How Great Britain's Secret Disinformation Campaign Paid Off In World War I

How Great Britain’s Secret Disinformation Campaign Paid Off In World War I

By Richard Ernsberger Jr.
Spring 2019 • MHQ Magazine

In 1914, days after it declared war on Germany, Great Britain set up a secret propaganda bureau to help defeat the enemy.

Charles C. G. Masterman was tapped to set up Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau. (Imperial War Museums)

IN 1917 BRITISH AND AMERICAN PUBLISHERS RELEASED what they said was a nonfiction book titled Christine, by Alice Cholmondeley. The book’s protagonist is a young English woman living in Berlin just before the outbreak of the World War I. She’s a violin student, and she frequently writes her widowed mother about her life in the German capital. At first she is happy and captivated by her experiences in Berlin, which a romance with a handsome German military officer. But as war approaches, Christine’s portrayal of the German people turns dark. They gradually reveal themselves to be not gracious but sour, conformist, and callous. The government announces harsh new regulations for civilians, the police become cruel, and Christine gets elbowed as she walks in the street. The Germans develop a bloodlust for the spoils of military victory. “The Germans have gone mad,” Christine writes. “The streets seem full of drunken people, shouting up and down with red faces all swollen with excitement.” Her impending marriage to the German officer is blocked, and when she tries to leave Germany she is stopped and held for hours. She develops pneumonia and dies in Stuttgart on August 8, 1914—just four days after Britain enters the war.

Readers in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere were moved by the woman’s tragic story—and appalled by the brutish behavior of the Germans. As was later learned, however, the book was a hoax. There was no young girl named Christine, and no author named Alice Cholmondeley. The real author was Countess Mary Annette (Elizabeth) Russell, a novelist who was married to the elder brother of English philospher Bertrand Russell. Her knowledge of Germany gave credibility to a clever work of propaganda, created by the British government to arouse international antipathy toward Germany. It succeeded brilliantly.

 

THE USE OF PROPAGANDA–THE SHAPING OF OPINION BY SYMBOLS, STORIES, RUMORS, reports, films, and other forms of communication—goes back at least to the 16th century, when Thomas More’s Utopians employed it to avoid war. Propaganda figured in the early 17th-century struggle between Catholicism and emerging Protestantism. But it wasn’t until the Great War that the concept of psychological warfare became a bona fide tactic to be used alongside the more conventional military and economic pressure.

By most accounts, Germany was the first of the combatant nations to use propaganda, but it was Great Britain that proved the more cunning manipulator of hearts and minds around the world. That was true for a couple of reasons: first, because Germany was the aggressor and therefore naturally on the back foot when it came to making its case for international support; and second, because the British government had created—in complete secrecy—a War Propaganda Bureau. From the Wellington House headquarters of the National Insurance Commission, it churned out books, pamphlets, illustrated magazines, cartoons, and movies, in many languages, that with sophistication and sometimes subtlety advanced the war aims of the British and their allies. The idea was to publish credible pro-­Entente material and distribute it through intermediaries to opinion leaders in neutral countries. That way the material would not be perceived as government propaganda.

Britain’s Wellington House operation helped to rally support for the war at home and in its Dominions and, more important, played a role in the decisions of neutral countries such as Italy, China, Greece, Romania, and especially the United States to throw in with the Allies. (Turkey and Bulgaria chose to fight with Germany.) It also undercut the morale of the German people. The British propaganda effort was unprecedented, improvised, and effective. And it was so secret that the British public didn’t learn of it until 1935. Historian M. L. Sanders judged the psychological campaign to be “vital to the war effort,” adding that British propaganda “proved far more effective in the United States than the crude, clumsy German propaganda at the beginning of the war.” In his War Memoirs, 1914–1918, German general Erich Ludendorff wrote that Germans were hypnotized by enemy propaganda “as a rabbit is by a snake.” It was, he added, an unobtrusive “onslaught of amazing force.”

