PROPAGANDA BEHIND THE LINES
By Major C.J.C. Street
It is almost to utter a platitude to say that war has lost its picturesqueness, had developed into a science, an elaborate game played by men in mud-stained khaki, crowned with steel hats painted with the strange discords of camouflage. The old panoply has vanished; bright coloured tunics, shining breast-plates. The very polished muzzles of the guns have given place to an universal neutral tint, shared alike by weapon and man.
Yet war has still its picturesque side - I remember one September dawn seen from an Observation Post that will remain with me as the most beautiful thing that I have seen - and, to counterbalance it, the most matter-of-fact, cold-blooded, calculating side, that very few have ever realised. For, to the actual business of physical maiming has been added the more subtle process of insidious slaughter of morale, a far more difficult, but none the less effective, method of warfare. The Germans have always preached it. They practised it from the first, 'frightfulness' being merely the clumsy German interpretation of the theory of the destruction of morale. Bernhardi lays as much stress upon it as upon perfection of manoeuvre. The Allies, keener students of psychology, substituted persuasion for brutality, and developed a system of military propaganda that has never before been equalled.
It must be emphasised that the ultimate object of propaganda in war is the destruction of enemy morale, and its corollary, the strengthening of friendly morale. It consists of the dissemination of ideas, designed to react in different ways upon their various recipients. The enemy must be made to feel that his cause is hopeless from the start, has no chance of ultimate success, and is based upon delusive ideals, It is usually impossible to convince the responsible organisations of the hostile nation, such as the Government or the Army Commands, though it may be feasible to hamper them in their decisions. But it is comparatively easy to influence the rank and file, civilian as well as military, and to produce an atmosphere of despondency fatal to success.
In the same way, the general public of neutral nations must be supplied with the arguments of victory and of a just cause, followed by a judicious 'booming' of every success, great or small, and by brilliant descriptions of the spirit that animates the Allied troops. The neutral, especially when weak and necessarily somewhat at the mercy of the side that eventually proves victorious, is naturally disposed to sit on the fence and lean towards the side that he imagines to be winning. And the importance of such neutral leanings can never be exaggerated after the experiences of the late war.
Finally, allied and friendly nations, even the belligerent nation itself, must be kept in good heart by emphasising the justice of their cause, the magnificent bearing of their troops, the demoralisa-tion of the enemy. Reverses must be explained and shown to be but temporary, information of each success must be widely disseminated and its meaning made clear.
It is obvious that, so far as friendly, allied, and neutral nations are concerned, the Press must be the principal organ of propa-ganda. Press propaganda is a subject by itself, with which we need not now concern ourselves. But in the case of enemy countries, and the invaded districts on the friendly side, the Press is closed. The zone of fighting acts as a barrier behind which we cannot penetrate; if we are to develop propaganda behind this barrier we must seek more indirect methods. It is with some of these methods that the present article proposes to deal.
In the late war, practically the whole of Belgium and a very large and thickly populated portion of France were for four years in enemy occupation. The inhabitants of these territories had no means of communication with their friends; they were entirely subjected to enemy influences in every detail of their lives. The strictest precautions were taken to prevent news filtering through to them from other than enemy sources, while they were subjected to every possible method of sapping their nationality. One of the most obvious duties of the propaganda service was therefore to counteract this influence by the dissemination of the truth as to the Allied cause and its progress. It was a difficult problem, but a most successful solution was eventually found, and will be described later.
The main task of the Allied propagandist was, however, to produce depression and unrest in the enemy camp. It is not too much to say that the results of a well-directed propaganda preparation to an attack can be far greater than that of the most intense preliminary bombardment, given a receptive and easily influenced enemy. The most striking example of a successful propaganda preparation was shown in the Italian collapse of 1917. It must be remembered that the hostile persuasion found a ready soil in which to take root. The Italian troops were worn out with the unending struggles on the Isonzo, and were dis-affected by the economic troubles of their wives and families at home. In this soil the enemy sowed promises of an early and favourable peace, intermingled with menacing stories of the invincible armaments arrayed upon the Austrian side. Their defeat was due to their impressionable nature, but in justice be it said that this same nature was wholly responsible for their magnificent recovery.
