Frank Brangwyn’s realistic portrayals of combat shocked Great Britain’s War Department, but recruiting officers begged him for more.
In 1914 newsreels were an infant technology and radio broadcasts had not begun, but the poster was already a fully developed medium of mass communication. Made possible by the development of inexpensive printing methods and an increasingly urban society, posters advertised everything from beer to biscuits.
When Europe went to war in August 1914, governments used posters on a previously unknown scale: to foster hatred of the enemy, to inspire civilian sacrifice, and to celebrate the heroism of the men in the trenches. Great Britain, the only major European power with no compulsory service requirement at the start of the war, also used posters to encourage enlistment.
While its European counterparts drew on a thriving poster art tradition, the British Parliamentary Recruiting Committee (PRC) commissioned posters directly from the printers. The same commercial artists who created advertising posters designed the PRC posters, advertising the war as if it were soap. At the lowest level, they produced simple letterpress handbills that exhorted readers: “More men are wanted today. What can you do?” “What will your answer be when your boy asks you, ‘Father what did you do to help?’” “Women of Britain, Won’t you help and send a man today?”
At their best, posters such as Savile Lumley’s Daddy, What Did You Do in the Great War? used the conventions of commercial illustration to send the same message. One American critic, writing in the advertising trade magazine The Poster in 1918, described the early British posters as “a kind of blackmail.”
There were exceptions to the generally poor quality of Britain’s recruiting posters. Several years earlier Frank Pick, director of the Underground Electric Railway Company of London, had commissioned well-known artists to design posters for the Underground system. When the PRC asked Pick to place recruiting posters in the train stations, he refused to use the official posters, asserting they lacked artistic quality. Instead, he commissioned pieces from the same artists he had used to advertise the railway. Most notable among them was François Guillaume Brangwyn (1867-1956).
Virtually unknown today, Frank Brangwyn was one of the most famous artists of the early twentieth century. He was born in Bruges, Belgium, where his Welsh father had a workshop that made and restored ecclesiastical furnishings, from stained glass windows to tapestries. Brangwyn’s formal artistic training was limited to two years in the workshops of William Morris, one of the founders of the Arts and Crafts movement, where he enlarged and transferred Morris designs. He left the Morris workshop in 1884 and crewed on coastal sailing vessels until he could support himself with his art.
By 1914, Brangwyn was at the height of his career, with an international reputation in such a variety of art forms that his work was hard to classify. His brilliantly colored oil paintings moved from the realism of the Barbizon tradition through the rapid brush strokes of Impressionism to an abstraction of color and form that bordered on Modernism. A leader in the revival of mural painting, he received commissions to create murals in public buildings from Paris to the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. In these murals, he celebrated the relationship between empire, progress, industry, and labor.
Brangwyn designed furniture, carpets, and pottery. He was a regular contributor to magazines such as the Illustrated London News and The Graphic, and illustrated the works of everyone from Rudyard Kipling to Omar Khayyam. He also wrote several books.
Brangwyn had begun to experiment with printmaking in 1899. By 1905, he had established himself as an innovative printmaker with an international reputation. He rebelled against James Whistler’s dictum that etchings should be small and subtle, producing big plates with coarse lines, dramatic shadows, and bold compositions. In his prints as in his murals, Brangwyn repeatedly returned to the laboring man, depicting shipbuilders, tanners, brick makers, and stevedores with realism as well as empathy.
Brangwyn brought those same qualities of sympathetic portrayal and dramatic composition to the recruiting poster he designed for Frank Pick in 1914. Disturbed by the losses sustained by Belgium, his boyhood home, Brangwyn created images of war-torn Europe to arouse sympathy and inspire viewers to want to help.
Brangwyn centered his figures in war-stricken landscapes. In one poster, an older man shelters a young woman in his arm as she holds an infant. The adults stare bleakly into space. An older woman stands behind them, her hands clasped over her face. The dead and dying sprawl at their feet. A British soldier gestures at the smoldering ruins in the background of the print. Refugees stream from the fallen town like ants. Today that poster is known as Britain’s Call to Arms, after its printed slogan, but Brangwyn called it The Violation of Belgium.