 

THE WAR PROPAGANDA BUREAU WAS ORGANIZED AND RUN by Charles C. G. Masterman, a journalist, author, and once promising Liberal politician. A graduate of Christ College, Cambridge, Masterman was smart, jovial, and quick witted but also high strung and prone to depression. He had been elected to Parliament in 1906 and, soon after, married Lucy Lyttelton, whose family was politically well connected.

Masterman impressed his colleagues in the House of Commons and got a series of plum appointments, including undersecretary of state of the Home Office and then financial secretary to the Treasury. In the latter post he proved of enormous help to David Lloyd George, the chancellor of the Exchequer. Masterman was influential in the passage of important legislation, especially the National Insurance Act of 1911, which controversially created what is today Britain’s national health system. In 1914 Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith promoted Masterman to a cabinet position as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. In order to accept the promotion, Masterman was obliged to resign his seat in Parliament and run again in a special election. He lost, and then lost again in a different district. When Masterman waved off another election opportunity that Lloyd George proposed to him, he lost the support and friendship of a powerful colleague soon to be prime minister. That effectively ended his political career.

In August 1914 Asquith asked Masterman to take charge of a new War Propaganda Bureau. Masterman at first demurred—he was the chairman of the National Insurance Commission, based at Wellington House, and still had his cabinet position. But Asquith insisted, and Masterman took the job.

Masterman didn’t know much about the dark art, but he was clever enough to see the potential value in duplicity, in contrast to the heavy-handed war messages coming from Berlin. He aimed to be the “unseen engineer”—to borrow a phrase from French writer Anatole France—of Britain’s wartime communications.

One of Masterman’s first moves was to invite England’s literary elite to a meeting at Wellington House—Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy, and G. K. Chesterton, among others. Masterman asked for their help, and several agreed to write essays promoting the government’s point of view. At the same time, he persuaded England’s leading book publishers, including Thomas Nelson, Oxford University Press, and Macmillan, to publish the War Propaganda Bureau’s material. Together, the authors and publishers were useful cover, as was the National Insurance Commission behind whose walls the bureau operated.

Masterman hired an impressive array of academics, along with some 200 clerks. Oxford dons Arnold Toynbee and Edwyn Bevan were department officials. Most of the clerks were women or older men not fit to fight. Work was segregated into “national” sections—for Scandinavia, for Spain and Portugal, for South America, for Italy and Switzerland, and what Masterman called “a most important, special branch” for the United States. There were departments for Muslim countries, and the Holland section was charged with funneling propaganda into Germany. Analysts in each section not only studied press accounts and assessed public opinion in their assigned countries but also cultivated journalists and writers. The bureau also translated hundreds of speeches, newspaper articles, and official documents from various countries and had them distributed internationally.

(Imperial War Museums)
(Imperial War Museums)

 

Masterman favored “serious works, academic in tone and content, rather than political diatribes,” M. L. Sanders wrote, his aim being for readers to reach their own conclusions. Foreign Office representatives recommended distribution agents in target nations. According to Ian Cooke, curator of propaganda at the British Library, Masterman wanted to make the case for support of the Allied powers in a “sober” way. He did not like jingoism or expert speakers who, according to one Wellington House report, “rushed impulsively to lecture the United States on her duty in the war.”

Wellington House wasn’t the government’s only information operation. The Foreign Office News Department was the official source of war news for the foreign press in England, and the so-called Neutral Press Committee performed the same function in neutral countries. A National War Aims Committee was charged with producing domestic propaganda. Wellington House did nearly everything else, at least in the first two and a half years of the war. Its output was prodigious: By June 1915 Wellington House had published and distributed some two and a half million pamphlets and other documentary propaganda in 17 languages. By February 1916 the total had risen to some seven million. It also used the telegraph and Reuters News Service to reach readers in such countries as Egypt, Persia, and Argentina.