The aim of propaganda behind the enemy lines is directly and indirectly to produce discouragement, in preparation of an attack by arms. And it must be emphasised that the farther the influence can he made to extend into the hostile country the better. To produce discouragement among the troops themselves is certainly the first step towards success, but this can rarely be effective if the country behind them supports them enthusiastically. A man is always more prone to listen to the encouragement of his friend than to the threats of his enemy. But once the civilian popula-tion be discouraged the infection travels rapidly to the troops. Experience has shown that nothing is more destructive to the morale of an army than a stream of despondent letters from friends and relatives at home.
But it would be less than logical to consider the forms of propaganda in enemy territory before those employed in the invaded districts. And of the latter, the most far-reaching was that unique periodical, Le Courrier de l'Air.
Early in 1916, the War Office realised the might of the moral weapon, and cast about to find the personnel wherewith to forge it. A branch of the Directorate of Military Intelligence was created, and known as M.I.7.b. An Army Order was issued, inviting those officers and men who had previous literary experi-ence to communicate with the new organisation. As a result, a more or less regular staff of some thousand writers was enrolled, who, as an act of grace, consented to contribute the produce of their pens during such times as they could spare from more active military duties. From these were selected two or three who were unfit for service overseas, a number subsequently raised to twenty, who were attached to the staff of M.I.7.b., and gave their whole time to the production of propaganda. By this means the War Office obtained the pick of the literary brains of the Service at no expense, for the officers devoting their whole time to this work would otherwise have been drawing their pay and kicking their heels at a Command Depot or elsewhere. It need hardly be added that their contributions, though published throughout the globe, were unpaid.
An early function of M.I.7.b. was the establishment of Le Courrier de l'Air. The needs of the invaded districts had long been felt, and it was realised that a newspaper of Allied tendencies, aerially distributed, was the best way to meet that need. So, after much discussion, the first number of The Courrier, as it came to be called, was produced, in the form of a single sheet, some eight inches by six. It was a memorable production, destined to be the first regular aerial newspaper of the world. It bears the date of April 6, 1917, and carries in its leading column an exhortation that most admirably sets out its aims and scope. A nos Lecteurs, it is headed, with a sub-heading MM. les Patriotes Martyrisés! But, perhaps, it is better translated.
'This weekly paper will be distributed every week by Allied aeroplanes among our brave Belgian and French friends living in the unhappy territory now in the occupation of the enemy. It has for its sole object the dissemination of the truth about the war. To you, who have so greatly suffered for your country, truth can only bring the assurance that the day of deliverance is at hand. Be sure, my friends, that here you will find nothing but the truth. I, who fall from the skies, have no idea of deceiving you, as the Bosche deceives his own people, with fine promises and with vain hopes, false dreams that can never come true. On the contrary, if I seem optimistic it is because at the present time every event, military or political assures me that the fortunes of Germany are on the wane. The whole world, from China to the United States, arms itself against the barbarous enemy of civilisa-tion. Might is powerless before Right. Truth triumphs over lies.
Finally, the motto of the Courrier de l'Air will always be: Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth!'
This exordium is followed by translations of the weekly communiqués, by brief surveys of the military events of the week, and by miscellaneous news items of interest to the Belgians, such as 'le British Academy' vient di consacrer une séance à la glorification du poète Verhaeren. The whole paper makes a very attractive news-sheet, bright and cheerful, and, as we now know, came as a true breath from Heaven to the inhabitants of the invaded districts. Despite the price set upon them by the Germans, copies of the Courrier spread like wildfire throughout Belgium and Northern France, and even reached Germany, to the mortification of various Army Commands. There was no need for the printed injunction - Avis au lecteur:
'You are requested not to tear up this paper, nor to destroy it when read. Rather lend it to your neighbour, and to the neigh-bour of your neighbour, seeing that they too are anxious to know what is happening in the world.'