The London Underground displayed that stark black-and-white lithograph in all its stations. The War Office demanded that Pick remove the posters because they “showed too much of the horrors of war,” but recruiting officers all over Britain wrote directly to Brangwyn, asking for copies because it was so effective. Responding to the outpouring of interest, the War Office allowed the posters to remain. Brangwyn followed Britain’s Call to Arms with At Neuve Chapelle: Your Friends Need You, in addition to Be a Man and To Arms, Citizens of the Empire!!
Although he worked outside the official system, Brangwyn was one of the most prolific creators of wartime propaganda in Great Britain. He produced eighty posters for war-related causes, including a U.S. Navy recruiting poster. Many of his pieces were fundraising posters for charities that helped victims of the war and supported the troops, including the National Fund for Welsh Troops, the Army Orphanage Service, and the Soldiers and Sailors Tobacco Fund. Brangwyn was particularly active in campaigns to help Belgians, producing posters to aid Belgian soldiers at the front in 1916 and a series of posters to support Belgian reconstruction in 1918.
His fundraising posters featured the same bleak vision of war as his recruiting posters. They realistically portray life at the front. His Tommies march against backgrounds of burning cities, huddle over their cigarettes as if trying to gain warmth from the burning tobacco, and limp out of smoke-filled backgrounds, supported by stronger comrades. His work was so ubiquitous that novelist Arnold Bennett, who sat on the committee that selected official war artists, described him as “the inevitable Brangwyn.”
Brangwyn finally received an official commission in 1918. The National War Savings Committee hired him to produce a poster for the War Bond campaign, and he brought the same sense of brutal realism to the assignment that he showed in his recruiting and charity posters. Captioned Put Strength in the Final Blow: Buy War Bonds, Brangwyn’s original poster shows a British soldier bayoneting a German soldier in the chest. The viewer’s eye is directed down the barrel of the British soldier’s rifle toward the German’s face, which is framed by the two rifles and his own raised arms. The impaled German faces the viewer directly, his face contorted with pain. The force of the blow has lifted him off his feet. The English soldier stands on a rise above him, so solidly balanced on his feet that it is hard to believe he has produced a blow of such force.
English art circles greatly admired this poster. It also made quite an impression in Germany. The kaiser reportedly put a price on Brangwyn’s head because of Put Strength in the Final Blow. For the rest of his life, Brangwyn reported that story with great pride. But the War Savings Committee did not share their appreciation. No more comfortable with Brangwyn’s vision of war than the War Office had been, committee members issued a less explicit version of the poster several weeks later.
In that variant, the two soldiers stand level on an open battlefield. The bayonet thrust has not yet happened. The German soldier falls back, but his feet remain firmly on the ground and his face is turned away from the viewer, impersonalizing the foe. Even the caption has been toned down, exhorting the viewer to Back Him Up: Buy War Bonds.
Brangwyn was given one last opportunity to produce an official representation of the war. In 1924 Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, commissioned him to produce a series of murals for the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords. The murals were intended as a memorial to the sons of peers who had died in the war. But instead of portraying heroic sacrifice, Brangwyn’s proposed murals, similar in style to the paintings of soldier-artists Wyndham Lewis and C.R. Nevinson, show soldiers overshadowed by the massive inhumanity of ships and tanks.
In one panel, The Call to Arms and Departure for the Front, Brangwyn crowds a shallow foreground with departing soldiers and their families, dwarfed by an embarkation ramp and winch. In a second, A Tank in Action, soldiers run diagonally across a canvas filled with the rubble of bombed-out buildings, barely staying ahead of an outsized tank that fills the horizon behind them.
Brangwyn’s vision of the war might have been similar to that of men who had actually fought, but it was not acceptable to a conservative audience looking for a memorial to their dead. Lord Iveagh rejected the sketches as too grim before Brangwyn had finished half of them. They are now displayed in Brangwyn Hall, in the Swansea Civic Center.
Brangwyn worked as an artist until his death in 1956. In 1952 the Royal Academy staged a retrospective exhibition of his work, the first ever to honor a living artist. But despite such recognition, Brangwyn’s position in Britain’s artistic community changed with the end of World War I.
Once his work had showed too much of the horrors of war for official commissions; later on, a younger generation of artists who had been radicalized by their own war experiences (and also influenced by the Modernist aesthetic) derided Brangwyn’s art as too tame.
Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.