The bureau’s biggest coup was a publication titled Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages. Also known as the Bryce Report, for Lord James Bryce, an academic, politician, and former ambassador to the United States who headed the committee that produced it, this piece of atrocity propaganda purported to document crimes against Belgians by German troops occupying their country—including murder and rape. It featured some 1,200 depositions of witnesses to German atrocities in Belgium. Dutch illustrator Louis Raemaekers provided drawings to accompany the text. One case involved the execution of British nurse Edith Cavell, whom the Germans accused of helping Allied prisoners and Belgian citizens flee the country.

The Bryce Report triggered international outrage. Many of the eyewitness accounts were later discredited, but as Randal Marlin, a professor at Carleton University who specializes in the study of propaganda, has written, “they were sensational…and very effective in producing the desired result, namely, a sense of revulsion against Germany that strengthened the resolve of the Allies and helped to bring about the support of neutral nations.”

Jo Fox, a professor at Durham University who specializes in the history of propaganda, has noted that German atrocities were a “master narrative” of Allied propaganda. Among the many posters graphically depicting German brutishness was one showing a ghastly figure holding Cavell’s head on a salver; another showed a Belgian child impaled by a German bayonet. The sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania, the German use of poison gas, the Zeppelin raids on London—all were exploited by Wellington House to confirm the notion of German barbarism.

 

CULTIVATING AMERICAN JOURNALISTS AND OPINIONS LEADERS WAS A WELLINGTON HOUSE PRIORITY. Both Britain and Germany, desperate to find favor with President Woodrow Wilson’s government, were bombarding America with self-serving information. Given that Germans were the largest ethnic group in the United States (at nearly a tenth of its population in 1914), American support for the Allied war effort was anything but a sure thing. Britain (and France) needed U.S. financial aid and matériel, and, later, soldiers. Germany’s objective was to keep the United States out of the war. Berlin used posters, flyers, and German-­language newspapers in the United States to recruit German-­Americans for its army, to rally support for Kaiser Wilhelm II, and to promote its propaganda themes.

Masterman, according to M. L. Sanders, insisted that foreign reporters be supplied with “full and accurate information concerning the war, and…encouraged to write their own articles based on information supplied [by Wellington House].” Given the importance of winning U.S. support, he didn’t want to alienate American journalists by giving them reports that could be found to be false or only half true.

Sir Gilbert Parker, a Canadian novelist and politician, led the War Propaganda Bureau’s campaign in the United States. He established a mailing list of some 250,000 influential individuals and organizations and began sending them Wellington House pamphlets—including essays written by Galsworthy, Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Arnold Bennett. He distributed material to more than 500 U.S. newspapers. His approach, Parker later said, was “gentle and modest courtship.”

China and other countries got much the same treatment, though on a smaller scale. The British avoided buying or starting newspapers, but the Foreign Office agreed to finance the new Anglo-Japanese Review and subsidized a few papers in South America and Greece.

Britain’s top writers certainly did their bit. Some extolled the virtues of British courage and the necessity to fight; others excoriated the Prussian mindset. Conan Doyle wrote a 1914 recruiting pamphlet titled To Arms! Masterman later sent him to tour the front, after which he wrote the 1916 pamphlet A Visit to the Three Fronts. Conan Doyle would go on to write several books on the war for the government. Chesterton wrote an essay, “The Barbarism of Berlin,” that impugned the Teutonic worldview. Ford wrote When Blood is Their Argument: An Analysis of Prussian Culture, in which he lamented Prussian militarism and its political point of view. Kipling, an ardent nationalist, wrote six articles for the Daily Telegraph on the training of British volunteer soldiers. The War Propaganda Bureau compiled the stories in a 1915 book The New Army in Training, published in both Britain and the United States. “However the world pretends to divide itself,” Kipling wrote in the June 22, 1915, edition of the London Morning Post, “there are only two divisions in the world today—human beings and Germans.” Kipling lost his only son in the war, Conan Doyle his first son.

John Buchan, one of five journalists attached to the British Army, produced an ongoing history of the war for Wellington House in the form of a monthly magazine. The first issue of Nelson’s History of the War appeared in February 1915, when the Battle of the Somme commenced. In all, 24 issues were published. But despite Masterman’s emphasis on accuracy, much of the information in History of the War was slanted, if not false.