Space will not admit of the quotation of further passages from the Courrier, which pursued an uninterrupted existence until it reached its forty-third number on January 25, 1918. By this time it had become a very serious thorn in the side of the German Kommandatur, and orders were issued that the occupants of any aeroplane brought down while carrying this or other 'seditious literature' would be tried by court martial and sentenced to severe penalties. This threat was followed by an example of its execution, and instructions were given that the publication of the Courrier should be suspended pending the inauguration of fresh means of distribution. Experiments were set on foot immediately, and as a result of this, distribution by balloon was begun.
A description of this means of aerial dissemination of propa-ganda will be given later; at present we may concern ourselves with its effect upon the Courrier. Publication was resumed on March 7, 1918, with No.44, which bears above the title the legend 'By balloon - Durch Luftballon.' The foreword of this number is worth recording.
'For nearly a year, the Courrier de l'Air has been brought to you every week by our brave airmen. It has carried messages of truth and hope from the free world, from the peoples beyond the iron grip of German militarism. No credit must be given to the boast of the Germans, they seek to deceive you, to deceive their very selves. In respect of men, of munitions, of resolution, England is stronger than ever. France, resolute and confident, will carry on until the military force of Germany be exhausted. Italy, recovering from the unforeseen blow of last winter, is already beginning to force back the enemy. The great Republic of America has thrown all her weight into the scale of the Allies, and pours into France every day from her inexhaustible reserves a stream of men and of munitions. Be of good cheer, the end is irrevocable. The Courrier will come to you by balloon, but the delivery will be more regular and plentiful than ever it was by aeroplane. When the wind blows from the direction of the Allies, be on the alert. From these white balloons, floating so high in the vastness of the atmosphere that you can hardly see them, will fall a rain of Courriers.'
From this time the Courrier flourished, through the dark days of the spring of 1918 until the last issue, which is dated November 7. It is only fair to say that the summaries of the situation, viewed dispassionately after the lapse of time, give a remarkably just picture of events. There is no hiding the seriousness of the German onslaught, only, as might be expected, a sober jubilation over its failures, such as the check before Amiens, the skilful strategy of Arras, the gallant stand at Givenchy. Even when the tide turned in July, when all the world knew that the war was won, the Courrier retained its reputation for moderation. It was, to some extent, inspired, in that it had the advantage of production by the staff of the War Office, but it had no access to sources of information denied to the British press.
Of the last number, one story must be told. The officer - in civil life a distinguished scientist - who was at that time acting as editor, had secured permission to visit the fighting zone, in order to arrange certain details as to the distribution of his paper. He was a somewhat resplendent person, who had never seen active service owing to his age, and consequently regarded his mission as one involving some personal danger. Armed cap à pie, he left the comparative security of the War Office to face the hazard of war, much to the delight of his sub-editor, in civil life a clergyman of the Church of England, and withal an intrepid gunner and kite-balloonist, now incapacitated from further active service. The latter, his superior's back once turned, composed, under the heading of 'Tartarin s'en va-t-en guerre,' a paragraph for the Courrier that would be spoilt by translation.
'L'histoire nous vient du G.Q.G. belge. Elle est d'ailleurs tout à fait délicieuse et digne de l'esprit proverbiale des Belges. Un invité au Q.G., dont le séjour en France devait être bref, mais fort agréable, y arriva en grande tenue: canne-épée, beau casque de fer reluisant, uniforme dernier cri, muni de boutons d'or d'un éclat aveuglant, gilet qui pouvait, à la rigueur, servir de ceinture de sauvetage. Etrange mélange du Beau Brummel jadis et du guerrier moderne!'
This is probably the first and only example of an editor being lampooned in his own journal.
