How Propaganda Shaped The Great War for Britain and Germany

Week 13 of the Mediakraft Networks YouTube show The Great War, written and presented by Indiana Neidell.

This video explains how the gap between the image of the war on the home front based on propaganda and the reality of events on the front arose and how that misrepresentation had direct consequences for the war itself.

German Volunteers Underestimate the Enemy

German commander-in-chief Erich von Falkenhayn had assembled a reservist force and deployed it to Flanders. The reservists were a mixture of older men and under trained young men who had volunteered to fight. That such a force could be established from volunteers alone reflected the narrative presented in propaganda that the British and French were weak and incompetent enemies against whom even reservists stood a good chance of victory.

This idea was brutally shattered at Ypres on 20 October when the German reservists suffered a crushing defeat to the British professional army. The Germans were numerically superior but the British professional army, using machine guns and  trained with particular emphasis on rapid rifle fire, were able to resist the German attack.

British Fail to Grasp Real Dangers

The British too were recruiting based on propaganda. Equally problematic though was the failure on the home front to see where the real danger to the British war effort lay. General Smith-Dorien expressed concern and confusion that the British were preoccupied with the notion of an imminent German invasion across the channel ignoring the real problem that the army was positioned in a single line without reinforcements which meant a single breakthrough could be catastrophic.

Both Sides Misrepresent Motives and Events

In Germany late October saw the publication of The Manifesto of the 93. This document, signed by 93 eminent German scholars and artists, insisted that Germany’s involvement in the war was purely on defensive grounds. Further more it was a denial of the attrocities committed during the invasion of Belgium. A counter manifesto to this, The Manifesto to Europeans, received only 4 signatures including Georg Nicolai who wrote it and Albert Einstein. For more about the opposition to the war see our 8 famous people who opposed The Great War

In a similar vein the British Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George gave a speech 19 September claiming Britain had entered the war to free Europe from the domination of a military cast and to usher in an era of political rejuvenation. In reality most of Lloyd George’s promises from this speech were not realised and although he did introduce important reforms as Prime Minister after the war it was felt by many that the extent of change after 1918 did not reflect the level of sacrifice endured during the war.

 Further Reading

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Alex is a history student at King's College London focusing on Europe and the Near East in the Middle Ages. He currently works writing and editing content for madefromhistory.