 

OFFICIALS OF THE WAR PROPAGANDA BUREAU SOON CAME TO SEE the strong appeal of photographs and motion pictures, the latter a new medium. Wellington House produced The War Pictorial, a news magazine modeled on Illustrated London News; its circulation soared from 500,000 in December 1916 to one million a year later. Wellington House went on to create facsimiles of War Pictorial for other countries. At one point it was also distributing 4,000 photographs a week. “The effect that actual war scenes could add to the printed word was unlimited,” M. L. Sanders wrote. “It was a prevailing assumption that the camera could not lie.”

The War Propaganda Bureau started a cinema department in August 1915. A Wellington House report called cinema the “bible” of working-class people who, it said, didn’t bother to read. Germany and France had already been using movie crews to dramatize the war when Britain sent two camera operators to the front to shoot war footage, which Wellington House used to produce the documentary Britain Prepared.

The premiere was a success, and Britain Prepared was then distributed in other countries. Demand for it was widespread. The Japanese imperial family and its guests were impressed by the footage of the British fleet firing its 15-inch guns and by the king walking among the troops.

The War Propaganda Bureau made a point of showing the documentary in Russia, hoping to counter feelings there that Britain had allowed France and Russia to bear the brunt of the war effort. The British gave the film Russian subtitles and hired a Russian captain to promote it. He organized a showing in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) in April 1916 for the tsar, top military officials, and the press. The captain’s association with the British was kept secret. The movie was well received, and the captain then arranged to show the movie to General Aleksei Brusilov’s armies on the southern front, using lorries to transport a screen, projector, and generators. By May 17 some 100,000 Russian soldiers and 3,000 officers had seen the movie, thanks to 44 showings. (The Russian troops always cheered at the end.) The captain next took Britain Prepared to the northern front and Finland.

The War Propaganda Bureau was not averse to any pictorial material that might have influence—postcards, cigarette cards, even fine art. In 1916 Masterman recruited Scottish artist Muirhead Bone and sent him to France, with an honorary rank and a salary, as Britain’s first official wartime artist. Bone returned in six months with some 150 sketches. The British government later printed and sold two volumes of Bone’s wartime drawings: The Western Front and With the Grand Fleet. Six of Bone’s lithographs of British naval shipyards were included in a government-funded art book titled Britain’s Efforts and Ideals. Its works were exhibited in Britain and abroad and sold as prints. Masterman hired many more artists—among them Sir William Orpen, Francis Dodd, Paul Nash, and William Rothenstein—and the bureau’s use of wartime paintings and drawings steadily expanded.

Nash, for one, complained about the War Propaganda Bureau’s control of his subject matter. “I am no longer an artist,” he wrote. “I am an artist who will bring back word from men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever.”

 

THE WAR PROPAGANDA BUREAU WAS SUBJECTED TO REGULAR MEDDLING at the hands of officials in the War Cabinet. In 1916 it was put under the control of the Foreign Office, and in January 1917 new prime minister Lloyd George asked Robert Donald—a Liberal press ally—to join the operation at Wellington House and to review its work from the inside. Donald praised its programs in the United States, writing that they “could not have been handled more successfully or with more tact.” But he was critical of the overall operation, which he asserted was “drifting due to the casual way in which propaganda is originated and to the promiscuous way it has expanded.”

Donald’s report resulted in a major reorganization of Britain’s propaganda effort. Lloyd George named Buchan, who was then in the Foreign Office’s propaganda department, to head a new Department of Information. Masterman stayed at Wellington House, but in a subordinate position overseeing only books and pamphlets. It was one of four departments within the new structure, the others being cinema, political intelligence, and news. Buchan streamlined the operation but had little or no access to the prime minister. Unhappy, he suggested that a new director with more political clout be chosen, and in September 1917 the War Cabinet named Sir Edward Carson as minister in charge of all propaganda.