But we must leave the consideration of the Courrier for a short examination of methods of propaganda in enemy countries. Much has lately been heard of this particular activity, especially since Lord Northcliffe lent it his name, but it is as well to point out that it was in a flourishing state of existence for over a year before the brothers Harmsworth devoted their energies to propaganda. The first attempts to influence the hostile nations were the insertion of carefully worded articles in the Press of bordering neutral states. This may be called the indirect method, and was certain of a limited success, for neutral opinion, as recorded in the national Press, was eagerly sought throughout the Central Empires. The objection to it was, that it had very little chance of influencing the rank and file, at whom propaganda must chiefly be aimed. Only the more highly educated classes were likely to have access to neutral papers, and the hostile Press was certain not to reproduce articles unfavourable to its cause.
The next step, adopted almost simultaneously by all the Allies, was the production of leaflets, and other matter, written in simple German that could be understood by the least educated. These leaflets were intended for direct distribution in and behind the enemy lines, and they introduced the problem of how most effectively to scatter them. There is no intrinsic difficulty in scattering pieces of paper, any more than there is in scattering pieces of steel, but the desired destination of the two forms of missile varies, as does the effect they are intended to produce. A shell, to secure its maximum effect, should burst in the centre of a group of men; propaganda leaflets, on the contrary, should be dispersed as widely as possible, and then should avoid the highly disciplined group, and should arrive within the grasp of the lonely sentry, free from the influence of his compatriots, and with nothing else to divert his thoughts. The group would probably treat a leaflet as a joke, the isolated man would read it through sheer boredom, and would possibly be induced to believe that there was something in its argument. And once propaganda has secured even the vaguest mistrust of the doctrines that it combats, its task is more than half accomplished.
Both the Allied Powers and the Central Empires experimented with propaganda projectiles, using the trench mortar as their means of projection. The idea was, in most cases, to construct a bomb with a small bursting charge, which should, upon its arrival over the opposing lines, release a shower of pamphlets upon the heads of an astonished enemy. But this system had its obvious drawbacks. A trench mortar has always been an unpopular weapon, credited with the effect of incurring retaliation more than outweighing the damage it may possibly produce. Further, the most susceptible might well be expected to resent a shower of words hurled at him by so direct a method, or if not to resent it, at all events to ridicule it as rather too obvious a ruse de guerre. There is something inconsistent about an army that makes life unbearable with 'flying pigs' one moment, and the next sends out, through the mouths of the very same weapons, a flood of literature proclaiming that all men are brothers, or some such other pacific doctrine. It was not long before the trench mortar, as a projector of propaganda, was abandoned in favour of the aeroplane.
This latter weapon seemed at first to have every qualification for the purpose. It could scatter innumerable leaflets from any convenient height, and, owing to the length of time taken by them in falling, their arrival had no visible connection with its flight. Far more effect would naturally be produced by a leaflet blowing into a trench from nowhere in particular than from one obviously hurled by a lethal engine. Further, the aeroplane had a far greater penetration, could scatter its propaganda over rest-billets and railheads as well as over the trenches themselves. The advantages of this were twofold: the leaflets could be found and picked up over a far greater area, and men some way back from the line had more leisure and inclination to ponder their contents. But, on the other hand, there were many other calls upon the aeroplanes available. It was argued with a considerable show of reason that if a plane were to be sent upon a flight over hostile territory, it would be better employed dropping bombs than propaganda. Some went so far as to say that the best propaganda that could be dropped over the enemy were bombs and plenty of them, a contention that was correct as regards the Rhine towns and incorrect as regards London. At all events, it was felt that the aeroplane was too valuable a fighting machine proper to be employed as a disseminator of leaflets.
