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Response to Review of Patriotism and Propaganda in First World War Britain: the National War Aims Committee and Civilian Morale

I am grateful to William Butler for his very thorough, thoughtful and generous review of my book. He has done a fine job of summarising most of its major arguments. I do, indeed, believe that an unduly cynical interpretation of First World War propaganda by historians can lead to a false impression of its purposes, content and impact, and that as a result the rhetoric and imagery of the propaganda have sometimes been too easily written off as a catalogue of lurid and deceitful atrocity stories and bombastic appeals to national glory. Both of those elements are, of course, present (even abundant) in NWAC propaganda as elsewhere, but my intention in the middle passages of the book was to demonstrate that, taken as a whole, the propaganda actually demonstrates a more sophisticated and nuanced patriotic narrative.

As Butler also points out, this narrative is, in my interpretation, deeply rooted in pre-war patriotic language, and another concern of the book is to attempt to dispel the idea of the war as an irrevocable turning point, where pre-war values and attitudes were overthrown by the industrialised carnage of the war. I am glad that he judges this pre-war contextualisation to have been a worthwhile inclusion and must acknowledge the fairness of his criticism that I offer less detailed discussion of the patriotic language in its post-war context. Although I indulge in some light discussion of later ideas in places, my main preoccupation in this area was to demonstrate, in contrast to the explicit arguments of scholars like W. J. Reader, and the implicit suggestion of many scholars of modern Britain who chose to end their accounts in 1914 or begin them in 1918 or 1919, that pre-war ideas did not become ‘obsolete’ as soon as Britain’s volunteer soldiers began dying in thousands. It is also, doubtless, a reflection of the fact that my historical knowledge and main interests tend to look backwards rather than forwards from the war, though I will say that one intention in my future research is to seek to trace continuities and changes in understandings of ‘Britishness’ from the pre- to post-war period – in other words, watch this space!

It is also fair to say that I could have put the NWAC’s propaganda into a broader context of international propaganda. The trend in First World War studies as in other areas of history is towards the comparative and/or transnational. In this case, however, I would suggest that there was value in looking at the work of NWAC propagandists in isolation, in order to bring as much clarity as possible to the patriotic narrative I outlined. One difficulty I encountered when reading earlier accounts of British propaganda by people like Sanders, Taylor and Haste was that it was hard to distinguish one organisation’s work from another’s. That may reflect the reality of the situation, but the various organisations all served different purposes and to my mind such elision meant that previous accounts had tended to provide a quantitative rather than qualitative account of propaganda content. In other words, because atrocity stories recur so often, it is easy to see them as the essence of British propaganda but, as Butler accurately notes, my own interpretation suggests that such material was one of several contexts for explaining duty. Focusing exclusively on the output of one organisation with a clearly defined set of goals meant that I felt more confident in asserting that, quantity notwithstanding, there was a broader patriotic narrative, serving particular purposes, at work. Now that I have made that case, there is ample opportunity to compare the NWAC’s work with that of other organisations in Britain and elsewhere and, hopefully, in the future, for someone to produce a synthesis from a range of such detailed studies of particular organisations.

Butler also kindly endorses my efforts to highlight the primacy of locality in this national effort. I am glad that he considers my case studies a fair reflection of local diversity, even though the sample is comparatively small. There could always be more examples but I hope the efforts I made to ensure variety mean, as Butler suggests, that I have offered a defensible interpretation.

Once again, I thank William Butler for his review, and hope that anyone with an interest in ideas of patriotism and national identity, in propaganda, or in First World War culture and society will find my book interesting. I would be delighted to discuss the book and its arguments further via email.

David Monger, University of Canterbury

[email protected]