At the end of that year two additional evaluations of Wellington House were commissioned. The first, by editor and publisher Arthur Spurgeon, praised Masterman’s “extraordinarily good work.” The second, by Donald, contained more complaints than compliments. Donald asserted that the bureau was spending too much money and had become inefficient. “Piles of propaganda material,” he wrote, “were wasting away in embassies and distribution agencies.” And Wellington House, he added, was “wasting” huge quantities of paper—despite a paper shortage in
Britain. Buchan,  according to historian M. L. Sanders, countered that Donald’s evaluation was “singularly incompetent and superficial.”

A committee of London press barons decided that another reorganization was needed. Lloyd George dismissed Carson and in March 1918 created a new Ministry of Information. Max Aitken, the editor of the Daily Express and soon to become Lord Beaverbrook, was named its chief. He was another political ally of the prime minister. The Wellington House operation was dismantled. Politicians complained that psychological operations were now being run by a “press gang.”

Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, the editor of The Times, was put in charge of propaganda in enemy countries but reported to the War Cabinet, not Beaverbrook. The National War Aims Committee retained control of home propaganda; Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount  Rothermere, the editor of the Daily Telegraph, was made director of propaganda in neutral countries, but the production of books and pamphlets had been cut dramatically. The new emphasis was on film, cable, and wireless, and general press messaging.

Whereas Wellington House focused on indirect appeals to intellectual elites, the new Ministry of Information sought to reach the masses directly. “The approach became more proactive rather than reactive,” according to a confidential report on Wellington House produced in the summer of 1918. Having been dislodged from overall control of propaganda, Masterman lost his enthusiasm. Meanwhile, he had become chairman of the British War Memorials Committee.

The new ministry, however, wasn’t a success. Parliament was suspicious of its role and the growing power of the press. Established ministries saw it as a further encroachment on powers already steadily eroded by the War Cabinet.

Through it all the Germans had themselves been busy pushing propaganda, just not as effectively as the British. They tried to persuade Americans that Britain was a leech; they tried to dissuade Indian and other colonial troops from fighting for Britain; and they tried to convince the Allies that the United States aimed for global commercial supremacy. In 1918 the Germans dropped leaflets on the American sector urging U.S. troops not to die for England and France.

 

GERMANY, HOWEVER, WAS LOSING THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. The Allies continued to shower German troops and German citizens with propaganda leaflets—millions of them. “In the sphere of leaflet propaganda,” a German army message bluntly said, “the enemy has defeated us.” In his book Allied Propaganda and the Collapse of the German Empire in 1918, George Bruntz notes that the German Imperial Command that year began offering rewards for enemy leaflets—at one point paying more than 250,000 marks for about 800,000 leaflets. Some generals and right-wing politicians even blamed Germany’s defeat on Allied propaganda and disloyal elements in German society.

In August 1918, just before the war ended, a Conservative British MP started a parliamentary discussion about the mysterious new Ministry of Information. During the exchange he paid tribute to the “exceedingly good work” done by Masterman and the “small body of men working in private” at Wellington House in the early years of the war.

After the armistice, the Ministry of Information was disbanded. Meanwhile, Masterman’s life began to spiral downward. He spent long periods away from home and became dependent on alcohol and paraldehyde, a sedative. He had financial difficulties. He managed to write one more book and was elected again to the House of Commons in 1923. But the Liberal Party was in decline and Masterman lost his seat a year later.

Masterman, whom his wife described as “the vivid, tormented man I loved,” died in a clinic in 1927 at age 54. He’d not fulfilled his considerable political promise, but he had conceived and managed a singularly successful war propaganda operation, whatever its blemishes. As Buchan had told him in a letter a few years before his death, “You were the pioneer of the whole business.” MHQ

 

Richard Ernsberger Jr. has been a writer, senior editor, and foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine and a senior editor of American History magazine.

This article appears in the Spring 2019 issue (Vol. 31, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Fog Factory

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