The next idea was the employment of observation balloons, which were to carry a supply of pamphlets to be thrown overboard when the wind was blowing towards the enemy lines. Apart from the fact that the occupants of the balloon were usually too busy with their proper function of observation to worry much about casting packets of paper into space, the observation balloon had many disadvantages. A more ingenious and elaborate develop-ment of the observation balloon scheme was a revival of the man-lifting kite. When the wind was favourable, the kite was flown from some suitable spot, and a 'follower,' carrying a bundle of leaflets, caused to travel up the taut string of the kite. The 'follower' was fitted with an automatic release, which functioned at a predetermined height, allowed the leaflets to fly away, and the 'follower' to fall to the ground again ready for recharging. When the contrivance did not jamb, it was a very entertaining toy to play with.
It was not until late in 1916 that the free balloon was seriously considered as a vehicle of propaganda. The idea had always been obvious; load a balloon with the leaflets it was intended to distribute, send it up with a favourable wind, and there you were. The difficulty lay in predicting within a thousand miles or so where the balloon would come down. It was not until the science of meteorology, urgently impelled by the needs of the Artillery, made its marvellous war-time developments, that balloons could be used scientifically. 'Meteor,' in the shape of the various meteoro-logical experts attached to the forces, eventually became able to gauge the velocity and direction of the wind at practically any height in any given locality. The rest was simple, so soon as a simple and reliable release had been evolved. You took your balloon to a given spot, say ten miles behind the lines, you knew your balloon would rise to say six thousand feet, and travel at that height until its burden was released. 'Meteor' gave the velocity of the wind at twenty miles an hour, south-west, at that height and place. Forty miles from the balloon position, and bearing north-east, was an enemy concentration camp. Load your balloon with the required type of propaganda leaflet, set your release to act in rather less than two hours, to allow of drift of the leaflets when falling, and there you were.
The results obtained from early experiments at home were deeply interesting, especially on the occasion when the dummy leaflets were plain pieces of paper, which fell from the sky upon the astonished population of Salisbury Plain. When it had struck those in authority to inscribe the pieces of paper with instructions for those who picked them up to write on them when and where, and to return them to the experimental station, the results showed that surprising accuracy could be obtained, and that the balloons would travel for a considerable distance without excessive loss of gas. In one case, balloons released on the east coast of England dropped their burdens in northern Italy. The balloons were made of paper, 'doped' with a preparation to render them hydrogen tight.
As equipped for service in France, a propaganda balloon section consisted of a couple of three-ton lorries for the conveyance of the hydrogen cylinders, balloons, and leaflets with the necessary personnel of an officer and a few men. Certain stations were selected such that some desirable target could be reached with any direction of wind from north round by west to south. The section proceeded to one or other of these stations, which were usually in proximity to a kite balloon post to ensure the necessary telephone com-munication with 'Meteor' (and also to be able to borrow hydrogen in emergency), and proceeded to fill, load, and release balloons as long as the wind held.
During the summer of 1918, one of the most useful of these stations was near Lozinghem, roughly speaking half-way between Béthune and Choques, and a convenient point in a bold salient of the British line. The scene there during a favourable wind was a most interesting one. The lorries were drawn up back to back, with canvas screens stretched between them, to form a shelter within which the balloons could be inflated. The balloons were unpacked, a pipe led from the hydrogen cylinders into the neck of each, and then the balloons blown out. When full, they each had a lifting capacity of ten or twelve pounds. The force and direction of the wind having been ascertained from 'Meteor,' the target was determined, and the appropriate bundle of leaflets selected. If the wind was blowing in such a way as to carry the balloons well over Belgium, the opportunity would be taken of delivering the weekly issue of the Courrier. If it were blowing from the west, the load was made up of pamphlets appealing to the German troops in some billeting area. In any case, the most suitable matter for the selected target was attached to the balloon after inflation.
The means of attachment was the solution of the whole problem of the use of balloons, and was as simple as it was ingenious. A length of the orange-coloured woven tinder, sold at every tobacconist's for use in pipe-lighters, was taken, and one end of it fixed to the balloon. The sheaves of leaflets were strung on cotton tags, as used for binding papers in Government offices. The end of each tag was driven through the length of tinder at calculated distances from the free end. The rate of burning of the tinder was ascertained by experiment, and found to be, say, one inch in five minutes. If the target were twenty miles away, and the wind were blowing at thirty miles an hour, the balloon would be over the target in forty minutes. The tags would then be inserted at close intervals from six to ten inches from the end of the tinder.
