought, behind him a burning village with a mother and child escaping. "Remember Scarborough!" (artist unknown) details the aftermath of the German Navy's attack on the seaport on December 16, 1914, with the information that 78 women and children were killed and 228 injured. In contrast, some posters appeal to the idea of comradeship and adventure. Typical slogans are: "Come along boys", "Line up boys", "Join the brave throng" and "He's happy and satisfied", showing images of healthy, handsome, smiling young men. Using other source material, such as letters and photos, consider how these positive images compare with reality. There's no suggestion of the lack of equipment and inadequate training, or the harsh physical and mental difficulties in store.

What made Leete's poster of Lord Kitchener stand out from the others and influence countless designs? It was originally produced for the cover of the magazine London Opinion, on September 5, 1914. This design was presented by Leete to the Imperial War Museum and can be seen in the First World War exhibition. The simple composition of a head, right arm and hand is painted in watercolour with delicate washes of grey. Leete has captured Lord Kitchener's steely gaze and foreshortened the right arm and hand so that it takes up as much space as the head. The right index finger appears to almost penetrate through the paper and into the viewer's space. The original design had "Your Country Needs You". For the poster version the message was changed to Britons "Wants You" Join Your Country's Army!, with Lord Kitchener insisting that "God Save the King" be added at the bottom.

The speech marks imply he is speaking to the viewer.

It's difficult to know how posters like this influenced recruiting figures.

No doubt they did have some impact alongside leaflets, newspapers, speeches, news from the Front and peer pressure. But despite there being two million volunteers, the government needed more men and were forced to resort to compulsion. On January 25, 1916, the First Military Service Bill was passed introducing conscription for single men aged 19 to 35, and on May 16 this was extended to cover married men.

Among the best-known imitators of this design is the American First World War poster "I Want You for U.S. Army" by James Montgomery Flagg, with Uncle Sam in the same pose, and the Second World War poster of Winston Churchill and the words "Deserve Victory!" by Bill Little. Perhaps the most interesting offspring of all is the anti-war poster "I Want You For U.S.

Army", produced by Personality Posters during the Vietnam War, which parodies Flagg's image of Uncle Sam. The original image of Uncle Sam is torn open and a skeleton beckons the viewer. It's a reminder that one of the possible consequences of going to war, for the volunteer or conscripted soldier, is death.

Helena Stride is head of education at the Imperial War Museum, London Alfred Leete's poster design of Lord Kitchener is on display in the Imperial War Museum's First World War exhibition. Admission is free. School parties must pre-book. Tel: 020 7416 53135444The museum has more than 10,000 posters. Many of these are on display, but to view those that aren't, contact the art department. Tel: 020 7416 5211 Information and archives. Tel: 020 7416


Key stages 3 and 4 English and historylJMake a list of words and phrases about war. This could include guilty, patriotism, conscience, male pride, sense of duty and heroism. Ask students to decide which of these emotions the posters are designed to appeal to most. lJShow an image without the caption and get students to make up one that appeals to a particular emotion.


* Look at recruitment posters alongside photos and documents.

History and citizenship

* Students are working for the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee devising a recruitment campaign. They are given evidence, such as photos, journal extracts and letters about casualties and conditions in the trenches. Can they modify their campaign to be more truthful? Can they reach a compromise?


* James Montgomery Flag designed his version of the Lord Kitchener poster "I Want You for U.S. Army" by looking in the mirror. Students can create their own versions, with a foreshortened arm and finger, and add their own captions.

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