Just as the balloon was released, the end of the tinder was held against a lighted cigarette, and commenced to burn. The balloon soared up into the sky, carried rapidly out of sight by the wind. In thirty minutes the first tag burnt through, and the papers fluttered separately to the ground, closely followed by those held by the next tag. By this means it was found possible to ensure a large percentage of the leaflets falling in or around a given target.
We have already seen that the actual matter distributed varied according to the destination for which it was intended. The invaded districts were served with such fare as the Courrier, or with pamphlets containing such special news as it was guessed that the Germans would suppress. Enemy troops and enemy territory were flooded with leaflets of an entirely different kind, the motive of which was invariably discouragement, it being axiomatic that the chief function of military propaganda is en-couragement of one's friends and discouragement of the enemy. The principal line of argument was the necessity of the ultimate defeat of Germany, both politically through the blockade, and militarily, by the ever-increasing pressure of the forces brought against her.
Various means were employed to bring these facts home to the German people, and no less an authority than Ludendorff, in the extracts from his Memoirs recently quoted in The Times, bears testimony to their efficacy. Two examples may be given. The first was a cartoon, consisting of two sketches. One of these was inscribed '1914,' and depicts Germania, proud and flourishing, driving a donkey cart, the donkey symbolising the German people, fat and prosperous, the cart vaguely resembling the chariot of Boadicea. In front of the donkey, Germania dangles from the end of his whip a magnificent carrot, labelled Sieg. The other sketch was inscribed '1918,' and shows the same equipage after four years of war. Germania is now almost a skeleton; seated by her are two bloated figures, the profiteer and a gentleman suspiciously like Hindenburg, weighing down the now patched and rickety cart. The donkey, thinner and more weary than Germania herself, still holds along, with bent knees and staring eyes, fixed now on an attenuated vegetable held out before it, labelled Ersatz Sieg. That this cartoon was appreciated is proved by the statements of prisoners, who affirmed that copies of it changed hands in the German lines for five marks apiece. And for every man who displayed it as a curiosity, at least ten must have pondered on the truth of its lesson.
Another leaflet that achieved notoriety was the 'Comparative Menus.' The Berliner Tageblatt was sufficiently injudicious one morning to bewail the high cost of living in Germany, and, by way of enforcing the moral, published the menus and corresponding prices of various restaurants in Berlin. Our propagandist seized upon the opportunity, and promptly issued a leaflet, showing in parallel columns the German menus and prices, as divulged by the , and the menus and prices of various representative London restaurants from the Ritz to those taverns that display a sign proclaiming them 'A good Pull-up for Carmen.' The result was startling, even to the sceptic, and must have produced a profound impression in Germany.
Space will not permit of reference to other forms of propa-ganda, of which the daily repartee exchanged by the various wireless stations was perhaps the most amusing. One incident of wireless propaganda, however, deserves to be quoted, even at the risk of spinning out an already over-long story. In the early days of the Bolshevist revolution, Tchitcherin devoted himself unstintingly to the production of grandiloquent appeals. His rhetoric was always addressed impartially 'To All,' which gave it a peculiar sonorousness. But once he addressed it 'To all Cossacks!' under which preface he gave vent to an impassioned appeal, 'Rise, mighty defenders of Russia! Cast out the enemies of our beloved country! Slay and fear not! To arms, Don! To arms, Kuban!' and much more to the same effect. The Cossacks took him at his word - and promptly massacred every Bolshevist envoy they could lay their hands upon!
The Falling Leaf. No. 164. Spring 1999
This article was first published in THE CORNHILL MAGAZINE, Vol. XLVII, NOVEMBER 1919.
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